Monday, December 28, 2009

Conservation Groups File First ESA Lawsuits Against Ranchers Over Water Diversions in Upper Salmon River Watershed

Two conservation groups announced today that they have filed three lawsuits with the federal district court in Boise challenging water diversions in salmon, steelhead, and bull trout habitat near Challis. The cases charge violations of The Endangered Species Act and seek a halt to irrigation practices which trap fish in ditches, block migration, and de-water sections of streams.
The groups are Idaho Watersheds Project (IWP) and The Committee for Idaho's High Desert (CIHD), which sent out over 50 notices of intent to sue to irrigators, the Forest service, BLM, and Idaho Department of Lands in October. The groups are represented by Laird Lucas and the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies.
Salmon, steelhead, and bull trout in Idaho are protected under the Endangered Species Act. The Act prohibits "take" of protected species, which includes killing or harming them by modifying habitat.
In many Idaho streams, irrigation diversions are not screened, and fish become trapped in ditches and ultimately die. Some diversions dry up streams entirely, or pose impassable barriers to fish migration.
"These are just the first three of many cases that we expect to file challenging these antiquated diversion methods." said Jon Marvel of Idaho Watersheds Project. "If ranchers and farmers are not willing to begin protecting endangered fish from the impacts of their water diversions, they can expect to face similar ESA enforcement cases from us."
The cases target diversions on Mahogany Creek (in the Pahsimeroi River basin), Lake Creek (in the East Fork Salmon River drainage), and Otter Creek (tributary to Panther Creek and the Main Salmon River). In each case, individuals and corporations are named as defendants. One case also targets the Forest Service for failing to protect bull trout in Otter Creek.
"These three cases each involve very clear violations of the Endangered Species Act," said attorney Laird Lucas, "as well as `problem ranchers' who do not want to admit they are part of the problem. Our hope is that other ranchers will see that its in their best interest to work with us, not against us, and do what's right for the fish."

Rancher knowledge: An untapped resource

Land management and conservation agencies have traditionally performed rangeland management activities based predominately on technical information resulting from scientific research. However, rancher experience and knowledge is an untapped resource that could help broaden the scope of these activities and lead to more sustainable land management.

The number of ranchers in the United States is steadily decreasing. Therefore, it is more important than ever to document rancher knowledge and share it with other ranchers and with those involved in rangeland management.

Researchers gathered and codified the knowledge of ranchers in northwest Colorado; their results appear in the journal Rangeland Ecology and Management. Numerous studies document the local knowledge of pastoral communities in developing countries. However, only a few studies have focused on rancher knowledge, and until now, none has systematically studied rancher knowledge in a developed country.

Fewer people are choosing ranching as their profession because it is less economically viable to do so. As land is sold and subdivided for exurban development, invasive species become more difficult to control on these parcels. In addition, wildlife populations tend to move to intact ranches, where they put additional stress on the available natural resources. As a result, those who are still in the ranching business face more and unique challenges than they have previously.

This compilation of information it represents the first step toward sharing previously undocumented knowledge with all land stakeholders so that more sustainable management practices can be implemented. The combination of active, embedded, and integrative knowledge of ranchers along with the knowledge gained scientifically through the testing of hypotheses will be key to managing rangelands in a way that will benefit the entire ecosystem.

Ranchers tend to gain most of their knowledge through personal experiences and from family and friends. This knowledge is traditionally not recorded. Because there are fewer ranchers and this trend is expected to continue, it is imperative that this important source of knowledge be documented and used by all of those involved in rangeland management.

To read the entire study, visit

Sunday, December 27, 2009

ESA Overhaul a 'Work in Progress' for Obama Admin

The Fish and Wildlife Service is considering wide-ranging revisions to the 1973 Endangered Species Act, the agency director said in an interview last week.

"There is no question there are places we can make improvements in the way we do business," the service director, Sam Hamilton, said. "We are taking a hard look ... to see regulatory-wise, administrative-wise, are there ways to improve?"

The regulatory revisions are a "work in progress" that he said could provide new definitions for some key provisions, including those addressing critical habitat and consultations between service biologists and other agencies over projects that could harm protected animals and plants.

Hamilton said also wants to find new ways to encourage landowners to protect species, expanding on the new "safe harbor" program that promotes private habitat protection while allowing normal land-use practices, like farming.

"We need more thinking like that ... to encourage landowners," Hamilton said. "We are going to spend a lot of time with that."

Efforts to make major changes in ESA have not gone far in the past, in part, because of strong feelings about the law from both landowners and environmentalists.

Western Republican lawmakers, landowners and businesses blame ESA for hindering development while doing little to recover imperiled species. Environmentalists, on the other hand, say the law has protected hundreds of species from extinction.

"No matter which way you turn, somebody is not going to be happy," Hamilton said. "Our focus is on trying to recover endangered species; our goal is to try to get them off the list. So as long as we keep our eye on that goal and work on definitions and work on policy to further that goal, we'll be in good shape."

In its final months, the Bush administration's Interior Department managed to finalize ESA regulatory changes that would have made optional project consultations between Fish and Wildlife biologists and other agencies.

But in response to an outcry from environmentalists and biologists, Congress allowed the Obama administration to retract the Bush rules without going through normal reviews, and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar withdrew the rules last April.

In overturning the rules, Salazar asked for public comment on what ESA regulatory changes should be made, initiating the current re-examination of the law.

Defining 'adverse modification' of habitat

The Bush administration's regulatory revision started by focusing on one issue: What constitutes "adverse modification" of critical habitat? The effort expanded to address dozens of other issues, but left "adverse modification" alone.

Hamilton said the service is now re-examining the issue.

"It's on the list," he said. "Hopefully, we can deal with that. I am optimistic because we have some of the best and brightest working on it."

While the law prohibits the "destruction and adverse modification" of critical habitat, multiple federal courts have said the agency needs to clarify the meaning of that phrase.

"It is long overdue. That was thrown out by the courts eight years ago," said John Kostyack, an attorney with the National Wildlife Federation. "Hopefully, it is a high priority."

The phrase came into play in a 2007 lawsuit filed several years ago by environmental groups against Interior in an effort to block livestock grazing on Colorado habitat for Preble's jumping mouse.

The groups argued grazing was "adverse modification" because it would not promote the recovery of the mouse. But the government and ranching and homebuilder groups said grazing should be allowed, since "adverse modification" doesn't require "recovery." They said grazing itself was not jeopardizing the mouse.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with environmentalists, ruling in December 2007 that the "adverse modification" standard requires agencies to consider recovery. The court said any permitted actions should allow for species "conservation." But Interior has yet to issue new regulations to clarify the definitions.

"We would like them to make it clear that any action that results in appreciably diminishing the value of critical habitat for survival or recovery is considered as adverse modification," said Bob Irvin, senior vice president for conservation programs at Defenders of Wildlife.

Larissa Mark, an environmental policy analyst at the National Association of Home Builders, said the major problem for her group is the maze of requirements for ESA permits that can delay projects for months or years. Consultations that are supposed to be completed in less than one year can take up to four times that long, according to an analysis from the Government Accountability Office.

"Either builders pass on those costs or have to absorb those costs, and in today's market, it is hard to absorb additional costs," Mark said.

NAHB supported regulatory changes put forward by the Bush administration that would have streamlined the consultation process.

Call for swift revision

Environmentalists say the Obama administration can change the law without going through the complex process for redrawing regulations.

For instance, they say, the Bush administration changed how Fish and Wildlife determines whether a species is "threatened" or "endangered" through internal guidance. The 2007 guidance from Interior Solicitor David Bernhardt told Fish and Wildlife to focus on plants and animals in current locations rather than throughout their historic ranges.

Nearly 130 scientists asked Interior this month to reverse that policy, which they said sharply limits ESA's scope as habitat ranges shift in response to climate change.

The policy could be overturned, they said, by a memo from Salazar or the new Interior solicitor, Hilary Tompkins.

Copyright 2009 E&E Publishing. All Rights Reserved.

For more news on energy and the environment, visit

Monday, December 14, 2009

Guzzlers gouge rift between Nevada state agencies

CARSON CITY, Nev. — Wildlife guzzlers — contraptions that capture rainwater and melting snow in remote places for thirsty animals to drink — have triggered a turf war between two Nevada resource agencies.

Members of the state Board of Agriculture argue that as their numbers increase, guzzlers are altering the landscape and taking precious resources, whether water or forage, from ranchers. They want to stop the Nevada Department of Wildlife from constructing any new guzzlers and are exploring possible legal challenges. Some ranchers say they are ready to sue over infringing wildlife.

"The water is an issue because water is very valuable," said Tony Lesperance, director of the Agriculture Board.

"Guzzlers change the distribution of elk," he said, and "also change the distribution where elk eat," taking available forage away from ranchers and their livestock.

The wildlife agency insists state law favors the birds, elk and bighorn sheep who drink from the guzzlers in the driest state in the country. Nevada receives about 9 inches of annual precipitation.

"Thirty years of discussion is on our side," said Chris Healy, spokesman for the Wildlife Department. "Wildlife is not a beggar at the table, but is entitled to its share of water."

The guzzler battle is just one of many conflicts that play out across Western lands where battles over sometimes scarce resources have pitted shepherds against ranchers, hikers against off-road enthusiasts and rebellious residents against the government. Water and the animals who occupy the land are often at the center of the conflict.

Around Nevada and the arid West, water is collected and stored in underground tanks for birds or large game animals to drink through the hot summer months when moisture in vegetation on the range can be as dry as tissue paper and distances between watering holes a long, dusty journey. The guzzlers range in capacity from a few hundred gallons to more than 10,000 gallons.

Dave Pulliam, a habitat specialist with the state wildlife agency, said there are 1,616 guzzlers statewide.

Most belong to the Wildlife Department, though others were installed by federal agencies, including the Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management, which controls roughly 85 percent of the land in Nevada.

"Basically the BLM cooperates with the Nevada Department of Wildlife to put guzzlers on public lands and we rely on their expertise because they manage the wildlife," said BLM spokeswoman JoLynn Worley. An environmental assessment is prepared before new guzzlers are erected.

Some mining companies also install guzzlers when they reclaim the land after closing mines.

The largest guzzlers are mainly in southern Nevada for bighorn sheep.

"In the desert, you may not get rain for two years," Pulliam said. The larger tanks allow the capture of as much water as possible from a downpour and "hold water over for more than one hot season."

Collection aprons on the larger guzzlers measure about 8 by 12 feet, and can capture 60 gallons of water per inch of rain, he said. If grouped together, the guzzlers would take up less than 40 acres of Nevada's more than 70 million acres.

Ramona Morrison, a state Board of Agriculture member and the daughter of the late Wayne Hage, a longtime Nevada rancher and leader in the state's sagebrush rebellion movement that pushed for more local control of public lands decades ago, said "nobody really had a squawk" when guzzlers were first proposed about 30 years ago as "rain traps" for chukar, a game bird in the pheasant family.

But Morrison said guzzlers have expanded in size and scope.

"Virtually every bit of land in Nevada that is covered by rangelands, all the water arising on those lands have been put to beneficial use by the livestock industry and all of those waters are by definition vested water rights," she said.

"What that means is, every guzzler that is trapping for wildlife, it's infringing on those vested water rights," she said. "If you're going to transplant big game into an area ... NDOW may need to show up with a checkbook."

The agriculture board has asked the attorney general's office for a legal opinion on guzzlers, and whether the board has a say in state water decisions.

Morrison also is involved with the Nevada Live Stock Association. During a recent discussion by the Wildlife Commission, association president Don Alt said "there will be lawsuits" if wildlife is moved to ranching areas without compensation.

Ron Cerri, president of the Nevada Cattlemen's Association, said his organization hasn't taken an official position on the controversy.

"We're not opposed to multiple use," he said, but added he'd like more discussion with the industry before guzzlers are installed. "We understand that wildife needs to use the water too."

Healy and others said that the goal in placing guzzlers often is to keep wild animals away from the lure of water on agricultural lands.

"We're spreading out wildlife that otherwise would have impacted domestic livestock operators," Healy said.

Jim Jeffers, a retired wildlife biologist and former Nevada wildlife commissioner, said the controversy baffled him.

"I always thought guzzlers kind of work in a complimentary fashion" with the livestock industry, he said.

Guzzlers are targeted in "areas where you have habitat but you don't have water," he said. "If you don't have water there, how is that taking away from livestock?"

Jeffers said guzzlers aid creatures big and small, from kangaroo rats and bats to big game animals.

Without guzzlers, he said, "you would diminish the range of a lot of wildlife in the state considerably."

Allen Biaggi, director of the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and Tracy Taylor, state water engineer, said it's not the first time the issue has come up.

They point to a 1982 letter from then State Engineer Pete Morros, who was asked whether guzzlers require water rights.

Morros cited a 1981 law, which said anyone wanting to obtain a right to use water from a spring or ground seepage "must ensure that wildlife which customarily uses the water will have access to it."

It concluded, "Unquestionably the guzzlers provide benefits to wildlife which is in the public interest and welfare," and therefore placement of guzzlers for wildlife only does not require acquiring water rights.

The letter is still followed as state policy, Biaggi said.

He said in many valleys where agriculture is present, springs and streams have dried up that would otherwise have been available for wildlife.

"These guzzlers have done nothing more than replace historic uses," he said.

But Morrison said the policy doesn't constitute due process for ranchers, who also have aided wildlife through their own water projects.

"It's been a very beneficial relationship between livestock and game," she said. "But we object when game is managed at the expense and exclusion of the livestock operator, and that's where this is going."

Monday, December 7, 2009

Sheepman fighting to save flock

Thirty-some years ago when he left Utah State University after majoring in agricultural science and made his way to the family ranch in central Colorado, about the last place Sam Robinson thought he'd wind up was on the front page of the Los Angeles Times.

But there he was a week ago Friday, featured in an article with the headline, "Ranching, Recreation Collide in the Great Outdoors."

The story is about an incident from the summer of 2008, when two of Robinson's dogs were accused of attacking a woman riding a mountain bike. The assault resulted in injuries and a court action that branded Robinson — a good man his wife, Cheri, described to the Times as "a Sunday school teacher who has no record" — a criminal.

He was found guilty of a misdemeanor, fined, ordered to pay restitution and, in lieu of jail time, sentenced to 200 hours community service.

Now, Sam Robinson is fighting back.

Not because he hates being called a criminal (which he does). Not because he thinks dogs should bite people (which he does not).

He's fighting back because his entire way of life is in jeopardy.

And not just his way of life, the way of life of all ranchers who graze livestock on public land.

Robinson has seen this fight long coming. Slowly but steadily, he's watched civilization's advancements intrude on his ability to protect his sheep.

First there was the environmentalist-inspired government ban in the 1970s on all toxicants, meaning you couldn't poison the mountain lions, coyotes, bears and other natural predators of the herd.

Next came a crusade led by animal rights groups that resulted in a government ban on steel-jawed traps, followed by outlawing all baiting and scent lures.

All that was left for a sheepman to defend his herd was to shoot predators during a legal hunting season or when they were caught in the act.

It was like telling a store owner he couldn't lock the door when he went home at night.

But then the government advised Robinson of a new option that was enjoying some success elsewhere: livestock protection dogs.

These aren't mild-mannered border collie-type sheep dogs. These are SWAT-type dogs. Think Mr. T in a fur windbreaker.

Sam started using livestock protection dogs about 10 years ago. They haven't worked as well as traps and poison, he'll tell you, but they have managed to keep the sheep's natural predators somewhat at bay.

But they had no answer for the herd's most recent opponent: human beings wearing Lycra.

Every year, more and more recreationists — runners, bikers, hikers, climbers — invade the wide open spaces. To the point that even remote sheep camps are no longer remote.

"When I was a kid my dad said before I died I'd see Colorado become nothing but a playground," says Robinson, who is 54. "He was a visionary. He'd seen it coming. I was just stupid enough and stubborn enough to go ahead and see how it goes."

The irony of the inexorable squeeze by the playgrounders on ranchers, and on the commodities they produce, isn't lost on Robinson. "They think their food comes wrapped in plastic," he says, and then adds, "I'm not here to hurt anybody. I'm here to feed them. If that's not community service then I don't know what is."

The woman Robinson's dogs allegedly bit was bringing up the rear in an organized mountain bike race that started and finished practically on top of where Robinson's sheep had bedded down the night before. According to Robinson, he was not informed about the race by the recreation department in Vail that organized it. The protection dogs were tied up when the mass of riders passed through. But by the time the woman, beset by bike problems, came pedaling along much later, all alone, they were unchained.

Beyond recovering her medical expenses, she wanted whoever owned those dogs to go to jail.

Robinson finds more irony that his subsequent conviction, by a jury trial, for "harboring dangerous dogs," was meted out by the same government that encouraged him to harbor dangerous dogs in the first place.

He was quickly educated just how vulnerable he — and all dog-owning sheep ranchers — are to existing criminal law.

As written in the Colorado constitution, dogs that protect livestock are exempted from civil liability, but in a curious juxtaposition they are not exempted from criminal liability.

As a result, Robinson has gotten rid of his protection dogs — a second infraction would ruin him, he contends — and in a little more than a year without them he's already lost 26 percent of his herd to predators.

His can't-live-with-em, can't-live-without-em plight has attracted the attention of sheepherders across Colorado and throughout the West, not to mention the Los Angeles Times.

The bottom line: either he gets his conviction overturned (his lawyer has filed an appeal), the Colorado law rewritten and his dogs back, or …

"Or I'm finished," he says.

"When my grandfather first got here," the 21st century sheepherder reminisces, "he wore a six-shooter all the time. Back then the sheepmen were under fire from the cattlemen. Now we get along pretty well with the cattle people. But we're under fire from the mountain bikers. It's a modern range war. A clash of cultures.

"It's all good range," he says of the 55,000 mountainous acres where his herd of 1,300 sheep roam. "A lot of it's steep hillsides. It's not good for cows. But it's real good for sheep. But if I can't get this law changed so I can protect my herd, my odds of staying alive are none."

Federal officials look for ways to make wolf recovery a success in the Southwest

A decade has passed since the federal government began returning endangered Mexican wolves to their historic range in the Southwest. It hasn't worked out — for the wolves, for ranchers, for conservationists or for federal biologists.

And that has resulted in frustration and resentment by many involved in the reintroduction program along the Arizona-New Mexico border, a landscape of sprawling pine and spruce forests, cold-water lakes and clear streams.

"I believe in being a good steward of the land and preserving it for generations to come, but this is ridiculous," said Ed Wehrheim, who heads the county commission in Catron County, in the heart of wolf country. "I've had ranchers' wives come to me just bawling because everything they and their parents have worked for is going down the drain."

Four ranches have gone out of business since the wolf reintroduction began and another four are expected to do the same before next summer, Wehrheim said.

The region has been hit by drought and cattle prices aren't what they used to be, but Wehrheim said pressure from environmentalists and hundreds of livestock kills by Mexican gray wolves over the past decade have only made things worse.

Environmentalists argue that grazing practices are part of the problem and the wolf reintroduction program has failed because of mismanagement by the federal government.

In the middle stands Bud Fazio, coordinator of the Mexican gray wolf reintroduction program.

The program is at a crossroads and Fazio said he hopes to bring everyone back to the table to find a way to move forward, quell concerns of critical environmentalists and gain the confidence of wary ranchers.

"One thing about wolves is they bring out extreme emotions and feelings and attitudes, so it is an extra challenge," he said. "There is some middle ground. There is some balance, but my sense is that so far we haven't found that in the Southwest and we need to."

A subspecies of the gray wolf, the Mexican wolf was exterminated in the wild by the 1930s. The government began reintroducing wolves in 1998 along the Arizona-New Mexico line, in a territory of more than 4 million acres interspersed with forests, private land and towns.

There are about 50 wolves in the wild in Arizona and New Mexico, but that's half of what biologists had hoped to have by now.

Federal, state and other officials involved in wolf recovery are scheduled to meet next week in Albuquerque for the first of many "frank discussions" about the future of the program, Fazio said.

Part of the reason for the talks is a recent settlement with environmentalists that called for an end to a three-strikes rule that allowed wildlife managers to trap or shoot wolves that had killed at least three head of livestock within a year.

The settlement also made clear that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has control over the program, rather than a committee formed in 2003 to bring other agencies into the recovery effort.

The original rule that established the reintroduction program still allows managers to remove problem wolves, but Fazio said officials will now consider many factors — such as the wolf's genetic value to the program and its reproductive success — before making decisions on keeping an animal in the wild.

"Everything remains on the table in terms of an option for managing wolves and that does include removal of live animals or lethal removal," Fazio said. "What is different is that a whole suite of things, broader than before, will be taken into account."

Wehrheim and the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association maintain the settlement changes nothing because the wolf program had already started to leave wolves with more than three strikes in the wild. They pointed to the Middle Fork pack, which was blamed for 10 livestock kills in two months.

The pack includes four pups and two adults, both of which are missing their front left paws.

Federal biologists say the pack is now hunting elk and relying less on strategically placed food caches.

Ranchers say that leaving the maimed wolves in the wild encourages them to go after easy prey such as calves.

"It's a problem of the program, not a problem of the wolf," Catron County Manager Bill Aymar said.

The Center for Biological Diversity also has been critical of the program, but the group believes the wolves should be left in the wild and critical habitat declared for the species to recover.

Wehrheim told New Mexico legislators in Santa Fe this week that ranchers in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona can't afford to live with the wolves if the program remains unchanged and the federal government's plan for compensating livestock losses goes unfunded.

"It's very, very serious for Catron County and all of the wolf recovery area," he said. "We don't see any ranching existing with the wolf. We don't see any hunting existing with the wolf. We're talking tens of millions of dollars of loss."

He gave the example of a third-generation ranch that harvested about 200 calves annually before going out of business earlier this year. The operation was capable of bringing in more than $1 million in tax and other revenues to the county.

Tod Stevenson, director of the New Mexico Game and Fish Department, testified that his agency and the state want to make sure Catron County and its ranchers can survive on the landscape.

"That's the best way that we can continue to manage wildlife, is to have them as partners out there on the ground," he said. "It's critical that we come up with a balance to achieve that."

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Hage saga government at its worst

The case of Nevada rancher Wayne Hage should serve as a warning to all farmers and ranchers who depend on the cooperation of the federal government to make a living.

What Hage and his family went through during 30-plus years of fighting with the government can best be described as a nightmare.

Hage's 7,000-acre ranch borders several allotments of the Toiyabe National Forest. In the 1970s, the government introduced elk into the forest, damaging fences and scattering cattle.

From there, the relationship between the rancher and the government spiraled downward. The government impounded his cattle and cut off access to his water pipelines, ditches, fences, roads and trails on the grazing allotments.

The dispute simmered for decades and made Hage a de facto leader of the "Sagebrush Rebellion" among similarly mistreated ranchers across the West.

In 1991, Hage sued the federal government in an attempt to regain access to the national forest grazing allotments.

The U.S. Court of Federal Claims agreed with the government that the cattle were trespassing.

However, in 2008, the court also agreed with Hage's lawyers that the government had taken his water rights, ditch rights-of-way, roads, water facilities and other structures. As compensation, the court ordered the government to pay Hage $4.22 million.

It a final act of petulence, the government went back to court and asked the judge to reduce that award. The government claimed there was no proof Hage had built the fences, trails, pipelines and other facilities. He could only be compensated if he could prove he had built the facilities. Since Hage had died in 2006, the government's lawyers apparently thought they had a good chance of escaping from the damage it had done to Hage and his family.

They were wrong.

In a final twist, Senior Judge Loren Smith turned the government's request on its ear. Instead of reducing the judgment, he added $150,000 to the $4.22 million already awarded.

The willingness of the federal government to go to extremes in an effort to put a rancher out of business is despicable. With time and the taxpayers' money on their side, government lawyers have continued to turn the screws on the Hage family.

The result is the saddest chapter in the history of the U.S. Forest Service.

In a previous decision, Senior Judge Loren Smith described the Hage saga as a "drama worthy of a tragic opera with heroic characters."

For the sake of Western ranchers and farmers, let's hope it is also one the federal government chooses not to repeat.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A tribal attempt to protect Mount Taylor sparks a battle over ancient claims to the land

Over the course of 10 days last June, at least five Navajo men were brutally beaten in Grants, N.M. The attackers, described by some of the victims as "Mexicans," used rocks and baseball bats, ambushing one man with a pellet gun and hitting another with a brass-knuckle-handled knife. One victim -- who was found in an abandoned house, covered in dried blood and insects -- was airlifted to an Albuquerque hospital.

None of the victims lived in town, although they have homes and families on the nearby Navajo Reservation. As word of the attacks spread, the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission broadcast public service announcements on the radio, urging Navajos to track down missing family members and make sure they were OK.

At first, the five victims, and two others who had not gone to the police, hesitated to talk. Some feared retaliation; others had had previous run-ins with the law. But with the human rights commission there to overcome the language barrier, the police uncovered some troubling clues. One of the men heard his attacker yell something to the effect of, "You got Mount Taylor, now you're mine."

Mount Taylor -- a dormant volcano northeast of the town -- is sacred to at least five Southwestern tribes, including the Navajo. Its lower reaches also host uranium ore, and the Grants Mineral Belt supported active mines from the 1950s through the 1980s, when mines were shuttered and mills demolished. But when uranium prices began climbing again, companies snatched up old leases and claims. Now, some are drilling exploration wells, and a few are planning new mines. This has kindled economic hope in struggling nearby towns like Grants and Milan. Some locals, however, recall a tragic history of environmental contamination and radiation illness and want nothing to do with yellowcake.

Just three days before the beatings began, the state of New Mexico had decided to place Mount Taylor and some of its surrounding lands on the State Register of Cultural Properties as a traditional cultural property, or TCP. The decision ended a 16-month-long process that became a battle pitting Native Americans and environmentalists against mining companies, Anglo ranchers and Spanish land grant communities. The new TCP covers 400,000 acres -- an unprecedented size -- and many locals worried that it would prevent uranium development and even restrict use of the mountain by anyone not Native American.

Then, at the end of June, police apprehended one of the alleged attackers: 22-year old Shawn Longoria was charged with six counts of aggravated battery as well as robbery and aggravated burglary -- all felony charges. Local TV and print reports noted that an anonymous caller had told officers that Longoria boasted of beating up the men "because the Native Americans had got Mount Taylor and now they owed him."

With several unidentified assailants still at large, it's impossible to know exactly why the Navajos were attacked; the connection between Mount Taylor and the beatings is tenuous. But what's clear is that the tribes' attempt to protect the mountain tapped into a dark reservoir of old tensions that underlies this busted boomtown.

From the top of Mount Taylor, mountains, valleys and mesas unfold into the hazy blue distance; on clear days, you can see all the way to Arizona. The Navajo call the 11,301-foot-tall peak Tsoodzil, and say it marks one of the four directional boundaries of their spiritual world. The Acoma, who call it Kaweshtima, believe it was created by two sisters who also gave life to plants and animals; it's still home to beings such as Shakak, the Spirit of Winter and the North. To the Zuni, the mountain is Dewankwin Kyaba:chu Yalannee.

"People may think it's just a physical entity, that it sits there, and Zunis or Acomas or others, they only go there sometimes," says Jim Enote, executive director of the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center at Zuni. "But people only go to Mecca once in their life, or Mount Sinai once in their life, or the Vatican once in their life."

The mountain is sacred, he says, home to shrines and a place for gathering certain plants and minerals. "It is extremely important, and the people who go to Mount Taylor, to Dewankwin Kyaba:chu Yalanee, are doing so to help maintain an entire cosmological process," he says. "They are doing it for the benefit of all humanity."

So, two years ago, the Zuni joined the pueblos of Acoma and Laguna, Arizona's Hopi Tribe and the Navajo Nation in asking the state of New Mexico to protect this hodgepodge of federal, state and private lands as a traditional cultural property.

The tribes were seeking official acknowledgement of their stake in the development of their sacred lands, particularly when it comes to the state's authority to issue uranium-mining permits. The uranium boom supported Grants and Milan from the 1950s through the 1980s, but it also left a legacy of contaminated waters and sickened workers. And the mills have proven particularly problematic: Despite more than two decades of cleanup work, contamination from the Homestake Mining Company mill site in Milan, just west of Grants, has spread to five aquifers.

The TCP designation seemed like the best way to protect the mountain because it doesn't restrict public access, says Theresa Pasqual, historic preservation officer for Acoma Pueblo, the lead sponsor. The mountain remains open for everything from grazing and wood-gathering to hiking, snowmobiling and mountain biking. Under the TCP designation, the state's Historic Preservation Division -- and its mining division -- are required to review permit requests for development on Mount Taylor. It also requires that developers consult with tribes during the permitting process. It does not, however, afford tribes veto power over projects. Final decision-making remains with the state and the U.S. Forest Service, which oversees most of the mountain's acreage. Under the law, TCPs -- or any other protected property, including archaeological sites or historical buildings -- can even be destroyed if development is in the public's best interest. Pasqual says that the tribes chose this option knowing full well that it didn't guarantee protection.

Even so, the proposal didn't sit right with many local landowners. It violates private property rights, says Joy Burns, whose family has been running cattle on Mount Taylor for generations. Today, her family's Elkins Ranch spreads across some 16,000 acres on the east side of the mountain, right below the summit --smack-dab within the TCP's boundaries. "If I file the necessary papers and get the necessary permits, I don't think that any group should be able to tell us about my property," she says. The issue of uranium mining aside, she fears the designation will affect her family's ability to log or hunt on their own lands. It's not fair, she says.

Indeed, as the process moved along, it started rumors of a "land grab." Tempers began to simmer. Then, into the midst of this growing furor, stepped a Christian self-help author who promotes energy development in the name of the Lord.

In early 2008, the five tribes submitted paperwork asking the state to consider temporary protection for Mount Taylor. The request became public a few weeks later, on Feb. 22. At an emergency meeting, the New Mexico Cultural Properties Review Committee announced that it would protect the mountain for one year while considering whether it merited permanent status as a protected traditional cultural property. The uranium industry, local landowners and the surrounding communities felt blindsided.

Marita Noon, who is executive director of the nonprofit Citizens' Alliance for Responsible Energy (CARE), attended that first meeting. "There were a bevy of (uranium company) attorneys who were against the TCP decision, who are normally articulate and able to present their case, and they were basically just begging for a two-week delay so that they could read the TCP nomination -- because no one had seen it," she says. "Then, you have Native Americans -- I may sound racist, but I don't mean to be -- but they are not the people who are naturally public speakers; they don't have a lot of experience at putting their thoughts together and articulating them. But they stood up with prepared, written-out statements." Something, she says, was fishy, and when the committee did not grant a two-week extension, Noon took up the cause with a vengeance. She left the meeting "outraged by the sham of democracy" she had witnessed. After a sleepless night, she pounded out the first of many op-eds.

Noon, an ebullient woman with fluffy blonde hair, is a popular speaker and the author of 19 books on Christianity and relationships under the pen name Marita Littauer, including The Praying Wives Club, Talking So People Will Listen and Tailor-Made Marriage. Her organization, CARE, seeks to communicate "the positive side of the energy industry to the media and the public." Founded by Mark Mathis, a consultant to the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico, it receives funding from oil and gas producers. The Albuquerque Journal frequently runs Noon's commentaries calling for the elimination of the state's Oil Conservation Division or dismissing the creation of green jobs as "happy talk."

Noon lacks a professional background in energy issues or science. "But as I've learned and understood the issue, it has clearly become a passion for me," she says. "And I really have studied the issue: That everything we hold dear in America is threatened by threats to energy."

She claims that 90 percent of the uranium currently used in the U.S. is imported, most of it from Russia -- "an increasingly unfriendly Russia," at that. That's why it's so important for mining to proceed near Grants, she says in her speeches. "When we have sources to get the base fuel supplies in America, why on earth are we giving our money to foreign countries?"

The TCP designation may not totally block uranium mining, but, she argues, it adds an extra layer of regulation that has driven some companies out. And the people of Grants, which she compares to a Third World country, can't afford to lose this chance for economic development.

Noon has a knack for galvanizing crowds, but her rhetoric has a tendency to be somewhat loose with the facts. According to the federal Energy Information Administration, for example, 86 percent of the uranium used in the U.S. is indeed imported. But nearly half of that, comes from Australia and Canada, while 33 percent comes from Kazakhstan, Russia and Uzbekistan. The Farmington Daily Times and the blog Heath Haussamen on New Mexico Politics have recently pulled Noon's commentaries, citing inaccuracies.

In the case of the TCP, though, Noon didn't need to twist the facts to win people to her cause. The state had botched the process badly enough to help do the job for her.

Three months after the February meeting, the New Mexico attorney general's office announced that the state's Office of Cultural Affairs had failed to adequately notify nearby private property owners about the meeting, although it did provide proper notice in the media. The meeting -- and by default, the designation -- had therefore violated the state's Open Meetings Act.

The Historic Preservation Division scheduled a new meeting for June 14, 2008, at Grants High School. By then, both sides were up to speed on the proposal. But rumors about everything from the number of acres involved to how the designation might affect local land-users were stoking anger and suspicion. The state police attended the meeting; officers from local departments came as well.

When the day came, protesters gathered with hand-lettered signs bearing slogans that ranged from "Mount Taylor is public land, not reservation" to "Save Our Sacred Mountain."

Following a Cibola County commissioners meeting in April, the governor of Zuni Pueblo, Norman Cooeyate, and the governor of Laguna had written to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, requesting a neutral location for the meeting due to the "level of hostility and potential air of racism experienced by our council/community members and as exhibited by local community members of Grants and Milan."

But that request was denied. And as an estimated 700 people filed into the gymnasium and took seats in facing bleachers, the divisions became all too clear: There was "an eerie sense of cowboys and Indians facing off," Gallup Independent reporter Helen Davis wrote, "because many Native observers wore traditional clothing and cowboy hats dominated head gear in the stands across the gym." Those were the "pro-uranium people," says Cooeyate. "And you had all the people who were against uranium on the other side -- and that included a lot of what we call ourselves, the brown faces."

As the five hours of testimony unfolded, opponents repeatedly disrupted statements by Native Americans, Cooeyate says. "They jeered, they sneered, they booed every time there was a comment that was made from the tribal leadership or any of the people that supported us."

But other locals complained that the state was giving Native Americans preferential treatment. Opponents also criticized the involvement of environmental groups, saying it proved that the tribes were using religion and tradition to block mining altogether. They expressed fears that the tribes were trying to take over public lands.

After the meeting, Cooeyate says, some TCP opponents yelled obscenities at tribal elders in the parking lot.

As the final meeting -- set for May 15, 2009, in Santa Fe -- approached, even the all-weather notebook at the summit of Mount Taylor reflected community anxiety. Many of the comments simply described trips up the mountain -- JR and Douglas cleared trees off the trail while riding their Arctic Cat 700 ATVs, folks on New Year's Eve braved the wind, and one man and his 6-year-old son took six hours and 13 minutes to snowshoe up the trail in March. Others, however, denounced the designation. "TCP still sucks, mountain belongs to us all, not just the Indians," was not an uncommon sentiment.

Native Americans may have staked a claim to Mount Taylor, but the mesas and canyons below it have long been home to Spanish communities, as well. Throughout New Mexico, parcels of land were granted to Spanish individuals and communities as far back as 1598; they were recognized by the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and by Congress in the 19th century. Many of these remain community lands, although others have been privatized and incorporated.

On the Juan Tafoya Land Grant east of Grants, life has been bleak since the local uranium mine and mill closed. Ranching and farming no longer sustain families, and young people lack opportunities.

Some 15 families still live part-time in Marquez, a village in Juan Tafoya that no longer hosts its own post office. The nearest schools are 40 miles away on the Laguna Reservation. Life is difficult; James Martinez, one of the village's four full-time residents, spends two days a week in Albuquerque, seeking more lucrative work than ranching.

Though uranium prices are still fluctuating -- at $43 per pound as of Nov. 23, they're down from last year's $55 -- they're far above the $7 per pound they hit in 1991. And with the nuclear power industry poised to profit from federal climate-change policy, Martinez believes a mining resurgence could provide new opportunities for local young people. Uranium, after all, supported his father, who lived in Marquez until his death at 78.

For its part, the uranium industry is showing interest. Neutron Energy -- the company nearest to getting development under way in the area -- hopes to begin exploration at its Marquez Canyon Mine site on the Juan Tafoya, which is now a privatized corporation. The high-quality ore there is still mostly untouched, though the Tennessee Valley Authority, Kerr McGee and Exxon sank some 700 exploratory holes before the bust.

The industry isn't a threat, Martinez says, because the people here are good stewards of the land. He disputes the notion that Native Americans are the only ones with deep spiritual ties to the region. His family has lived on this land grant for eight or nine generations -- more than 300 years. "We have saints in the area," he says, "and my great-great-grandfather was born in the caves right below Mount Taylor, in Canon de Marquez. My father, and his father, distilled in us: Protect what you have. But also make it grow and prosper from what you have. We have some common sense, we will not let our stuff get destroyed." Today, his 20-year-old son, Amadeo Martinez, still runs cattle on the land grant. One of the last children baptized at the Catholic church in Marquez, he is majoring in earth and planetary sciences at the University of New Mexico and hopes to work in the mining industry.

The younger Martinez has a Native American girlfriend and believes the return of mining could actually heal some of the divisions that were so starkly revealed at the Grants meeting. The Marquez Mine proposal lies outside the TCP, after all: "When our people open the mine, it will provide jobs for their people." And then, he says, they can become a united community, rather than two cultures.

But here, too -- outside the TCP boundary -- mining has torn a deep rift. Worried that the mine will contaminate groundwater and harm culturally significant springs, the Pueblo of Acoma opposes the project.

During a November 2008 public hearing for Neutron's exploration permit, some of the crowd erupted again, recalls New Mexico Environmental Law Center attorney Eric Jantz, who has been working with the Acomas. "There's an element, I think, of revisionist history: One of the land grant people made a public comment to the effect that they were there first, and the tribal folks had no right," he says. "Then there were a number of Anglo ranchers who got up and testified, pretty angrily, about how their property rights were being infringed upon in various ways, and if there were minerals or any things that could make them money off their land, then they ought to have the right to exploit those resources without any government interference."

And then Marita Noon took the microphone. God placed mineral wealth under the earth for us to use, she preached, and the tribes were getting in the way of America's greatness by forcing us to rely on imported energy, including uranium from Russia. "That," says Jantz, "turned things particularly ugly."

Marquez is unique for its long history and geographic isolation, but the town of Grants has also seen better days. Double-stacked trains tear through town, barely slowing. A few modern motels greet travelers pulling off the highway for the night, but the road into downtown hosts a string of shuttered motor lodges -- the Franciscan, the Desert Sun, the Wayside -- with cracked doors and weedy lots. Streets and sewers are crumbling as the tax base shrinks, and the town now relies on prisons, including the Cibola County Detention Center and the state women's correctional facility.

Visitors to the mining museum can ride an elevator underground to a mock uranium mineshaft, but there's little else to explore within the town itself. There is, in fact, little in Grants to conjure even a whiff of nostalgia for those boom days. Grants never truly built itself up in the first place, and like Marquez, it has never recovered from the bust.

George Byers, vice president of Neutron Energy, believes all that could change. In addition to the Marquez Mine site, Neutron has acquired leases on the Cebolleta Land Grant on the east side of Mount Taylor and on private lands west of it, all in the last few years. The Marquez Mine alone could bring more than 225 jobs to Grants, Byers says, while a complete resurgence of the industry in the area could create about 8,000 jobs, with an economic impact of about a billion dollars.

Byers' company fought the TCP designation, testifying in 2008 that the emergency listing was unwarranted, given the fact that there were no immediate plans for mining within its boundaries. Most of his company's plans are slated for private land, including Spanish land grants.

And although he now says the designation shouldn't affect Neutron's plans, it does add another layer of regulation and consultation. "Instead of getting a permit to do exploration in several weeks -- which you can do in any other state -- on private land, it took us over 14 months" for the Marquez site, he says. "That was unnecessary. It wasted a lot of time, it wasted a lot of money."

Before the TCP designation, most projects were able to go through a streamlined "minimal impact" permit process, explains New Mexico Mining and Minerals Division director Bill Brancard. Now, projects -- even those on private lands -- within the TCP boundary no longer qualify for that. Instead, they must undergo the regular exploration permitting process, which takes longer.

For the most part, however, the designation changes little because almost all the projects are planned for U.S. Forest Service lands. The state's TCP process was more controversial because it became public first, says Brancard, but the Forest Service was already planning to add its Mount Taylor lands to the National Register of Historic Places. Now, any projects proposed for those federal lands must undergo a thorough environmental impact analysis.

Ultimately, though, despite all the fuss, it may not matter what kind of designation the mountain receives.

Companies are "proceeding fairly deliberately because New Mexico has some real pluses and minuses when it comes to uranium mining," says Brancard. The resources are here, he says, but developing them would require significant front-end investments. Most importantly, someone would need to build a mill -- an expensive commitment that no one appears willing to make at this point.

Before the final TCP hearing in May 2009, the state prepared for controversy. Gov. Richardson's director of policy and issues, Bill Hume, sent an e-mail to the Historic Preservation Division, suggesting consultation with the secretary of New Mexico's Department of Public Safety: "I expect a comfortable -- but not oppressive -- showing of uniformed officers at the hearing would be appropriate," he wrote, "with possibly some reinforcements stashed out of sight nearby."

But the meeting went off without a hitch, and on June 5, 2009, the state announced that Mount Taylor had received permanent designation as a traditional cultural property. Some 89,000 acres of private lands within the boundary were exempted from protection. Still, the contentious process had left open wounds. In October, some local landowners and uranium mining companies -- including RayEllen Resources, Rio Grande Resources Corporation, Strathmore Resources, Laramide Resources, Roca Honda Resources and the Cebolleta Land Grant -- filed a legal challenge to the mountain's protected status. "The grounds are basically due process," says attorney Jon Indall. "It's not an appeal on whether they're cultural or not -- it's an appeal on the process that was undertaken to get there."

The suit came as a surprise to designation supporters. The tribes had expected opposition, but few TCP supporters anticipated how emotional and even hysterical things would become. Certainly no one could have guessed that the process would be implicated in the spate of violence against Navajos.

The June beatings prompted the Federal Bureau of Investigation to open a hate crimes investigation. But even on the surface, the situation was far from cut and dry. "We have Native blood in us," Longoria's mother told television news crews as she joined friends and family to protest outside the Cibola County Judicial Complex. "The fight was not racist-based."

The Grants Police Station resembles a strip mall and lies just off the road that leads from Grants to Mount Taylor. On a crystalline day in September, Grants Police Chief Steve Sena -- stocky, with a neat mustache and clean-shaven head -- talks about the beatings. Although the FBI investigation is ongoing, Sena says his department has determined that Longoria's actions were not racially motivated. They were "an act of stupidity," he says, that is all. Sena, who has more than two decades on the force, doesn't believe that the violence in his town was related to the TCP designation and the controversy that followed. Media hype and suggestions to the contrary don't help: "It's been very hurtful," he says, "very hurtful to the community."

Despite Sena's certainty, distrust remains. Some fault the tribes for seeking to protect Mount Taylor, while others blame an industry that never atoned for the sins of its past. And many locals say outsiders were responsible for the blow-ups, whether environmentalists or industry boosters like Marita Noon. But history has shown that life is seldom easy in a place like Grants, where four Indian reservations bump up against Spanish land grants and Anglo ranching towns. Old communities have long memories, and grudges are often passed down through the generations.

Violence is not unusual in the Southwest's reservation border towns. In the 1970s, Farmington, N.M., a community on the edge of the Navajo Nation, earned the moniker "the Selma, Ala., of the Southwest" after three white teenagers charged with beating three Navajos to death were sent to reform school instead of prison. Though things have vastly improved since then, the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission -- which was founded, with the 1970s beatings in mind, after the fatal shooting of a Navajo man by a white Farmington police officer in June 2006 -- stays busy, tracking discrimination and organizing public hearings. At the same time, it tries to reach out to local police departments, as it did following last June's beatings.

The media's interest in the beatings may have faded, but the communities are left to grapple not only with the stigma of border-town violence, but also the cultural divisions so clearly and painfully revealed. The TCP process was clearly botched -- throughout the entire series of meetings, the state repeatedly fumbled or passed up opportunities to educate the public and keep the lines of communication open. Yet despite everything, Mount Taylor also offers an opportunity. The struggle has forced the communities to face their history -- their intertwined cultural heritage as well as their economic and environmental legacies -- giving them a chance to work together to decide what the future holds.

Outside Sena's office, officers take turns meeting with a Hispanic woman who has come to talk about her daughter's problems with other kids at the high school. A tall young Native American officer stands before the woman, who sits with her daughter and mother. As she talks about the problems, about her neighborhood, he murmurs in understanding and reminds her to remain respectful and calm, even in the face of threats of violence from the other family. If she stoops to their level, he says, she will be accused of escalating the situation. After a while, Sena comes out and, with words punctuated by easy smiles, reassures her. Everything, he says, is going to be fine.

Laura Paskus is a freelance writer and a former HCN editor.

This story was funded by grants from the McCune Charitable Foundation and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

Director of the Bureau of Land Management: Who Is Bob Abbey?

Confirmed on August 6, 2009, President Obama’s Director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is a twenty-five year veteran of the agency who was put forward for the position by Democratic Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the powerful Senate Majority Leader. Although his nomination was stalled by Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, who was pressuring the administration to support a controversial copper mine proposed for a national forest in his state, McCain eventually relented. Located within the US Department of the Interior, BLM is responsible for managing the United States’ public lands. BLM oversees the use and conservation of 258 million acres, most of which are located in the American West and Alaska. A key responsibility of BLM is the issuance of leases to corporate interests to extract oil, natural gas and minerals from beneath public lands. This natural resource development, in effect since the 19th century, has left wide areas of American wilderness damaged by the effects of drilling and mining and provoked protests from environmental groups opposed to future oil, gas and mining activities in sensitive areas.

Born circa 1951 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, Abbey is a 1969 graduate of Clarksdale High School. He went on to earn a B.S. in Resource Management from the University of Southern Mississippi in 1973.

Abbey spent more than 32 years in public service, working with state and federal land management agencies before retiring from the federal government in July 2005. Straight out of college, Abbey took a job with the Mississippi State Park system, where he worked for more than four years before accepting a position with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the Waterways Experiment Station in Vicksburg, Mississippi. In that job, he first interacted with the BLM, to which he soon applied for a job. Abbey was hired by BLM in 1980 for a position in its Casper, Wyoming, field office. Between 1980 and 1992, Abbey worked there, moving on to positions as assistant district manager in Yuma, Arizona and as budget analyst in Washington, D.C. In 1992, Abbey was promoted to head of the Jackson, Mississippi, field office, where he remained into 1995, when he was named acting state BLM director in Colorado, where he served from 1995 through 1997. From 1997 to 2005, Abbey served as the Nevada State Director for BLM, providing oversight for 48 million acres of public land managed by the bureau in the state. He oversaw a staff of 750 employees and managed an annual budget of $51 million. While in Nevada, Abbey was the principal BLM proponent for the Great Basin Restoration Initiative, a plan to restore North America’s largest desert to its original state by removing invasive plant species and making other changes. One anti-environmental stain on Abbey’s record, which no one raised during his confirmation process, was a federal administrative law judge ruling that Abbey had, in October 2004, illegally dismissed a manager overseeing the cleanup of an abandoned copper mine for pursuing worker safety, radiation, and air and water pollution violations. The decision was affirmed on appeal.

Abbey retired in July 2005, after which he became a partner in a private consulting firm called Abbey, Stubbs, & Ford, LLC, which had offices in Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada. He also served as a member of the University of Nevada College of Agriculture Dean’s Advisory Committee and as a board member on several statewide and national non-profit organizations, including Friends of Nevada Wilderness. His post-retirement criticism of the environmental damage caused by off-road vehicles stirred the ire of some who advocate such activities on public land.

Abbey and his wife Linda have been married for 32 years and currently reside in Reno, Nevada. They have one daughter, Leigh.
- Matt Bewig

Forest Service 'Dramatically Reshaping' Plans in Response to Climate Change

Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell has directed the agency's regions and research stations to jointly produce draft "landscape conservation action plans" by March 1 to guide its day-to-day response to climate change.

In a memo (pdf) earlier this month requesting the plans, Tidwell said climate change is "dramatically reshaping" how the agency will deliver on its mission of sustaining the health and diversity of the nation's forests. He focused particularly on water management.

"Responding to the challenges of climate change in providing water and water-related ecosystem services is one of the most urgent tasks facing us as an agency," Tidwell wrote. "History will judge us by how well we respond to these challenges."

Tidwell said the agency's task is to translate the overall strategic framework for responding to climate change, which was released last month, into its daily operations. He directed regional foresters and station directors to work together to prepare "aggressive and well-coordinated" area-specific action plans for landscape conservation. While most have already begun such work, he added, they should be expanded into "full-blown regions, stations and area action plans" that address water as a "fundamental outcome set."

Tidwell suggested dividing the country into five planning regions and imposed a 20-page limit for the draft action plans.

The plans should include desired outcomes, strategies and specific actions for each goal laid out in the agencywide framework and a description of who will lead the partnership, including a point of contact for the Washington office, Tidwell said.

"The plans should seize opportunities to integrate activities and be innovative," Tidwell wrote. "They should become blueprints for integrating climate change and watershed management. They should use climate change as a theme under which to integrate and streamline existing national and regional strategies for ecological restoration, fire and fuels, forest health, biomass utilization, and others."

The plans also should address priority landscapes and consider the use of "model" watersheds or landscapes to create showcases for experimentation, collaboration and demonstration, Tidwell said. They should address how the partners work with other agencies and groups and articulate how "science and management will interact to adapt to changing conditions and apply newly created knowledge in the future."

Tidwell also said he will soon name a "climate change executive" to guide the overall implementation of the framework through the landscape conservation plans.

Mike Anderson of the Wilderness Society said the memo outlines a good direction for the Forest Service.

"First, it gives scientists a co-leadership role in determining the agency's climate change plans," Anderson said. "Second, it emphasizes the importance of watershed protection and restoration, which is an often overlooked climate change issue. Third, the bioregional approach should result in plans that take a broad view of climate change impacts in different parts of the country. Finally, the short timeline suggests that the chief means business and expects quick, science-based action."

Click here (pdf) to read Tidwell's memo.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Aerial-gunning foes ask Obama to ban practice

A wildlife advocacy group Friday asked President Barack Obama to end aerial gunning of coyotes and other predators, citing an Idaho incident where a shotgun-wielding parachutist illegally fired on a wolf.

New Mexico-based WildEarth Guardians' 39-page petition also urges Obama to banish spring-loaded cyanide devices and other predator poisoning methods from public lands, calling them dangerous and indiscriminate.

In June, an eastern Idaho sheep rancher fired on a wolf while piloting a powered parachute above a 160-acre sheep pen. It's unclear if the animal was hit. Wolves in Idaho are considered big game, not predators, so shooting them from the sky is illegal even with a state-issued airborne predator control permit that covers animals such as coyotes.

No charges were filed, but WildEarth Guardians said the Idaho case shows federal agencies have lost control of aerial shooting. The group also contends airborne predator control programs run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services division cost taxpayers unnecessary millions and lead to accidents that have killed 38 people since 1973.

"We call upon the Obama administration to protect our native carnivores," said Wendy Keefover-Ring, a spokeswoman for WildEarth Guardians in Boulder, Colo.

In January, the federal Environmental Protection Agency refused a similar demand from WildEarth Guardians and others to ban cyanide for predator control, calling its arguments "unpersuasive."

Ranching interests including the American Sheep Industry Association say using aircraft and poison to kill coyotes are important tools to combat $125 million in annual losses from predators to the sheep, goat and cattle industry. Peter Orwick, the group's director in Englewood, Colo., said WildEarth Guardians has a radical animal-rights agenda that threatens the livelihood of ranching families like his own.

"If they weren't able to use airplanes, they would not be in the livestock business," Orwick said. WildEarth Guardians "wants absolutely no control tools made available, from the federal perspective."

And efforts to end aerial hunting aren't new, either: The Humane Society of the United States has tried for decades to stop the practice. In 2005, however, Idaho officials convinced the Federal Aviation Administration to expand policies to allow licensed ultralight aircraft pilots to shoot predators from aloft.

Aerial gunning even rose to the level of presidential politics in 2008, when then-Alaska governor and vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin unapologetically backed her state's airborne wolf hunts.

USDA Wildlife Services officials didn't immediately respond to e-mail and telephone requests for comment. The division, with a budget of about $120 million, reported killing some 4.9 million animals in 2008 in efforts to control predators and invasive species.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Wilderness bill opponents map out alternative plan

LAS CRUCES - A group of opponents to a federal wilderness bill for Doña Ana County gathered Tuesday to outline its alternative to the proposal and ask New Mexico's senators to hold a field hearing locally about the matter.

The group, including ranchers, off-road vehicle users, the Greater Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce and the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, in a letter to the senators have asked that several regions be removed from consideration for wilderness and instead granted other less-restrictive designations.

Under the group's proposal, developed by a Chamber of Commerce panel, the following areas now proposed for wilderness would become national conservation areas:

• Potrillo Mountains Wilderness - 143,450 acres

• Aden Lava Flow Wilderness - 27,650 acres

• Cinder Cone Wilderness - 16,950 acres

• Whitehorn Wilderness - 9,600 acres

The areas are clustered in southwestern Do-a Ana County, near the international border. Frank DuBois, a former state agriculture secretary who has opposed the wilderness legislation, said the group is asking for the change to keep from hindering officers who are enforcing immigration laws.

Wilderness is the most-restrictive land designation granted by Congress. It prevents mechanized travel in most cases. National
conservation areas are a designation in which the land-use parameters are tailored to match each region.

Also, a 13,900-acre wilderness region proposed for Broad Canyon, south of Hatch, would be removed from consideration, under the opposition group's plan.

"The chamber found this area to be too important for utility and energy corridors, flood control and other economic growth and public safety factors to have access restrictions legislatively imposed," said DuBois at a news conference.

Jude McCartin, spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., reiterated that the senator in developing the legislation, S. 1689, attempted to accommodate concerns of stakeholders. She pointed to several revisions that were made to an earlier wilderness proposal that had been circulating in the community. One of those revisions was the removal of 16,000 acres that had previously been slated to become wilderness along the border, to better accommodate law enforcement.

Opponents have said the ban against mechanized travel would keep border agents from adequately patrolling the area. Supporters of the wilderness legislation, however, have said they don't believe that would be the case, mostly because of a cooperative agreement between federal agencies that allows federal agents to access the land, under certain conditions.

But Gene Wood of Las Cruces, a retired chief patrol agent with the Border Patrol, contended Tuesday that the agreement "doesn't work at all" because it requires that agents be "in hot pursuit" of illegal activity. He also said the proposed buffer zone won't do much good.

"When would that ever happen in the Potrillos?" said. "If you can't go there and see them, how would you chase them?"

Wood said a the international border fence has helped to reduce cross-border traffic, but it also has pushed it to wildlands.

A group in favor the Senate bill continued to express its backing for the measure.

County Commissioner Scott Krahling in a statement said there's a "high level" of support in the community.

"This legislation has been thoroughly thought through at the local level, and many compromises have been made to accommodate all involved," he said. "Wilderness and national conservation areas will protect many of our most important local public lands, and it will also be good for our economy."

In addition to other modifications, DuBois said the group is asking that access to flood control structures a proposed Organ Mountain National Conservation Area remain open and that language changes to protect grazing in the national conservation areas also be adopted.

John Hummer, Greater Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce president, who signed the letter, said the group isn't opposed to protecting land, but doesn't believe the wilderness designation is necessary in all cases. He said more public debate is needed on the measure, why the group is requesting a Senate field hearing be held in the county.

The group opposed to wilderness released a version of its letter before the news conference that included the list of people who'd sign. But supporters of the wilderness bill were quick to point out that two of the people listed - Gilbert C. Apodaca, president of the Hispano Chamber of Commerce and Margie Huerta, president of Do-a Ana Community College - were actually in favor of S. 1689 as it stands.

In a statement, Apodaca described himself as a "proud and enthusiastic supporter" of the current version of the bill. Huerta, too, said she backs the legislation.

DuBois said the names were included because of a misunderstanding.

DuBois said the group isn't opposed to three of the proposed wilderness areas: the Organ Mountains Wilderness, Sierra de las Uvas Wilderness and Robledo Mountains Wilderness.

Bingaman and U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M. introduced the Organ Mountains - Desert Peaks Wilderness Act into Congress in September. The bill would create 259,000 acres of wilderness and 100,850 acres of national conservation area in Do-a Ana County.

A debate about wilderness in the county has been ongoing since December 2005, after an initial proposal by former U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., came to light.

Diana M. Alba can be reached at; (575) 541-5443.

By the numbers

Proposed land protection for Do-a Ana County under the proposed Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks Wilderness Act (S. 1689)


• Organ Mountains Wilderness - 19,400 acres

• Aden Lava Flow Wilderness - 27,650 acres

• Potrillo Mountains Wilderness - 143,450 acres

• Cinder Cone Wilderness - 16,950 acres

• Whitehorn Wilderness - 9,600 acres

• Robledo Mountains Wilderness - 17,000 acres

• Broad Canyon Wilderness - 13,900 acres

• Sierra de las Uvas Wilderness - 11,100 acres

• Organ Mountains National Conservation Area - 67,250 acres

• Desert Peaks National Conservation Area - 33,600 acres

• Wilderness study released from temporary wilderness - 16,350 acres

Source: U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.


The following people signed a letter asking for changes to a federal wilderness bill under consideration in Congress:

• Gerald Thomas, New Mexico State University, president emeritus

• Richard Johnson, U.S. Forest Service, ret.

• State Rep. Andy Nu-ez, D-Hatch

• Judd Nordyke, mayor of Hatch

• John Hummer, chairman of the Greater Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce

• John Hadley, Building Industry Association of Southern New Mexico

• Gary Esslinger, Elephant Butte Irrigation District

• John Allen, Do-a Ana County Flood Commissioner

• Gene Wood, National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers

• Ralph Ramos, Mesilla Valley Sportsmen's Alliance

• Joe Delk, Do-a Ana Soil and Water Conservation District

• Jerry Arp, Las Cruces Four Wheel Drive Club

• Juan Colquitt, Fort Selden Water Co.

• Marcia Nordyke, Hatch Chamber of Commerce

• Tom Hutchison, Greater Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce Issues panel chairman

• Jerry Schickedanz, chairman of People For Preserving Our Western Heritage

• Ed Provencio, South Valley Small Farmers Cooperative

• Sherry Blake, Chaparral Agriculture and Livestock Association

Source: People for Preserving Our Western Heritage

Friday, November 20, 2009

Should private cattle graze on public lands?

It's a battle that has ranchers pitted against environmentalists. An ongoing legal dispute over grazing practices in the Malheur National Forest has many Eastern Oregon ranchers worried about their livelihoods and the future of their ranches. Environmentalists are concerned grazing on certain parts of the public forest is degrading habitat for threatened fish.

On Wednesday, ranchers from Central Oregon showed their support for their eastern counterparts at the Central Oregon Livestock Auction yard in Madras.

One-by-one, as cattle entered the auction floor, their weight was registered and the announcer started the bidding.

But once the animal was sold, the buyer immediately signaled he was returning the animal.

And so, the bidding started again on the same animal. It was an effort to raise money for the nearly $450,000 in legal fees the group known as Five Rivers Grazing Defense has incurred while trying to hold on to grazing permits on forestland.

Approximately 80 animals were donated for the fundraiser, which collected about $46,000 for the group.

The auction, which included the sale of other cattle, not just those in the fundraiser, started at 9 a.m. and was scheduled to last until about 10 p.m.

Land use lawsuit

The dispute was sparked by a lawsuit filed by the Bend-based Oregon Natural Desert Association against the U.S. Forest Service. ONDA would like to see the Forest Service remove grazing in certain areas along Forest Service land along the John Day River, an area important for steelhead habitat.

The ranchers found out the only way to have a voice in the debate was to file a lawsuit. So, they are also suing the Forest Service, whose representatives did not return calls for comment.

Steelhead are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Brent Fenty, the executive director of ONDA, said grazing ruins riparian areas, kills cover that shades streams and keeps the water temperatures low, which fish need to survive.

“For us, it's straightforward,” Fenty said. “Our expectation in the short term is we want the U.S. Forest Service, charged with managing grazing, to comply with their own laws and regulations to protect stream health and native fish. In the long term, we hope to protect the most important areas of fish habitat.”

Fenty was quick to point out that he doesn't believe this is a precedent-setting lawsuit.

“I've heard other folks say this is a huge precedent for throughout the West,” he said. “This lawsuit hinges on specific data collected on the ground about conditions on specific allotments. And the Forest Service wasn't enforcing their own rules and regulations. It's less a question of public lands grazing across the West and more specific conditions on these allotments and whether the Forest Service is enforcing (management) to allow threatened steelhead and bulltrout populations to recover.”

Ranchers worry

But Trent Stewart, co-owner of the Central Oregon Livestock Auction in Madras, disagreed with Fenty.

That's why he agreed to host the fundraiser and donate all proceeds to the Five Rivers Grazing Defense fund. He said Central Oregon ranchers are also dependent on public lands, such as in the Ochoco National Forest, for survival.

“If they get started, it's not just going to happen there. Here in the West, we're dependent on public ground for grazing,” he said.

Jack and Katie Johns' Fox Valley ranch has been in their family for more than 100 years. They depend on the grass in the Malheur National Forest every year to feed their cattle. Without it, they would have to cut their cattle operation in half, and they worry about what would happen in the future to their family ranch.

Ken Holliday is another Five Rivers Grazing Defense rancher in Grant County.

“This isn't just going after grazing permits,” he said. “This is going after our ranches. ... It's not just public grazing but our livelihood. It's going after the next generations, our kids, our son. If (we lose), it's a done deal.”

Holliday said he believes ranchers are good stewards of the land and it's in their benefit to do so.

Historically, grazing has been used as a tool to manage forestland, he said. It helps prevent forest fires and helps create habitat for wildlife.

Federal study

Fenty doesn't disagree the lawsuit could make management tougher for ranchers.

“It goes back to this underlying question of what is the primary and best use of our public lands,” he said. “And I think for well over a century, grazing has been the priority use for public lands in the West. And I think changing social values recognizing preserving and restoring healthy fish populations is something we value our public lands for. ... I would hate to ... presume that just because it's historically been a priority, we assume it's a priority use in the future.”

Fenty said the National Marine Fisheries Service found steelhead populations in the middle, south and upper forks of the John Day were not viable and identified grazing as degrading the water quality.

The ranchers pointed to the large horse and elk populations and say they are responsible for trampling the area more than domestic cattle.

Elizabeth Howard, the Portland-based lawyer representing the ranchers, said the methodology used by the National Marine Fisheries Service to measure bank damage is erroneous.

“They go out and look for hoof prints along a certain area of stream,” she said.

“The problem is there is no correlation of hoof prints along the stream and impact to steelhead. ... They have never connected the dots,” she said.

Lauren Dake can be reached at 541-419-8074 or at

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Idaho to pay $50K to settle grazing lease lawsuit

Idaho agreed Tuesday to pay $50,000 and pledged to follow anti-discrimination rules to settle a federal lawsuit against state officials who awarded grazing leases to ranchers, not the environmentalist who had offered more money.

The Idaho Board of Land has also committed to revising its rules to allow conservation groups to lease state endowment trust lands, a big change after years of fierce litigation. The board's five members are the governor, state controller, secretary of state, attorney general and superintendent of public instruction.

In 2006, Washington state businessman and environmentalist Gordon Younger was the high bidder on seven Idaho grazing leases, but lost when the Board of Land with then-Gov. Jim Risch gave the leases to livestock owners. Younger, who planned to manage the lands to restore what he called "their degraded streams and wildlife habitats," sued in U.S. District Court on grounds he was the victim of discrimination.

Laird Lucas, attorney for Younger's Lazy Y Ranch Ltd., said Tuesday he's optimistic this settlement and the Board of Land's revised leasing rules represent a departure from the past, when conservation groups were bullied out of winning state grazing leases and left no other option than to sue.

"If someone is willing to put up money for conservation on state lands, we want them to be treated fairly," Lucas said. "This is the first time we've achieved reform in how state lands are managed."

The state's new leasing rules, whose changes address more issues than just this lease dispute, await final approval in the 2010 Legislature.

There, they could still face opposition from livestock-industry advocates.

If the rules are rejected, Tuesday's settlement allows Younger to refile his claims against Idaho.

But "if legislative ratification does occur, Lazy Y waives, forfeits and otherwise relinquishes any and all right to refile such claims," according to the pact, which also requires Board of Land members to "recognize their obligation to apply applicable statutes and rules consistent with federal or state equal protection requirements."

The Idaho Constitution demands Board of Land members carefully preserve state endowment trust lands, to secure the maximum long-term financial return to benefit public schools.

Ranchers have contended their industry's impact on local economies should also be taken into account, but that argument has failed to persuade judges: Western Watersheds Project, an environmental group to which Younger is a contributor, in 1999 won unanimous Idaho Supreme Court decisions rejecting grazing-lease preferences for ranchers.

Clive Strong, a deputy attorney general and natural resource law specialist, said Idaho's new leasing rules will help create a level playing field for all parties interested in securing a lease — and help the state avoid costly lawsuits.

"The Land Board recognized the current process was not working and was leading the way to litigation," Strong said. "It was determined to find a better process."

According to Tuesday's settlement, state officials didn't acknowledge wrongdoing, but will pay $50,000 to cover the Lazy Y's litigation fees. Lazy Y, meanwhile, held open the possibility of bidding for the 10-year leases again when they become available.

Jon Hanian, a spokesman for Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, and David Hensley, Otter's staff lawyer, didn't immediately return phone calls seeking comment.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Environmental laws put gaps in Mexico border security

In the battle on the U.S.-Mexico border, the fight against illegal immigration often loses out to environmental laws that have blocked construction of parts of the "virtual fence" and that threaten to create places where agents can't easily track illegal immigrants.

Documents obtained by Rep. Rob Bishop and shared with The Washington Times show National Park Service staffers have tried to stop the U.S. Border Patrol from placing some towers associated with the virtual fence, known as the Secure Border Initiative or SBInet, on wilderness lands in parks along the border.

In a remarkably candid letter to members of Congress, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said her department could have to delay pursuits of illegal immigrants while waiting for horses to be brought in so agents don't trample protected lands, and warns that illegal immigrants will increasingly make use of remote, protected areas to avoid being caught.

The documents also show the Interior Department has charged the Homeland Security Department $10 million over the past two years as a "mitigation" penalty to pay for damage to public lands that agencies say has been caused by Border Patrol agents chasing illegal immigrants.

"I want this resolved so border security has the precedence down there. If wilderness designation gets in the way of a secure southern border, I want the designation changed," said Mr. Bishop, Utah Republican, who requested the documents. "If it means you lose a couple of acres of wilderness, I don't think God will blame us at the judgment bar for doing that."

The conflict between the environment and border security has raged for the past decade as better enforcement in urban areas has pushed the flow of illegal immigrants into Arizona and straight into some of the nation's most remote and fragile desert.

A major problem is wilderness - lands deemed so pristine that they should be maintained in that condition, free of man-made structures.

Wilderness is governed under a 1964 law that imposed strict rules that tie Border Patrol agents' hands, and there is a lot of that land along the border. According to the Congressional Research Service, California has 1.8 million acres of wilderness within 100 miles of the border, and Arizona has 2.5 million acres. New Mexico and Texas have smaller plots.

According to e-mails obtained by Mr. Bishop, Park Service officials at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and at the Denver office that oversees the park said they will not allow the Border Patrol to place electronic surveillance towers on parts of the park that are designated wilderness.

In one 2008 e-mail, officials tell the Homeland Security Department to "pursue alternative tower locations." In another 2008 memo, the superintendent of Organ Pipe says Park Service officials could reject towers even beyond wilderness areas if they deem the effects would spill over into wilderness.

Organ Pipe has 32 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border on its land, and 95 percent of the park is designated wilderness. Officials have shut down much of the western side of the giant park, saying the threat of encounters with illegal immigrants and drug smugglers makes that land not safe enough for visitors.

Homeland Security considers SBInet critical to gaining control of the border. The concept is to mix manpower, technology and infrastructure to form the "virtual fence" that government planners say can curtail illegal immigration and drug smuggling.

The project is way behind its original schedule, having slipped from a 2009 deadline all the way back to 2016. The Government Accountability Office, in a report released in September, blamed both testing flaws and environmental rules for holding up the system.

A spokesman for the National Park Service Denver office, which oversees Arizona, didn't return calls for comment.

But Jane Lyder, deputy assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks at the Interior Department, said her agency tries to cooperate, though its mission does conflict with that of the Homeland Security Department.

"A proposal to build permanent structures within a wilderness area violates the Wilderness Act. The Park Service and DOI worked with Border Patrol to find places with Organ Pipe National Monument that were not part of the designated wilderness, where the towers could be placed," she said.

She said acceptable alternate locations have been found.

A draft environmental assessment of the new sites released in September lists conditions ranging from common sense - such as designing roads that limit the impact on lesser long-nosed bats and Sonoran pronghorn, both endangered species - to the more unusual.

Towers cannot be constructed if Sonoran pronghorn are within two miles of the site, and the pronghorn's departure cannot be hastened by human interaction. Also, feed for patrol horses must be weed-free to prevent the horses from spreading nonnative seeds in their excrement.

Ms. Lyder also said she has found the Border Patrol willing to work with Interior on protecting endangered species, and said land managers recognize that the Border Patrol's mission also benefits public lands.

She said a 2006 memorandum of understanding specifically allows Border Patrol to go off-road, even in wilderness, in emergency cases that involve a threat to national security or to someone's safety.

After some initial friction, the Homeland Security and Interior departments did find agreement on the physical border fence, much of which stretches across public lands in Arizona. A letter from U.S. Customs and Border Protection's acting commissioner earlier this year praises Interior for working with border security officials to get the fencing done.

Still, Ms. Napolitano's letter to Congress, which was sent last month in answer to a series of questions, indicates that problems persist.

She said Border Patrol makes every effort to live up to the 2006 memorandum but that "it may be inadvisable for officer safety to wait for the arrival of horses for pursuit purposes, or to attempt to apprehend smuggling vehicles within wilderness with a less capable form of transportation."

She also said some public-lands managers are using a section of the Endangered Species Act to demand information about Border Patrol activities, which Ms. Napolitano said "risks jeopardizing sensitive operational information."

Ms. Napolitano also said that cracking down on illegal immigration actually helps the environment since the flow of millions of illegal crossers over the past decade has ruined some once-pristine lands with piles of trash, vehicle tracks and contaminated water.

Asked about the letter, Homeland Security spokesman Matt Chandler said the department wants to work with the Interior Department and the U.S. Forest Service, which is part of the Agriculture Department.

"We acknowledge that balancing the requirements of border enforcement and land preservation can at times present challenges, but we are committed to collaboration with Interior and the USFS to find workable solutions on special status," he said. "[Homeland Security's] close working relationship with Interior and USFS allows DHS to fulfill its enforcement responsibilities while respecting and enhancing the environment."

Mr. Bishop and Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, tried to free up the Border Patrol earlier this year, with each managing to pass amendments on different bills that gave the Border Patrol more leeway to circumvent environmental rules if border security required it.

The Senate passed its amendment by unanimous consent as part of a spending bill, while the House voted 259-167 to add it to a lands bill. But House and Senate Democratic negotiators watered down Mr. Coburn's amendment when they met to hammer out a final version of the spending bill.

According to a Congressional Research Service report, the new wording means that environmental laws can't block construction of the pedestrian fence on the border but still can block other activities, including regular Border Patrol operations and building the virtual fence of electronic surveillance.

"What we have done in this bill is prioritize the environment over the violation of our borders," Mr. Coburn said in opposing the bill when it came through the Senate.

But Democrats defended the move on the House floor, saying the environmental laws must be obeyed.

"We were concerned that if it weren't focused on the fence area, it could overturn the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, the Native American Graves Repatriation Act, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the Endangered Species Act, NEPA and many other laws," said Rep. Norm Dicks, Washington Democrat. "We tried to focus this like a rifle shot."

Mr. Bishop says he has had trouble getting accurate responses to his requests. For example, he asked Interior for the total amount of money the department had received from Homeland Security for mitigation of the effects of border enforcement, such as raking out roads or replanting plants.

Interior provided him with one figure - $811,000 since 2006, which it said had gone specifically to rehabilitate territory for the endangered Sonoran pronghorn. But Homeland Security says it has paid out $9,823,813 since September 2007 alone, including $200,000 over the course of 16 months to have a single Interior Department employee on site to provide "subject matter expertise."

"The taxpayer is getting ripped off, that's pretty clear," Mr. Bishop said.

Ms. Lyder said the majority of the money went to a system being built to help the Border Patrol evaluate what threatened and endangered species might be affected by proposed actions.

As for specific mitigation money, such as the $811,000 paid to the Fish and Wildlife Service for the pronghorn, she said that was normal.

"It would not be unusual for Border Patrol to provide FWS with funding to mitigate its effects on an endangered species, such as the pronghorn, particularly if their activities would be such that the habitat disturbed is no longer suitable, and replacement habitat had to be acquired," she said.

Monday, November 2, 2009


Albuquerque, NM, October 26, 2009—The Forest Service is seeking people to serve on two new Resource Advisory Committees in New Mexico under provisions of Title II of the Secure Rural Schools Act of 2008. Nominations are due to the appropriate RAC Coordinator by November 16,2009.

Fourteen counties in New Mexico elected to receive over $1.56 million in 2009 and continued amounts for the next three years to be used on a variety of projects on national forests.

The legislation requires the Forest Service, working with the counties, to establish Resource Advisory Committees (RAC) made up of defined, diverse, 15-member RACs with a formal Charter. The Charter establishing the RACs will soon be approved by the Secretary of Agriculture, and the Forest Service is now recruiting RAC members.

RAC nominees will be forwarded to the Secretary who appoints members to a four-year term following background checks. The RACs convene, propose and review project proposals and make recommendations to the local Forest Service Designated Federal Official (DFO) on how funds should be spent.

The northern counties agreed to a Northern New Mexico RAC and the southern counties agreed to a Southern New Mexico RAC. Those interested in serving on a RAC are encouraged to make direct contact with:

Northern New Mexico Resource Advisory Committee advising the Carson,
Cibola, and Santa Fe National Forests in Cibola, McKinley, Mora, Rio
Arriba, Sandoval, San Miguel, Taos, and Torrance Counties.
Ignacio Peralta, Coordinator, 575-758-6344
Ruben Montes, Coordinator, 505-438-5356,
Diana M Trujillo, DFO, 575-536-2250,

Southern New Mexico Resource Advisory Committee advising the
Apache-Sitgreaves, Cibola, Gila, and Lincoln National Forests in Catron,
Grant, Lincoln, Otero, Sierra, and Socorro Counties.
Patti Turpin, Coordinator, 575-434-7230,
Al Koss, DFO, 575-682-2551,

Members of a RAC must reside within the State in which the committee has jurisdiction and, to extent possible, ensure local representation in each category. RAC members serve without pay but may elect to be reimbursed for travel expenses.

The following summarizes the interests to be represented on each RAC within three categories:

Category A, five persons who represent:
1. organized labor or non-timber forest product harvester groups;
2. developed outdoor recreation, off highway vehicle users, or
commercial recreation activities;
3. energy and mineral development interests; or commercial or
recreational fishing interests;
4. commercial timber industry;
5. hold Federal grazing or other land use permits, or represent
nonindustrial private forest land owners, within the area for which
the committee is organized.

Category B, five persons who represent:
1. nationally recognized environmental organizations;
2. regionally or locally recognized environmental organizations;
3. dispersed recreational activities;
4. archaeological and historical interests;
5. nationally or regionally recognized wild horse and burro interest
groups, wildlife or hunting organizations, or watershed associations.

Category C, five persons who represent:
1. State elected office (or a designee);
2. county or local elected office;
3. American Indian tribes within or adjacent to the area for which the
committee is organized;
4. school officials or teachers;
5. represent the affected public at large.

The Secure Rural Schools Web site is ; see Title II Summary for more details. Information specific to RACs and the application form AD-755 that must be completed as part on a RAC nomination is at

Other Background Information

Title I: Schools and Roads--Twenty-two counties in New Mexico elected to receive about $17.4 million through the State in January 2009, with 50 percent sent directly to the School Districts and 50 percent to counties for road work. Title I funding will continue for the next three years with 10 percent reductions each year.

Title II: Funds may be used for road, trail, and infrastructure maintenance or obliteration; soil productivity improvement; improvements in forest ecosystem health; watershed restoration and maintenance; restoration, maintenance and improvement of wildlife and fish habitat; control of noxious and exotic weeds; re-establishment of native species; road maintenance, decommissioning, or obliteration; and restoration of streams and watersheds. Title II funding will continue for the next three years with 10 percent reductions each year.

Title III: Local Government Programs--Eighteen counties elected to receive nearly $1,475,000 to be used for the Firewise Communities program, to reimburse counties for search and rescue and other emergency services, and to develop community wildfire protection plans. Title III funding will continue for the next three years with 10 percent reductions each year.