Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Guv approves use of eminent domain to take federal land

ed up with federal ownership of more than half the land in Utah, Republican Gov. Gary Herbert on Saturday authorized the use of eminent domain to take some of the U.S. government's most valuable parcels.

Herbert signed a pair of bills into law that supporters hope will trigger a flood of similar legislation throughout the West, where lawmakers contend that federal ownership restricts economic development in an energy-rich part of the country.

Governments use eminent domain to take private property for public use.

The goal is to spark a U.S. Supreme Court battle that legislators' own attorneys acknowledge has little chance of success.

But Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and other Republicans say the case is still worth fighting, since the state could reap millions of dollars for state schools each year if it wins.

More than 60 percent of Utah is owned by the U.S. government, and policy makers here have long complained that federal ownership hinders their ability to generate tax revenue and adequately fund public schools.

Utah spends less per student than any other state and has the nation's largest class sizes. Under the measure Herbert has approved, the state will set aside $3 million to defend the law.

Lawmakers recently slashed education funding by $10 million and raised taxes on cigarettes by $1 a pack. Democrats have decried the eminent domain measure as a waste of money, and Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Peter Corroon is making it an issue in this year's special election.

But if the law is as bad as Democrats say it is, a court will quickly overturn it and the state won't have to spend much money defending it, Herbert said.

Initially, the state would target three areas for the use of eminent domain, including the Kaiparowits plateau in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which is home to large coal reserves.

Many people in Utah are still angry that then-President Bill Clinton's designated the area as a national monument in 1996, a move that stopped development on the land and greatly pleased environmentalists as he ran for re-election.

Utah lawmakers contend the federal government should have long ago sold the land it owns in the state. Because it hasn't, the federal government has violated a contract made with Utah when statehood was granted, they say.

Eminent domain would also be used on parcels of land where Interior Secretary Ken Salazar last year scrapped 77 oil and gas leases around national parks and wild areas.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Where would we be if Jon Marvel was nice?

The news that Hailey conservationist Jon Marvel had been cited for making false statements to the Bureau of Land Management spread through the ranching community like the Murphy Springs fire.

Cattlemen have been sitting around country cafes gleefully talking about how the outspoken anti-grazing activist is getting a dose of his own medicine.

Marvel and Gordon Younger paid the fine on the charge they liken to a traffic ticket. Marvel and his attorney say the charge is unfounded. By paying, they avoided a long costly legal battle that would put the72-year-old Younger through an ordeal he wants to avoid while he fights cancer.

It also would have kept Marvel from what he considers more important work, like challenging the BLM public lands grazing program.

If this wasn’t Jon Marvel, Idahoans who are skeptical of government agents exercising power might be open to his attorney Laird Lucas’ argument that this was retaliation. Lucas argues the proposal to cancel the grazing permit and the criminal charges were attempts by BLM officials to get back at Marvel for all of the hassles he’s caused them by repeatedly beating them in court.

But Marvel has often callously carried out his agenda to drive cattle ranchers off public lands, ignoring the impacts he has had on ranchers and their families. He has shown neither mercy nor understanding, so I suspect he will get little from them.

The story that most illustrates this side of Marvel to me was when he and I were outside of U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill’s courtroom after a hearing on a lawsuit his Western Watersheds Project had brought against Owyhee ranchers several years ago. The ranchers and their families were milling around in anxiety because they didn’t know whether they were going to be able to put their cattle out on public land in the spring. If they couldn’t, they might face bankruptcy.

I had quoted an environmentalist in my first book, “Saving All the Parts,” comparing ranchers, loggers and miners to the ghost-dancing Indians who thought their dances would drive the Blue Coats away the 1890s. I had said that ranchers’ early 1990s protests and activism were no more successful in driving away urban environmentalists from the rural West.

So sitting outside that courtroom, with the ranchers looking on, Marvel holds his arms out straight and asks, “Rocky, what am I holding?”

“I don’t know what you are talking about,” I replied.

“Blankets, Rocky. I’m holding the smallpox-contaminated blankets,” he said — likening his efforts to eliminate the ranchers to those of some early white Americans who intentionally sickened the Indians.

Marvel is a complex person who is often painted in black-and-white terms. He nearly single-handedly reshaped the environmental agenda on grazing in the 1990s and has personally done more to point out and pick at the flaws of the current system than the rest of the conservation community combined.

He also has driven the Idaho Department of Lands to take its trustee responsibility for school children seriously even though politics forces it to consider special interests.

He has built support on his sharp wit and great speaking ability. But he loses his temper easily and sometimes in public. He often displays the arrogance he said he disdained in the old ranchers whose behavior drove him to his current advocacy.

He strongly dislikes the cowboy mythology that is pervasive in the West and of course throughout American life.

But he loves the West, its sagebrush ecosystem and the native creatures that live there.

I’ve had more than one of Marvel’s allies describe him as “his own worse enemy.”

Former Idaho Democratic State Sen. John Peavey said it another way at an Idaho Woolgrowers meeting a few years ago.

“Imagine where we would be if Jon Marvel was nice?”

Rocky Barker covers environmental issues for the Idaho Statesman.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Idaho panel supports state control of federal lands

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - A Senate panel is supporting a resolution asking the governor and legislative leaders to get Idaho more involved in managing federal lands that fall within the state's boundaries.

Priest Lake Republican Rep. Eric Anderson told the Senate Resources and Environment Committee Monday the state should maintain some of the federal lands that make up at least 61 percent of Idaho's territory.

Anderson says the state sometimes does a better job taking care of forests than the federal agencies and that Idaho could use the land to raise money for public schools.

Colorado officials have contracted with the U.S. Forest Service to get rid of brush that could easily catch fire growing on federal land bordering state and private property. Utah has a similar agreement with the agency.

The resolution now goes to the Senate.

Public Lands Council Holds Spring Legislative Conference In DC

Public Lands Council (PLC) members representing 11 western states are in Washington, DC this week for the annual legislative fly-in. During the two-day conference, members will meet with agency and congressional representatives to discuss legislative and regulatory issues affecting public lands ranchers, including: sage grouse and wild horse and burro management; Equal Access to Justice Act reform; Forest Service land management; and death tax relief.

“Our legislative conference is an important opportunity for us to meet with lawmakers and help put a face on America’s ranchers,” said Skye Krebs, PLC President and rancher from Ione, Oregon. “Our ranchers work day-in and day-out to feed the world and take care of the land. We can’t do this without sound public policies that promote a stable business climate for producers and the conservation of our Western resources and heritage.”

The conference kicks off this morning with briefings by Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Director Bob Abbey and Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief Dave White. Later today, the group will head to Capitol Hill to attend a joint-meeting with Arizona Senators John Kyl and John McCain.

Tomorrow, representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, Forest Service and BLM will join the group for a discussion on the Endangered Species Act and other range-management issues.

Also during the conference, PLC members will meet with a number of congressional representatives from their respective states, including: Senator Jim Risch (R-ID) and Reps. Greg Walden (R-OR), Jim Matheson (D-UT) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ).

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Richardson supports monument status for Otero Mesa

Gov. Bill Richardson sent a letter Thursday to the Obama administration saying that any effort to consider national monument status for southern New Mexico's Otero Mesa has his support.

The governor's letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar referred to reports about an internal Interior Department document that lists 14 sites in nine states that could be designated as national monuments through the federal Antiquities Act, which gives presidents the authority to designate monuments without congressional approval.

Otero Mesa, which has become a battleground for environmentalists and the oil and gas industry, is on the list. The mesa is the largest publicly owned expanse of undisturbed Chihuahuan Desert grassland in the United States.

The department has said the list is just a product of brainstorming, but Richardson and environmentalists who have been seeking permanent protection for Otero Mesa say they are encouraged by the Obama administration's conservation initiatives thus far.

''The increased rigor and transparency of drilling reviews demonstrates a willingness to make needed improvements and learn from past actions in states like New Mexico,'' Richardson said in his letter.

The governor's letter also says Otero Mesa "encompasses approximately 1.2 million acres of Chihuahuan Desert, is a unique ecosystem that is home to rare desert grasslands, herds of pronghorn, prairie dog villages, mule deer, aplomado falcons and more than 345 of the world's 1,500 cacti species."

Nathan Newcomer, associate director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, said the mesa's water, wildlife and cultural record deserve to be protected.

"We feel Otero Mesa is a wild and beautiful place," Newcomer said. "I think it would be huge for Otero County. Otero Mesa is the largest and wildest expanse of natural grasslands left in the country. I think it would be a tremendous boon for you guys (Otero County)."

Newcomer said with 200 species of birds inhabiting Otero Mesa, the birding community alone would bring people from around the world to the mesa.

One of the arguments heard against making places into national monuments is that the land is being locked up, Newcomer said. But the opposite is true, he claims.

"The land is already public land and this would guarantee that land would be protected forever," he said. "It would be elevating that area as a very important landscape. Nothing is being taken away from anybody. We want people to see it and we want people to understand grassland ecosystems."

Otero County is lucky to have Otero Mesa in its "backyard," Newcomer said.

In April 2009, the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals defeated a Bureau of Land Management plan for Otero Mesa that would have opened the area to oil and gas drilling. Since then, the governor and the conservation groups have urged the BLM and the Department of the Interior to permanently protect Otero Mesa, Newcomer said.

Otero County Commissioner Ronny Rardin briefly commented on the governor's request. His view is that making Otero Mesa into a national park could affect Otero County residents' land use rights.

"You have government, like the federal government, coming down on county land without considering our land use," Rardin said.

Rardin was attending an Otero County Commission meeting Thursday evening and was planning to introduce the issue to the other commissioners at that time. The meeting was not over as of press time.

The Governor's letter is here.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Public Lands Council Announces New Executive Director

Dustin Van Liew has been named as the new Executive Director of the Public Lands Council (PLC), and Director of Federal Lands for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA). Van Liew has been with PLC as a lobbyist since January, 2008, most recently serving in the role of interim director.

“Dustin brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the table, and—most importantly—a passion for this great industry and the people who work in it,” said Skye Krebs, PLC president. “He has been an invaluable asset to the association over the past two years, and I’m excited to have him on board in this new leadership role.”

In his new position, Van Liew will seek to grow the presence of PLC both in the West and in Washington, DC to ensure a profitable business environment for America’s ranchers.

Van Liew comes from Woodland, Calif., where he is the seventh generation to work in livestock and production agriculture. He attended Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo where he received a Bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Business with a policy concentration. While at Cal Poly he was a member of the livestock judging team, competing in contests across the nation. After finishing at Cal Poly, Van Liew moved to College Station, Texas to attend Texas A&M University where he received a Masters degree in Agricultural Economics. His thesis focused on the economics of range management.

“PLC and NCBA have been strong allies over the years, and I’m looking forward to having Dustin at the helm as we continue to build upon this important partnership,” said Colin Woodall, NCBA vice president of government affairs.

The Public Lands Council (PLC) has represented livestock ranchers who use public lands since 1968, preserving the natural resources and unique heritage of the West. Public land ranchers own nearly 120 million acres of the most productive private land and manage vast areas of public land, accounting for critical wildlife habitat and the nation’s natural resources. PLC works to maintain a stable business environment in which livestock producers can conserve the West and feed the nation and world.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

BLM cites Watersheds Project chief

The founder of Western Watersheds Project, a Hailey-based organization that seeks to end grazing on public lands in the West, has been cited by the Bureau of Land Management for allegedly providing a false statement on a grazing permit application.

As a result of the alleged violation, the BLM has proposed canceling the permit, which covers three grazing allotments tied to property near Clayton.

The nonprofit conservation group was originally founded by Jon Marvel in 1993 to bid for expiring grazing leases on Idaho state school endowment lands.

Groups that represent ranchers say the development marks the unraveling of Western Watersheds.

The organization has been so successful in its efforts to curtail public lands grazing that many ranchers refer to Marvel as “the most hated man in the West.”

“This could unravel everything they’ve done over the past 15 years,” said Jake Putnam, broadcast services manager for Idaho Farm Bureau Federation.

Western Watersheds attorney Laird Lucas said the claims by the BLM and ranching groups are false and defamatory.

“We are vigorously contending it,” Lucas said of the violation notice and proposed cancellation of the grazing allotments. “There have been no false statements. This is simply and flatly false.”

According to BLM documents faxed to the Journal Monday, the BLM’s Challis office issued violation notices to Marvel and Gordon Younger, who contributes to Western Watersheds and holds Valley Sun LLC, which obtained the grazing permit in question.

The violation notices allege Valley Sun made a false statement on its grazing application by claiming it was in the process of acquiring livestock for the grazing allotments, even though it had no intention of doing so.

The BLM claimed evidence to back up these claims was contained on WWP’s Web site as well as the group’s own newsletter, The Watersheds Messenger.

According to the BLM documents, Valley Sun turned over day-to-day operations of the allotments to Western Watersheds. In a letter from David Rosenkrance, field manager of the BLM’s Challis office, the agency has proposed to cancel the permit because Valley Sun showed no indication it planned to use the permit for livestock grazing; it has removed all livestock handling facilities from the property; and it has not maintained range improvements.

“Valley Sun LLC and WWP have provided BLM with baffling, contradictory and apparently false statements,” the letter stated.

“There are livestock auctions every week in Blackfoot,” said Blackfoot rancher Jennifer Ellis, past president of the Idaho Cattle Association. “It’s not that hard to acquire livestock.”

Lucas, who also represents Younger and Valley Sun, said everyone has known all along Western Watersheds is a conservation group opposed to public lands grazing that seeks to restore these lands “and we made that very clear to the BLM.”

“We never claimed we were ranchers or were going to get into the cattle business,” he added.

He said the recent violation notices are an attempt by ranching groups to use the BLM to pry the land from the conservation group and use it for their own purposes.

“The BLM is doing the bidding of the ranchers,” Lucas said.

The BLM controls federal grazing permits, while the Idaho Department of Lands’ Idaho Land Board controls grazing permits on Idaho endowment fund land, which is used to benefit public schools and other beneficiaries. The IDL controls 1,207 grazing leases covering 1,783,813 acres.

Ranchers hope this development could lead the land board to rethink new rules it is writing that would allow groups such as Western Watersheds to bid on state grazing leases for conservation purposes.

Ellis said ranchers would like to see future bid applications include a section that asks, “Have you ever been convicted of lying to obtain a grazing permit?” If that wording were included, she said, it could preclude Western Watersheds from bidding on state grazing leases in the future if it is ultimately found guilty of the violation.

Lazy Y Ranch, an LLC set up by Younger, recently won a federal lawsuit against state land board officials who awarded grazing leases to ranchers over environmental groups that offered more money.

A federal court ruled the state violated the civil rights of Younger by not allowing him to bid for grazing leases. The court ruled the Idaho Constitution requires the land board to secure the maximum financial return on the state’s grazing land to benefit public schools.

As part of the suit, the Idaho Land Board agreed to rewrite its rules to allow conservation groups to compete for leases on state endowment lands. The 2010 Legislature still has to approve those rules.

Western Watersheds officials estimate their organization holds more than 4,000 acres in school endowment land leases that are being managed for wildlife habitat and conservation purposes.

Putnam said the hope among ranchers is that the recent BLM violations could change how the land board awards grazing leases. The land board, which consists of the governor, secretary of state, attorney general, state controller, and superintendent of public instruction, next meets March 16.

George Bacon, director of the Idaho Department of Lands and secretary to the land board, said the issue of the BLM violations is not on the board’s March 16 agenda, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be added.

“We have to see how all this unfolds with the BLM,” Bacon said. “I think it will take awhile to get to the bottom of what happened.”

“This raises a number of questions and concerns, and we plan on working through all of those as we proceed forward,” said Jon Hanian, spokesman for Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter.

Lucas said the previous system of grazing on state lands has been losing money for Idaho for many years. If the state can make more money by leasing the land to conservation groups, “It makes perfect sense.”

He expects Western Watersheds and Younger to ultimately prevail when all the facts come forth.

“We don’t play fast and loose with the law like they do,” he said. “I expect us to prevail in the end.”

Gov. Richardson signs bill to allow conservation easements

A new law will allow the state to acquire conservation easements from farmers, ranchers and other landowners to ensure that the property is not developed.

Gov. Bill Richardson on Monday signed legislation into law that supporters say can help protect land in New Mexico, improve wildlife habitat and provide for open space for communities or recreation.

"New Mexicans want their land preserved. They are committed to conservation, to wildlife," Richardson said at a news conference at ranch south of Santa Fe, which is protected by a conservation easement with a nonprofit group. The agreement prevents the ranch from being broken up into smaller parcels for real estate development.

The new law, which takes effect May 19, also establishes a fund for the state to make grants for conservation and land restoration projects. The legislation was approved by lawmakers during a 30-day session, which ended in February.

Lawmakers allocated $5 million for conservation easements during a special session of the Legislature, which ended last week.

Despite the state's current financial problems, House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe, said it was important to earmark money for land conservation.

"If we don't do it now, when? Do we do it when all the land is gone?" Lujan said at the news conference with Richardson.

With a conservation easement, landowners can enter into an agreement with the state to ensure there's no development on the land. The individual will continue to own the property, however, and the conservation easement will apply to those who buy or inherit the property in the future. The new law does not allow the state to buy the land, however.

"Protection of New Mexico's conservation heritage makes good economic sense. As New Mexico's population expands, the value of our wildlife resources are increasingly being appreciated and recognized as a major economic and renewable resource," Karyn Stockdale, executive director for Audubon New Mexico, said in a statement. "The Natural Heritage Conservation Act is not only protecting our natural lands, it is investing in New Mexico's long-term economic future, a win-win scenario for all involved."

Friday, March 5, 2010

Westerners grouse over more proposed land restrictions

Congressional Western Caucus members are squawking about Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s proposal to further restrict public use of federal lands by listing the Greater Sage Grouse as an endangered species.

“The only good place for a sage grouse to be listed is on the menu of a French bistro,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-UT, whose 3rd District would be adversely affected by the listing.

An estimated 500,000 of the birds can be found in 11 Western states. In a March 4 letter to Salazar, 36 caucus members said that listing the grouse as endangered would not only have a “severe impact on all of our states,” it could also “potentially destroy opportunities for the renewable energy development the [Obama] administration has ardently supported” – all for a bird that’s already being successfully protected by wildlife officials at the state level.

But the Obama administration is under great political pressure to list the sage grouse as endangered. Even before the president was inaugurated, environmentalists were calling the bird “a poster child for the threats to wildlife posed by oil and gas drilling, “ and the endangered designation “a litmus test for the Obama administration.”

The economic impact of an endangered listing would fall most heavily on ranchers and energy producers, who feel doubly threatened by another administration proposal to designate millions of acres of federal land in nine states as national monuments, which would put them off-limits for drilling, mining, grazing, lumbering and any other commercial activity.

Salazar told angry Westerners that what they’re calling a federal land grab is just in the “brainstorming” stage, and promised not to repeat the Clinton administration’s designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah after reassuring the locals that no such plans were in the works. Many ranching and mining operations were permanently locked out of the area as a result.

This time, state lawmakers in Utah are taking no chances. They’ve introduced legislation allowing state officials to seize federal land by eminent domain in hopes of an eventual constitutional showdown in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Sage grouse will get limited protection

Federal authorities today embarked on a compromise effort to protect the sage grouse as a "candidate" species under the Endangered Species Act.

Short of designating the sage grouse as threatened or endangered, the compromise crafted by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar embraced the latest science indicating that grouse need help to avoid extinction in the face of energy development, grazing and house-building.

This approach "gives an open window" of "several years" for public and private land users to take action "making sure the grouse doesn't have to be put on the endangered species list," Salazar said. "We believe we can do that."

Hunting grouse in Colorado and other western states will still be allowed. At the same time, energy companies poised to drill in sensitive areas may face new restrictions and are on notice that protections for the grouse in the future could one day force industry relocation.

"The sage grouse's decline reflects the extent to which open land in the West has been developed in the last century," Salazar said in a statement before his announcement.

"This development has provided important benefits, but we must find common-sense ways of protecting, restoring, and reconnecting the Western lands that are most important to the species' survival while responsibly developing much-needed energy resources."

A chicken-size forager found in eleven western states, the sage grouse depends on sagebrush steppe for food and protection. But its habitat overlaps the nation's prime energy development territory in Colorado, Utah, Montana and Wyoming.

As developers cleared sagebrush, grouse that once numbered in the millions declined. Since 1985, grouse populations have decreased by more than 30 percent, federal biologists said, with only 89,000 males counted in a 2007 survey across the eleven states.

In Colorado, the latest count found 3,344 males, Colorado Division of Wildlife spokesman Tyler Baskfield said. Colorado offers about 3.6 million acres of sagebrush habitat - 53 percent on public lands and 47 percent private, Baskfield said.

The federal Bureau of Land Management - which manages 8.4 million acres across Colorado and 253 million acres nationwide - plays a key role in determining whether the grouse will survive. BLM managers lease land for grazing, drilling, mining and installation of powerlines and windmills.

"We know that we can and need to do better," BLM director Bob Abbey said, adding that he'll issue a map of key habitat and a new strategy for protecting grouse. "This is certainly a challenge for all of us," Abbey said.

Energy companies with deals to do exploration work in grouse-friendly areas will face stricter scrutiny, Abbey said. "We would likely attach some additional stipulations on that drilling," Abbey said.

Conservationists welcomed the Fish and Wildlife Service's "warranted but precluded" decision, saying that even though it falls short of adding grouse to the list of endangered and threatened species it recognizes that grouse face extinction.

"What this means is, the bird is in trouble. The declines are significant, and this is a way for the Fish and Wildlife Service to say: 'We recognize its trajectory as downward but we have other species in more trouble and our resources are limited,' " said biologist Steve Torbit, the Colorado-based regional director of the National Wildlife Federation.

"There's not a single villain in this. The problem has been that we - as westerners - have not paid adequate attention and respect to sagebrush. People love the mountains, love the rocks and ice. But, for wildlife, the critical area is sagebrush steppe," Torbit said.

Conservationists also vowed vigilance.

The grouse "needs much greater protection in order to fully recover. We'll be watching closely to make sure the Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service follow through with the necessary steps to recover healthy populations of this important Western bird," Sierra Club deputy director Bruce Hamilton said.

Industry leaders - for oil and gas, wind, and livestock - had lobbied against listing the grouse because new restrictions could complicate business.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Association, which represents about 300 energy companies, already has been working to try to minimize harm to grouse, especially during breeding and nesting seasons, COGA president Tisha Schuller said.

Today's decision "just means we will continue doing what we are doing. We will continue to work with BLM and Fish and Wildlife on sage grouse management plans," Schuller said.

"We don't think there's a choice between one or the other. It is our intent to work in harmony with all the stakeholders to protect wildlife resources and ensure thoughtful energy development."

The decision announced Friday morning by Interior Secretary Salazar and Tom Strickland, assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks - followed lengthy battling. This was the second time Fish and Wildlife Service biologists conducted a review in response to multiple petitions since 1998 to list the grouse as threatened or endangered. A federal grouse "status review" concluded in 2005 that grouse did not need protection. Court challenges, alleging improper political interference in that decision-making, led to a reconsideration starting in 2007.

Designating the grouse as a "candidate" species is expected to force the Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies to work cooperatively with private landowners to conserve grouse. Federal authorities may give financial and technical assistance and help develop conservation agreements that give regulatory assurances to landowners who try to help grouse.

(Bruce Finley: 303.954.1700 or bfinley@denverpost.com)

Thursday, March 4, 2010

In Utah, a move to seize federal land

Long frustrated by Washington's control over much of their state, Utah legislators are proposing a novel way to deal with federal land -- seize it and develop it.

The Utah House of Representatives last week passed a bill allowing the state to use eminent domain to take land the federal government owns and has long protected from development.

The state wants to develop three hotly contested areas -- national forest land in the Wasatch Mountains north of Salt Lake City, land in a proposed wilderness area in the red rock southwestern corner of the state, and a stretch of desert outside of Arches National Park that the Obama administration has declared off-limits to oil and gas development.

Supporters argue that provisions in the legislation that granted Utah statehood allow it to make such a land grab. They also hope to spark a showdown in the Supreme Court that would rearrange the balance of power between states and the federal government.

Some legal experts say the effort is unlikely to succeed, but Republican state Rep. Chris Herrod, one of the authors of the bill, said the state had little choice.

"I love America, and I'm a peaceful guy," Herrod said, "but the only real option we have is rebellion, which I don't believe in, and the courts."

The eminent domain proposal is among the most audacious yet in a state accustomed to heated battles over the two-thirds of its land owned by the federal government.

This is the state, after all, where local officials bulldozed their own roads through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, tore down signs barring off-roading in Canyonlands National Park and, with funding from the statehouse, spent years unsuccessfully defending those actions in federal court.

The eminent domain proposal quickly drew scorn from environmental groups.

"This is an ideological fantasy," said Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance in Moab. "Everybody knows this isn't going to happen. The federal public lands are the thing that makes the American West so great."

The proposal is one of a host in statehouses nationwide that show a deep discontent with federal authority. Eight legislatures have passed resolutions asserting, to various degrees, the sovereignty of their states.

In Utah, a dozen measures have been introduced since January that defy the federal government. It has reached such a pitch that the House's Democratic leader last week complained that Republicans were spending too much time on such proposals.

The most aggressive efforts are generally by conservative groups, but Michael Boldin of the 10th Amendment Center in Los Angeles -- named for the constitutional clause that some contend limits federal power over states -- said that states' rights were also being cited by liberals in support of state proposals to legalize marijuana and gay marriage.

In the Intermountain West, particularly in rural areas, residents have long complained that federal preservation of land has prevented development that could provide reliable jobs and bolster the tax base.

Last week, a Utah congressman warned that the Obama administration was plotting to create two national monuments in the state, and Republican Gov. Gary Herbert announced that he would meet with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to urge him to reconsider.

The administration said the hullabaloo was sparked by a memo identifying areas that could be protected at some point in the future, not imminently.

A spokeswoman said Herbert supported the concept of the eminent domain proposal but was unsure whether it would survive a legal challenge. The bill's authors contend they can rely on the legislation that brought Utah into the union in 1896, which they read as requiring the federal government to sell its land in the state and give Utah a 5% cut.

The legislators want to seize and open two roads through national forest land that the federal government closed. This would allow access to state land that they hope to sell to developers to build high-end cabins.

A third area would be more provocative: a swath of federal land outside Arches National Park where the George W. Bush administration, on the eve of the 2008 election, authorized oil and gas exploration. The Obama administration reversed the decision.

Legal experts contend that the federal government is under no obligation to sell its land in Utah and that no state could successfully seize federal property.

"It flies in the face of history and is also inconsistent as a point of law," said Bob Keiter, a law professor at the University of Utah.

Keiter and others argue that the move illustrates a pattern in recent Western history -- a conservative backlash to the election of a Democratic president. After Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976, the movement known as the Sagebrush Rebellion helped lock up the West for the GOP and put Ronald Reagan in the White House.

President Clinton faced a similar backlash, aggravated by his creation before the 1996 presidential election of Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument.

"Utah has this history of grand conservation gains," Groene said. "Every time it happens it triggers this anger. And 20 years later we always look back and agree that conservation was a wise idea."

nicholas.riccardi@ latimes.com

Utah House mounts new federal lands challenge

Utah lawmakers voted Thursday to condemn federal lands in a message meant to reach the Supreme Court and challenge the U.S. government to open lands to development for school funding.

HB143 passed the House 57-13 over Democratic objections that pressing the court case will be costly and likely unsuccessful. Republicans called it a necessary fight to reverse federal oppression and the state's chronically worst-in-the-nation per-student school funding.

"Our schoolchildren have been robbed," said Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, the bill's sponsor.

Herrod asserts that, despite Supreme Court rulings to the contrary, the state is "sovereign" over lands in its boundaries and has power to reclaim those that the federal government did not acquire with state approval. He concedes that Utah gave up claims to federal lands at statehood, but said the federal government has broken its pledge to put the state on "equal footing" with other states by keeping more than two-thirds of the state in federal ownership.

His bill would authorize taking segments of federal land for roads to access state-owned lands for energy production and other development to aid schools. A companion bill proposed by Rep. Ken Sumsion, R-American Fork, would take $1 million in state revenues over three years to cover the legal bills.

Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, called the bill "an act of self-preservation for our state."

House Democrats argued against the action because they said it would waste money in court fees over something the Supreme Court already has decided. Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said he wants more money for Utah schools but also believes in lawmakers' duty to live under Supreme Court rulings.

"We have an allegiance to the United States of America and to case law that has been developed through generations," King, an attorney, said.

Herrod said previous cases before the Supreme Court were split decisions, and a new challenge is warranted.

"Case law is never overturned unless you have another court case," he said.

Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, said the potential advantages of a court victory are worth the risk of defeat and loss of legal fees.

"We may very well be termed crazy somewhere by constitutional attorneys around the country," he said, "but every argument that was once asserted by someone had to be started by someone."

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Utah Legislature: Federal police powers are targeted in House bill

A bill that aims to "rein in" the police powers of Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service on federally managed lands sailed through a legislative committee with no debate and now advances to the full House for consideration.

The measure by Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, comes after years of frustration expressed by several local sheriffs about the "unchecked" police powers of the agencies, which they contend are supposed to contractually enter into cooperative agreements with local police entities.

"There's no accountability, no line authority," former Millard County Sheriff Ed Phillips told members of the House Natural Resources Committee on Monday.

With its passage of the Federal Lands Management Policy Act in 1976, Congress intended for the federal government to contract with local law enforcement to carry out policing responsibilities wherever possible, Phillips said.

Instead, the advent of the '90s brought a prolific swell in the number of rangers who have become their own crime-fighting kingdom, Phillips said.

HB146 says that Utah does not "recognize" federal law enforcement authority of those agencies beyond what is "necessary" to manage, use and protect federally managed lands.

Phillips, joined by the current sheriffs of San Juan and Kane counties, said the issue has been one of such concern that it has been taken up by the 13-member Western States Sheriffs' Association but federal agencies have not been willing to budge.

Kane County Sheriff Lamont Smith said the federal encroachment has been so broad that federal rangers have taken to writing tickets for everything from expired registrations to broken tail lights to violators stopped on U.S. 89 near Lake Powell.

As an example of what they say is "encroachment," Noel and the sheriffs pointed to events like last spring's federal raid that led to more than two dozen arrests of people accused of stealing or possessing Native American artifacts and a May showdown between BLM agents and off-road enthusiasts at the Paria River corridor.

e-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com

Complaints heat up over possible new monuments

On the same day a Utah legislative committee unanimously approved a resolution voicing opposition to the creation of any more national monuments, members of the U.S. Senate Western Caucus also took their fight to the mat.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and other members of the Senate Western Caucus sent a letter Tuesday to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, expressing concern about the possible designation of national monuments in Utah and other states absent public input or consent.

In the letter, Hatch and six other caucus members, including Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, voiced opposition to the possible designation of 14 sites in nine Western states as national monuments through the "misuse" of the Antiquities Act. Two of the sites — the San Rafael Swell and Cedar Mesa — are in Utah.

"Americans enjoy a variety of benefits from our public lands, but many westerners rely on public lands for their very livelihoods. For that reason, Congress has ensured that public land management decisions are made in a process that is both public and transparent. … Americans should never live in fear that the stroke of a pen in Washington could forever change their lives," the senators wrote.

The vitriolic opposition is an echo of the reaction across the state when President Bill Clinton designated 1.7 million acres in southern Utah as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996. Clinton used the Antiquities Act to make the surprise designation.

"The way the monument was designated violated the spirit and letter of the Antiquities Act, which expressly forbids large land grabs," Hatch said. "Citizens should oppose any abuse of power by the government, and using the Antiquities Act to circumvent public input and congressional oversight is a clear abuse."

The letter stresses the need for building local consensus and "stakeholder involvement," when it comes to land management and also points to overburdened federal agencies it asserts are ill-equipped to deal with the responsibilities that come with new monument designations.

"The Bureau of Land Management faces budget shortfalls annually, and the National Park Service faces a maintenance backlog on its existing facilities of over $9 billion," the letter reads. "Policymakers must focus on making responsible investments on behalf of the American taxpayer."

In addition to Hatch and Bennett, the letter was signed by Sens. John Barrasso, R-Wyo.; Michael Enzi, R-Wyo.; Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.; Mike Johanns, R- Neb.; and John Ensign, R-Nev.

HCR 17, a resolution on the issue being run by Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, unanimously passed a legislative committee Tuesday afternoon that featured an appearance by former Congressman James Hansen.

The long-time Republican lawmaker, active for years in wilderness and lands-related legislation, told members of the House Natural Resources committee that while resolutions are skeptically referred to as "mere" message bills, federal lawmakers do take notice.

Former Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson, who also served as the head of the Utah Rivers Council, said he supports the resolution despite being a self-professed environmentalist.

"(But) I also know the tremendous setback with the Grand Staircase. It angered county commissioners all over this state, it angered a lot of Democrats," he said.

Wilson, the newly tapped head of Gov. Gary Herbert's Balanced Resource Council, said any presidential designation of new national monuments in Utah would be a significant setback undermining resources plans being crafted.

e-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com

EAJA Reform Welcome News for New Mexico Agriculture Groups


For further information, contact:
Caren Cowan at 505.247.0584
Sharon Lombardi at 575.622.1646
Howard Hutchinson at 505.379.9243

Legislation that would bring oversight and accountability to payments made under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) is gaining broad support in New Mexico and across the country.

The New Mexico Cattle Growers Association (NMCGA), New Mexico Wool Growers, Inc. (NMWGI), New Mexico Federal Lands Council (NMFLC), Dairy Producers of New Mexico (DPNM) and AZ/NM Coalition of Counties (Coalition) are joining producers nationwide in support of the Open EAJA Act of 2010 (H.R. 4717), introduced by Representative Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) and co-sponsored by Representatives Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD) and Rob Bishop (R-UT).

The EAJA was passed by Congress in the 1980s as means to protect the rights of non-profits, small businesses and individual citizens from unreasonable government actions. Along the way, however, it has been co-opted by special interest and environmental groups, who use the law to get paid after suing the federal government.

“When the EAJA was passed, it was meant to protect people like family ranchers and others from the federal government,” said Bert Ancell, NMCGA President, Bell Ranch. “Today, these activist groups are using our tax dollars to sue the federal government and try to put us out of business. According to the only research to date, activist environmental groups have gotten paid $42 million dollars to sue the federal government in the last decade.”

The Open EAJA Act of 2010, brought about by the efforts of the Western Legacy Alliance, www.westernlegacyalliance.org , and the research of attorney Karen Budd-Falen, Cheyenne, Wyoming would bring accountability and transparency to payments made under the EAJA. Specifically, the bill requires an accounting of how attorneys’ fees are being awarded under EAJA, an annual report to Congress outlining the number, stature and amount of the awards, and a Government Accounting Office (GAO) audit of the uses of EAJA funds over the past 15 years.

Every year, activist groups file thousands of motions and petitions with various government agencies across the country. The resulting paperwork keeps the agencies from actually getting any on the ground work done, and guarantees that a deadline will eventually be missed by the agency, opening the door for a lawsuit. Rather than go to court, the federal agencies settle the suit with the activist group, and typically agree to pay them for their attorneys’ fees under EAJA.

“These lawsuits keep the agencies in turmoil, and have a big impact on our operations,” said Jim Cooper, NMWGI President, Arabela. “Our tax dollars fund the government agencies and their attorneys. To make sure our rights as landowners and producers are protected, we have to intervene in the lawsuit, spending our own money on attorneys and court costs. Then, the government pays these groups’ attorneys’ fees – using our tax dollars again – giving them money for the next lawsuit.”

New Mexicans have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past 15 years in an attempt to protect natural resources users who make up the custom, culture and economy of the state, according to Louise Peterson, Hatchita, President of the Arizona/New Mexico Coalition of Counties.

“On rare occasions we have been reimbursed for some of the actual expenses incurred in protecting New Mexico families,” she said. “But it is shocking to see that $300,000 was paid on a single case --- that was not even decided in favor of the Forest Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity.”

What the public doesn’t know is that not only are these suits keeping federal agencies from doing their jobs in terms of conserving wildlife and lands, but they are driving at the heart of the nation’s food supply, notes Al Squire, Hagerman, DPNM President.

“Americans pay less than ten percent of their disposable income for the most abundant and safest food supply in the world,” says Squire. “While we are producing that cheap and wholesome food under government controlled caps, so that we cannot pass along increased production costs, we are paying up to three times for litigation that is aimed at eliminating us.”

Congresswomen Lummis and Herseth Sandlin and Congressman Bishop deserve the support, praise and heartfelt appreciation of nature resources users ---which includes every member of the public who eats, drives a car, and uses utilities like water and electricity, points out Don L. “Bebo” Lee, Alamogordo, NMFLC President.

“As a nation we have come to expect that electricity is automatic when we flip a switch, that water is magically in the tap when we turn it and that our grocery stores will always be stocked with all the food we want or need,” Lee comments. “Many don’t realize that the production of these necessities of life are the fruits of the land --- and that someone has to have the ability to work that land.”
The DPNM, Coalition, NMCGA, NMFLC, and NMWGI are asking the New Mexico Congressmen Ben Lujan, Harry Teague and Martin Heinrich to co-sponsor and support H.B. 4717. They are also asking for other groups and individuals to join with them in this effort.

For further information call 505.247.0584, 575.622.1646, or 505.379.9243.

Lee to Lead New Mexico Federal Lands Council

New Mexico Federal Lands Council
Drawer 149
Alamogordo, NM 88311

Contact: Caren Cowan (505) 247-0584
For Immediate Release – March 1, 2010

Don L. “Bebo” Lee, Alamogordo, was elected President of the New Mexico Federal Lands Council (NMFLC) at the group’s recent annual meeting.

Lee, a southeastern New Mexico rancher, says he is honored to be elected. “For most of us, trying to stay informed, stay in business and deal with government regulations and agencies on an individual basis is almost impossible. The Federal Lands Council has a long history of protecting our industry, which I plan to continue.”

Other newly-elected officers include Carlos Salazar, Vice President, Medenales; Bobby Jones, Secretary/Treasurer, Dell City; Bill Sauble, Northeastern Regional Director, Maxwell; Jose Varela Lopez, Northwestern Regional Director, Santa Fe; Roy Farr, Southwestern Regional Director, Datil; and Lewis Derrick, Southeastern Regional Director, Artesia.

The organization got its start in the mid-1970s, as ranchers formed local grazing associations to help them work with land management agencies like the Bureau of Land Management. Those local groups grew into the NMFLC, which works to represent the livestock grazing industry on a state and national level, and keep producers informed. Past NMFLC presidents include Mike Casabonne, Hope; Bud Eppers, Roswell; Dick Corn, Roswell and Bob Jones, Dell City.

The NMFLC is made up of both individual members and grazing and agriculture trade organizations. Member organizations include the Gila Livestock Growers Association; the Lincoln National Forest Allotment Owners; Southwest Grazing Association; Fee & Public Lands Association; Southern New Mexico Grazing Association; West Central Grazing Association; New Mexico Cattle Growers Association; New Mexico Wool Growers, Inc.; Northern New Mexico Stockmen; and the New Mexico Farm &Livestock Bureau.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Senate turns back bid to block White House on national monuments

The first round of a new fight over White House power to unilaterally impose new protections on large tracts of western lands went to the Obama administration.

The Senate on Thursday rejected, 38-58, Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R-S.C.) bid to block White House authority to designate national monuments in western states.

DeMint wanted to attach the amendment to legislation approved yesterday aimed at bolstering tourism in the U.S.

The issue flared this month with the leak of an internal Interior Department document that lists 14 potential national monuments in nine states.

Interior Department officials called the document a very preliminary draft, and said that no decisions have been made about what areas – if any – might merit further review.

But the document has nonetheless enraged western Republicans, who fear a “land grab” that would prevent oil-and-gas drilling and many other activities.

Utah Republicans have introduced bills that would prevent designations in that state without Capitol Hill approval. And Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) plans to introduce a bill next week that do the same thing for her state, an aide said today.

On Friday, 16 House Republicans led by Reps. Rob Bishop (Utah) and Doc Hastings (Wash.) wrote to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar seeking a host of other documents related to Interior’s consideration of new monuments.

The letter says there are unanswered questions about the status of potential designations, what groups or people are involved in the review, and the extent to which consideration will continue “behind closed doors.”

“Western communities and residents that stand to be affected by these proposed monument designations have the right to know what the Administration is planning with regards to the future of millions of acres of both public and private lands throughout the West,” Bishop said in a prepared statement Friday.

“Despite the DOI’s statements that the initial documents are simply ‘drafts,’ the American people deserve to know the full extent of the planning as well as the involvement of all outside parties,” he added.

Bishop chairs the Congressional Western Caucus, and Hastings is the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee.

An Interior Department spokeswoman said last week that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar “believes new designations and conservation initiatives work best when they build on local efforts to better manage places that are important to nearby communities.”

Congress Should Limit President's Authority on Monuments -- U.S. Chamber

Congress should act to limit the president's authority to create new national monuments, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said this week.

The Antiquities Act of 1906 currently gives the president authority to declare new national monuments without congressional approval in order to protect threatened cultural and natural resources. But past presidents have repeatedly abused that authority to make sweeping designations that are much larger than those originally intended by the act, the chamber said in a letter Monday to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

"The Act was designed to protect small areas of land and specific items of archaeological, scientific, or historic importance," the chamber wrote. "In fact, it instructs the President to confine any designations 'to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.'"

A confidential document (pdf) leaked last week revealed that the Interior Department had compiled a list of 14 potential sites for new or expanded national monuments the administration could create through the Antiquities Act.

The Antiquities Act already contains provisions limiting presidential authority in Wyoming and Alaska, and those requirements should be made national, the chamber said. Utah representatives, still upset over President Clinton's 1996 decision to create the 1.7-million-acre Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, introduced legislation that would put similar restrictions in place in their state.

If Congress does not act and the Obama administration does go forward with the listed designations, it should first take public comment, the chamber said.

The leaked document, which Interior officials have downplayed as the result of a preliminary "brainstorming" session, says in its opening paragraph that any designations should follow an assessment of public and congressional support.

Congressional Republicans are calling the document evidence of "secret insider dealings," and Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) today thanked the chamber for joining the fray.

"Western states have already suffered this past year from the administration's anti-energy, land-hungry policies, which have locked up sweeping swaths of land and put thousands out of work," Bishop said. "The fact that they would even consider making these designations without public input is disingenuous at best."

Copyright 2010 E&E Publishing. All Rights Reserved.

For more news on energy and the environment, visit www.greenwire.com.

Western Lawmakers Ask Salazar for All Doc's On Nat'l Monument Designations‏

National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee Ranking Member Rob Bishop (UT-01); and 14 Members of Congress sent a letter today to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar requesting further information related to an internal DOI document that revealed the Administration is considering designating numerous new National Monuments that would lock up at least 13 million acres of land.

Secretary Salazar has publicly said that there is “no secret agenda” and wants to have a “public dialogue.” Therefore, the Department should be willing to answer questions regarding the exact undertakings and status of the potential Monument designations, as well as what outside group and individuals have been involved in the secret planning.

“If this internal document had not been exposed, Americans would still be in the dark about the Obama Administration’s potential plans to lock up millions of acres of land across the West,” said Hastings. “While Secretary Salazar says that the discussions are just ‘preliminary,’ no assurances have been given that the President will not designate these monuments. When you catch someone in the kitchen in the dark of night with their hand in the cookie jar, it’s very hard to believe they’re just checking to see what’s inside and that no cookies were just about to get eaten. The communities and those workers whose jobs could be directly affected by the locking up of these lands deserve to see a full picture of what was happening inside their government. We’ve asked for copies of documents relating to the planning, which includes coordination with outside groups, and all of the missing pages from the document we uncovered last week.”

“Western communities and residents that stand to be affected by these proposed monument designations have the right to know what the Administration is planning with regards to the future of millions of acres of both public and private lands throughout the West,” said Bishop. “Despite the DOI’s statements that the initial documents are simply ‘drafts,’ the American people deserve to know the full extent of the planning as well as the involvement of all outside parties. If the DOI is confident that it is operating with the utmost transparency then they should have no problem providing these documents expeditiously. However, given the number of congressional document requests made to DOI this past year that remain unfulfilled, I am not holding my breath.”

In the letter, the Members request the following additional information from Secretary Salazar:

1. All pages of the “Internal Draft” document of which we obtained only pages numbered 15 to 21.

2. With regard to the “brainstorming,” a copy of any documents distributed at or in preparation for the meetings, a list of all participants or invitees, any notes taken at the meeting (s), and any memoranda, work product or follow up documents from the meeting(s). All records, electronic or otherwise, of meetings or discussions with private groups, individuals or other persons or entities that are not employees of the Department of the Interior where potential National Monument designations were discussed. All notes, agendas, memoranda or documents from those meetings.

3. All documents related to the Secretary’s initiative to compile a list of potential National Monument designations since July 1, 2009, including, but not limited to, maps.

4. Any communication with any person or entity outside of the Department of the Interior related to the Secretary’s initiative since July 1, 2009.


The letter was signed by the following Members:

Congressman Doc Hastings (WA-04)

Congressman Tom McClintock (CA-04)
Congressman Doug Lamborn (CO-05)
Congressman Don Young (AK)
Congressman Dean Heller (NV-02)
Congressman Greg Walden (OR-02)
Congressman Jeff Flake (AZ-06)
Congressman Denny Rehberg (MT)
Congressman Rob Bishop (UT-01)

Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis (WY)
Congressman Wally Herger (CA-02)
Congressman Jason Chaffetz (UT-03)
Congressman Pete Sessions (TX-32)
Congressman Scott Garrett (NJ-05)
Congressman John Campbell (CA-48)
Congressman Mike Simpson (ID-02)