Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Valles Caldera: failed federal experiment?

Tom Holland was so taken with the beauty of the Valles Caldera on a visit to New Mexico years ago that he photographed it from the roadway and made the stunning landscape his computer screensaver.

When he passed by again on a recent trip and discovered he could drive in, the New Yorker was exultant.

"I'm in heaven," Holland shouted as he walked up to the makeshift visitor center on the 89,000-acre Valles Caldera National Preserve, a series of huge grassy bowls ringed by tree-covered mountains.

"People don't really understand back East what this is like," said Holland, who lives near Albany. "They just have no clue."

This collapsed volcano in the Jemez Mountains, which erupted more than a million years ago, is the site of a federal experiment in public lands management - a failed experiment, according to critics. Even its most ardent supporters acknowledge that it needs a fix.

The preserve isn't run by a federal agency, although the former private cattle ranch was bought with tax dollars.

Instead, it's governed by a nine-member board - with seven, by law, being appointed by the president of the United States. It has a mixed-message mandate: protect the land and cultural resources, provide recreation, run cattle, all while making the preserve financially self-sustaining by 2015.

"It's basically an unworkable system," said Tom Ribe, president of Caldera Action, a watchdog group.

On federal lands, only the Presidio in San Francisco, a historic, decommissioned U.S. Army base near the Golden Gate Bridge, has a similar governance setup and self-sufficiency requirement.

The Presidio, where many buildings are now leased for commercial and residential use, has been covering its operating costs since 2004 and is on track for full financial self-sufficiency by 2013, spokeswoman Dana Polk said.

Critics complain that nine years after the Valles Caldera purchase, public access to the preserve is much too limited. Visitors can drive in a couple of miles to a temporary visitor center and then take a 45-minute, $5 van tour or pay $5 for a hike on a nearby trail.

They can make reservations to fish or hike in the backcountry and sign up for special events such as star gazing or photography workshops.

But they can't just grab their hiking poles or mountain bikes, head out for a day of exploring, then pitch a tent and watch elk herds grazing at dusk.

A $440,000 study on just how the preserve should be used by the public, and what infrastructure would be needed, isn't scheduled for completion until next year.

Meanwhile, some people say the fees for the interim programs are too high: Fishing costs $35 a day.

Yet the preserve, which is closed by snow for much of the winter and logged 15,238 visitors last year, is nowhere near close to self-supporting. In the budget year ending Sept. 30, 2008, it took in about $776,000 from fees and other sources - about 21 percent of what it spent.

The federal government appropriated nearly $3.7 million to the preserve the same year.

Self-sufficiency is "a pretty huge mandate," said the trust's board chairman, Stephen Henry, and not one that can be met by traditional ranchland uses such as logging, hunting and grazing.

A recent study done for the trustees by ENTRIX, Inc., environmental and natural resource management consultants, identified a variety of ways to become self-sufficient. Among them: upscale and mid-level hotels, luxury camping, and campgrounds for RVs and tents.

"People looked at that and said, 'Wait a second, this is what we wanted to avoid by having it public property,'" said Dave Menicucci, a retired research engineer at Sandia National Laboratories and fishing guide.

Henry suggests if the law were altered to remove the self-sufficiency language, the preserve could still charge fees to help pay its way but not have to pursue large development.

"The law is the law, and until they change the law we have to follow it," he said.

The unusual trust arrangement and self-sufficiency requirement was the only way to win the all-important support of former U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., to buy the Baca Ranch for $101 million in 2000.

"It was either this, or not be purchased," Ribe recalled.

The trust's executive director, Gary Bratcher, acknowledges that it has flaws.

The trust, for example, can't be federally insured and so must buy its own liability insurance. That has been hard to get and expensive - $100,000 a year - and the coverage is minimal: $2 million total annually, with a limit of $1 million per claim, Bratcher said.

"It affects your management decisions," he said, and that includes looking twice at such high-risk activities as horseback riding.

And even if trustees were ready to embark on a business venture such as a lodge, there's a big stumbling block.

The federal law that created the Valles Caldera Trust apparently doesn't authorize the trustees to conduct the sorts of business transactions - borrowing money, or entering into longrm leases with franchisees, for example - that such development would require, he said.

"Something has to change," Bratcher said.

New Mexico's U.S. senators, Democrats Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall, have asked for an assment of whether the property could be included in the National Park Service system with the designation of national preserve, and that report could be ready by the end of October.

Critics say the preserve needs to be run by land-management officials, not political appointees.

"They're protecting it so much, they're keeping the people out," said Oscar Simpson of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Environmental groups in Idaho sue BLM for grazing info

Two environmental groups are suing the Bureau of Land Management after the agency refused to release the names and addresses of people with grazing permits on the nation's public land.

In the lawsuit, filed Thursday in Boise's U.S. District Court, the environmental groups contend that the BLM wrongly said the names, addresses and other grazing permit information was protected from release under the Freedom of Information Act.

Specifically, the BLM claimed the information fell under the same exemption that allows agencies not to release medical records, personnel records and other information that, if disclosed, would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.

Kris Long, public affairs officer with the BLM's Idaho state office, said the agency did not comment on any pending litigation.

Todd C. Tucci, an attorney with Advocates for the West who was representing the environmental groups, said the case stemmed from, "just another attempt by BLM to hide its operations from public view."

"These are business contracts -- companies that entered into a contract with a government to graze private cows on public lands," Tucci said. "In general, my clients are pretty displeased that despite this era of openness, ushered in back in January, that BLM continues to play hide-the-ball with the information the public has a right to. This is the kind of way that government works when you get one bored but creative lawyer that decides to try something."

According to the lawsuit, the environmental groups requested the information under the federal Freedom of Information Act in 2007, and BLM said that it would release the information, but it needed additional time to gather it first. But the following year, the BLM said it had decided to deny the request because it believed the information was exempt from disclosure.

The environmental group are asking a federal judge to declare that the BLM violated the Freedom of Information Act and that the court force the BLM to provide the information immediately, free of charge.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

State, landowners negotiate in easement suit

Private landowners, the Wyoming attorney general's office and local officials are in talks to settle a lawsuit that has attracted national attention in conservation circles.

The outcome of the state's lawsuit challenging a 2002 Johnson County commission vote to extinguish a conservation easement could offer insight on the difficulty of unraveling increasingly popular conservation easement agreements.

The agreements can give landowners valuable income tax breaks in exchange for their giving up development rights to their property.

The state filed the lawsuit last year charging that the county commission violated its duty to residents when it voted to dissolve a conservation easement on the 1,000-acre Meadowood Ranch east of Buffalo.

According to the state's lawsuit, a limited partnership that owned the Meadowood Ranch transferred one acre of the ranch and a conservation easement on it to Johnson County's Scenic Preserve Trust in 1993.

The state has said the development rights to the ranch were appraised at more than $1.2 million in 1993. The state said the transfer allowed the landowner at the time to get a federal charitable tax deduction.

Fred and Linda Dowd, the current owners, bought the ranch in 1999. The couple asked Johnson County to end the conservation easement after an energy company said it intended to develop gas wells on the ranch. Ultimately, full-scale energy development didn't occur.

In August 2002, the county commission voted to terminate the conservation easement and transfer the one acre of land to the Dowds in exchange for a payment of $10, according to the state's lawsuit.

Both the attorney general's office and the Dowds have filed competing requests with District Judge Wade Waldrip of Rawlins asking him to rule in their favor. The judge last Thursday signed an order agreeing to delay action on the case for 30 days to give the parties time to try to negotiate a settlement.

Waldrip earlier had denied requests from land trust organizations interested in intervening in the lawsuit.

Greg Goddard, lawyer for Johnson County, said some of the settlement discussions so far have included the prospect of putting the development rights to the ranch with another land trust organization. He also said the county would be willing to take the development rights back into the county's scenic preserve trust.

"I think that the county's position has always been that we're willing to go along with whatever the court decides," Goddard said. "So if the other two parties are able to work out an amiable agreement, the county is not going to stand in their way."

Attempts to reach Tom Toner, a Sheridan lawyer representing the Dowds, were not successful on Wednesday.

John Rossetti, lawyer with the attorney general's office, declined comment on the case.

Robert Hicks, owner of the Buffalo Bulletin newspaper, filed a lawsuit against the County Commission and the Dowds in 2003. The Wyoming Supreme Court ultimately ruled that Hicks didn't have standing to sue.

Hicks said Wednesday the case has importance beyond the boundaries of Johnson County.

"It's an important case because the people of Johnson County had an asset in and of this conservation easement," Hicks said. "If it's allowed to stand as is, I think it threatens the future of conservation easements in the state of Wyoming as well as the future of conservation easements nationwide."

Hicks said he expects that the Internal Revenue Service won't continue to grant tax benefits for conservation easements if they can be extinguished as easily as they were in Johnson County.

"And without that incentive, I don't think it's in people's best nature to limit what can be done on their land without any benefit," Hicks said.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Senators Udall and Bingaman outline plan for wilderness, Organ Mountains

LAS CRUCES - New Mexico's U.S. senators on Thursday announced a plan to create thousands of acres of federally designated wilderness in Do a Ana County, including protection for the Organ Mountains.

U.S. Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall, both D-N.M., introduced a bill that would designate 259,000 acres of land as wilderness, the highest level of federal protection. Also, the bill would place another 100,000 acres into a national conservation area, a type of protection that varies depending on the specific conditions set by Congress.

The bill was applauded by several groups that have advocated the creation of wilderness in the county since late 2005. However, it was met with skepticism by a pro-ranching organization that has criticized similar proposals in the past.

"The Organ Mountains are the backdrop for one of the most breathtaking scenic views in our state. Do a Ana County residents have been working for years to develop plans that would ensure these views are protected," Bingaman said in a news release. "I'm very glad that we now have a bill that will do just that even while ensuring the public continues to have access to this extraordinary space."

Bingaman chairs a key Senate panel - the Energy and Natural Resources Committee - which reviews land-use legislation.

Jeff Steinborn, local director for the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and a member of the Do a Ana County Wilderness Coalition, has been an outspoken supporter of the creating the new designations. He said the recent legislation was generated by the senators' offices and doesn't include as much land for protection as an initial plan by wilderness proponents.

"This is a real tribute of what can happen when community groups work together," he said. "There's a really broad range of voices who support this. The Hispano Chamber, for example, is very involved and very supportive. The League of Women Voters has been very involved and very supportive."

Sportsmen's groups and some developers have also backed the wilderness proposal.

But a group of ranchers, called People for Preserving Our Western Heritage, and off-road vehicle enthusiasts have opposed the creation of wilderness. Ranchers have said they fear it would decrease access to their leased pasture land, interfering with their livelihoods.

Frank DuBois, a former New Mexico agriculture secretary and a spokesman for the ranching group, said his organization was "surprised and disappointed (Bingaman) would ignore the concerns of over 800 businesses and individuals that are part of our organization."

DuBois said he's disappointed the senators didn't consider an alternative land-use plan put forward by his group that would have created new designations meant to ensure land was protected from development, while not impeding ranching.

Steinborn said he feels there's a "very good chance" of the bill passing in Congress.

According to a map from Bingaman's office, the bill - called the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks Wilderness Act - would create:

• The Organ Mountains Wilderness and the Organ Mountains National Conservation Area, west of Las Cruces.

• The Potrillo Mountains Wilderness, the Aden Lava Flow Wilderness, the Cinder Cone Wilderness and the Whitehorn Wilderness, all located in southwestern Do a Ana County.

• The Sierra de las Uvas Wilderness, the Broad Canyon Wilderness, the Robledo Mountains Wilderness and the Desert Peaks National Conservation Area, all located south of Hatch and northwest of Las Cruces.

The proposal for federal wilderness in Dona Ana County was initially put forward in late 2005 by former U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., but he dropped the proposal after conservationists opposed certain components, including a measure that would have released U.S. Bureau of Land Management acreage for development. The proposal later on was opposed by former U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., who had introduced a bill aligned with the ranchers' plan.

Diana M. Alba can be reached at dalba@lcsun-news.com; (575) 541-5443

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Unique partnership promotes conservation

A group of respected ranching and conservation organizations have come together to form a unique broad based coalition to enhance ranching practices that consider important conservation issues throughout the West. The Coalition for Conservation through Ranching is a new multi-stakeholder partnership between national conservation-minded groups that share an interest in promoting open space for ranching and healthy landscapes. The recently signed agreement marks the beginning of the unique relationship. Steering committee members of the coalition include the Public Lands Council (PLC), the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD), Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Family Farm Alliance (FFA) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Other organizations that have joined the coalition at this time are the American Farmland Trust, the American Forage and Grassland Council, the California Farm Bureau Federation, the Society for Rangeland Management, the Wild Sheep Foundation, and the Wilderness Society. The Bureau of Land Management serves as an advisor to the group.

“Cherished iconic western landscapes depend upon productive partnerships between ranchers and conservationists. The Coalition for Conservation through Ranching will promote solutions that will keep western landscapes healthy and in the process benefit working ranches, wildlife and other natural resources,” says Dan Grossman, Rocky Mountain Regional Director, EDF.

“Intact working ranches that are managed with wildlife in mind can help support habitat for grassland birds, mammals, and fish, all of which face uncertain prospects without the large spaces they need to survive. By working together we can encourage ranching practices that ensure the preservation of wildlife, and develop incentives that help ranchers to do so,” says Martha Kauffman, Managing Director WWF Northern Great Plains Program.

The coalition formed by six leading ranching and conservation organizations will support ranching on public and private lands in the West that is conducted in an ecologically sustainable way. “Maintaining a sustainable business environment and keeping ranchers on public lands allows our Western landscapes to remain open for wildlife habitat and recreational use and also provides for conservation efforts that might not otherwise occur,” says Skye Krebs, President of PLC and rancher from Ione, Oregon. “Together, the members of this coalition share a common interest in supporting working ranches and healthy landscapes.”

“As cattlemen, we rely on healthy land to produce healthy livestock. And one of the biggest gauges we can use to judge the health of our land is the co-existence of wildlife alongside of our livestock,” said Gary Voogt, NCBA president and rancher from Marne, Mich. “America’s farmers and ranchers are always looking for ways to increase efficiencies and build upon existing stewardship practices to keep our land and animals healthy and continue providing safe, high-quality food for America’s families. By bringing together leaders from industry and the environmental community, we can help further these goals in a way that benefits our nation’s land, animals and citizens.”

This collaborative conservation effort will provide for a more efficient use of resources, increased outreach opportunities, and a holistic approach to problem solving. It will also help to increase the understanding of complex issues between ranching and conservation and provide a forum to discuss the interaction between natural resource management and ranching.

“Conservation districts—located in nearly every county across the nation—address natural resource issues on a local level,” says NACD President Steve Robinson. “NACD is eager to collaborate with private landowners, government officials and members of this newly-formed Coalition to ensure that the health of our public and private lands is maintained and improved.”

The coalition will work on common ground issues which may include a pro-grasslands agenda, including grassland research projects, specific species conservation projects, and climate change including raising the awareness of the important role of grasslands on carbon sequestration, as well as other issues of common interest.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Preservationist: More must be done to save lands

Public lands protected by legal designations such as "national monument" aren't necessarily fully protected, a recognized conservation expert said Thursday in Great Falls.

"Satan never sleeps," said Edward M. Norton, a senior environmental adviser to TPG Capital, L.P., a private equity firm in San Francisco. "Somebody always has a bad idea and wants to do something."

Norton was the keynote speaker Thursday at the 7th Annual Statewide Preservation Workshop sponsored by the Montana Preservation Alliance, the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation and the Great Falls-Cascade County Historic Preservation Commission.

Norton, 67, spent three decades working to protect areas from development for groups such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation and The Wilderness Society.

He currently is chairman of the National Conservation System Foundation. The foundation is designed to protect, restore and expand National Landscape Conservation System Lands, a class of 27 million acres managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management.

The system was initiated under the watch of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in the late 1990s. Norton called it the "last of the great land conservation systems of the United States" and said it would be up to groups such as the Friends of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument in Montana to protect these places.

"They're not protected unless there's somebody there watching out for their protection," Norton said.

It is a misperception that laws lead to protection of land, Norton said. In fact, it is local organizations and residents that "grind it out year after year" pressing for preservation who truly protects land, he said.

Even after laws are enacted, watchdogs need to "ride herd" on land managers who write the plans managing the protected areas, Norton said.

Though threats exist, Norton said he is impressed with land protections in the United States, as well as with how the country explains the historical and cultural context of special places. He pointed to the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Great Falls as an example of the type of education about areas provided in the U.S. that is absent in countries such as China and Indonesia.

The conference drew about 75 people, including public land managers, farmers, ranchers and conservationists, said Chere Jiusto, executive director of the Montana Preservation Alliance.

The theme of this year's conference was "Preserving Montana's Signature Landscapes."

Jiusto said the state of Montana was the only one in the nation to set aside $4 million in federal stimulus funding for preservation grants.

Gloria Flora, the former supervisor of the Lewis and Clark National Forest, who is now the director of Sustainable Obtainable Solutions, shared the keynote address with Norton.

When she was forest supervisor, Flora made the decision to ban natural gas and oil exploration on the Rocky Mountain Front, one of Montana's premier large landscapes.

Places such as the Front have ecological values that exceed what any human can put on the landscape, said Flora, recalling that developers with "glossy brochures" tried to convince the U.S. Forest Service to allow development on the Front.

"Absolutely incredible landscape," she said.