Friday, May 28, 2010

Signs Point to Administration Plan to Lock Up 13M Acres of Federal Land

A leaked partial document produced by the Bureau of Land Management
and obtained by Fox News suggests the Obama administration is considering a plan to lock up 13 million acres of land -- and the Department of Interior is refusing to answer questions.

First, a little background: The federal government owns about one-third of the land in the United States -- most of it in western states. For example, 84 percent of Nevada is owned by Uncle Sam.

But the government leases large parcels of federal land for all sorts of things -- grazing, mining, exploration, recreation.

Those commercial activities create jobs and tax revenue for the states. Tax revenues from commercial activity on federal lands often pays for local schools. However, with the single stroke of his pen, President Obama can use the Antiquities of Act of 1906 to turn federal land into National Monuments.

That would effectively lock up the land from any kind of private use or development.

The plan may actually be more than 13 million acres. Republican members of the House have asked for the rest of the memo, but the Department of the Interior is refusing to hand it over.

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said he is worried.

"When the administration is, for lack of a better word, stiffing us -- you know that causes concern," Hastings said during a hallway interview on Capitol Hill. "We do have responsibilities to our constituents to make sure that when there is a huge change on federal lands in their area, that they are part of that process. We are afraid that that process is going to be taken away from them and that's why we're asking for these documents."

Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee were unable to garner Democratic support for a resolution requiring the Department of Interior to produce some 2,000 documents it has on this matter.

The DOI did cough up 300 e-mails that Republicans say do not reveal very much.

When contacted by Fox News, the department's press secretary hinted that the GOP request is under further review.

"This is an on-going process," Kendra Barkoff wrote. "We may supplement
this response as the process is concluded."

There are those who believe these lands are precious -- and should be locked up from development. But in western states this is controversial.

Western state governors are worried that the Obama administration is going to do this quickly and quietly -- without public hearings. They want the process to be more transparent. But for now, those documents are being tightly held by the Obama Department of Interior.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Scientists use conservation lands as 'outdoor lab'

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - In the Robledo Mountains of southern New Mexico, an international team of scientists spent the past week toiling under the desert sun, searching for clues to help them better understand what life was like along a prehistoric shoreline.

Layer after layer, the mudstone at Prehistoric Trackways National Monument has offered up the tracks of reptiles and jumping insects and even the imprints of jellyfish. There are fossil logs and plants that predate the dinosaur age by tens of millions of years.

"We see this as a window to a lost world," said Jerry MacDonald, who was a student at New Mexico State University when he stumbled upon the trackways in 1987.

The monument contains some of the most scientifically significant early Permian trackways in the world. It's one of dozens of units within the National Landscape Conservation System that scientists are using as a vast outdoor laboratory.

The National Landscape Conservation System, or NLCS, is celebrating its 10th anniversary.

Officials have planned a weeklong symposium in Albuquerque to highlight discoveries made within the system - from the prehistoric tracks in southern New Mexico to the fossils of new dinosaur species at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah.

"We're trying to get the word out and hopefully get people to start thinking about these lands in a different way," said Marietta Eaton, science coordinator for NLCS in Washington, D.C. "They're not just out there so you can go out and recreate. They have some amazing, amazing resources and discoveries left to be made."

Covering more than 27 million acres, the system includes 886 federally recognized areas in 12 Western states - national monuments, national conservation areas, wilderness, wild and scenic rivers, scenic and historic trails and conservation lands.

It's all managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

Eaton said the conservation system guarantees that special places will be protected for generations and scientists like MacDonald won't have to worry about development or other variables interfering with long-term research projects.

Kevin Mack of The Wilderness Society said the system's simple mission statement focuses on conservation, protection and restoration of significant landscapes. The key, he said, is that it recognizes lands that have scientific value.

"What we know about the world is much different now than it was 100 years ago. These places give us a chance to continue to do that research and take a glimpse back and see the world maybe as it was and maybe learn some new things," he said.

Mack pointed to the Snowy River cave passage in southern New Mexico, where researchers have found what is believed to be the world's largest continuous mineral cave decoration - a solid river of tiny white calcite crystals that stretches more than 4.7 miles.

On the cave walls is a black manganese oxide crust that's inhabited by microorganisms.

Scientists are looking to the cave to learn more about the region's climatic history, the mysterious microbes and the relationship between ground and surface water sources.

"You've got a cave there that is unlike anything else ever seen in the world, and it's revealing dates for events that have happened climatically for tens of thousands of years. That's very profound to have that kind of information," Eaton said.

Back at the trackways monument, MacDonald recalled the first time he cracked open a slab and found a handful of consecutive tracks in pristine condition. He knew on a summer day more than 20 years ago that he was on to something.

His work paid off last year, when the area was designated as a national monument and added to the conservation system.

MacDonald was joined over the past week by scientists from England, Germany, the Smithsonian Institute and the New Mexico Museum of Natural History. Their interests ranged from animal tracks to fossil plants.

"You get all of these guys coming to this new national monument and they're all working together, studying different types of fossils, and it's just really exciting," MacDonald said. "We've got all of it in one place."

Monday, May 17, 2010

Primary race set for land commissioner

The campaign trail for the five men vying to be New Mexico's next land commissioner has been tough.

First come the blank stares, then the question: So what does the land commissioner do?

Many argue the person at the helm of the State Land Office is one of the most powerful people in state government, wielding control over more than 13 million acres of mineral estate with the potential to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars to New Mexico's coffers each year.

"This office has more power, as far as public lands go, than the governor or the Legislature," said Kent Salazar, a state game commissioner and regional director with the National Wildlife Federation.

Salazar and sportsmen's groups are paying attention to the race to ensure they will continue to have access to public lands for hunting, fishing and recreation. They want to make sure those lands are managed so wildlife habitat is protected.

Farmers and ranchers are also paying attention. So are renewable energy developers and the oil and natural gas industry, which contributes about 95 percent of the Land Office's revenues through leases, rents and royalties.

Land Commissioner Patrick Lyons, a Republican, cannot run again because of term limits.

Democrat Ray Powell, who was land commissioner from 1993-2002, wants another chance at the job and is running in the June 1 primary. Other Democrats on the ballot are Public Regulation Commission chairman Sandy Jones and Santa Fe County Commissioner Harry Montoya.

Matthew Rush, a Roosevelt County farmer and cattle rancher, faces former Bernalillo County GOP executive director Bob Cornelius in the Republican primary.

Lyons considers the position the best job he's ever had.

While he admits making mistakes during his tenure, Lyons said he's proud the office was able to bring in record revenues from oil and gas operations and mineral and agricultural leases.

"If we hadn't raised $3.8 billion over the last eight years, we'd be in a heck of a mess," Lyons said.

About 95 percent of the Land Office's revenues come from oil and gas operations. In the last quarter, the office reported earnings of $114 million, including $107 million from oil and gas.

Lease sale earnings are deposited into the Land Maintenance Fund. All but 2 percent is distributed to trust beneficiaries, including public schools, seven universities, New Mexico Military Institute, New Mexico School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, New Mexico School for the Deaf, three hospitals, correctional facilities, water projects and public building repair and construction.

With New Mexico's continuing budget problems, a slumping economy and dwindling commodity prices, the next land commissioner can look to renewable energy and other development besides leveraging the state's oil and gas resources.

Deborah Seligman of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association said the challenge will be striking a balance among the demands.

"We have a pendulum that keeps swinging and it needs to balance out," she said.

At forums around New Mexico, landowners, sportsmen and industry groups have been pressing candidates about what kind of office they will run and how decisions regarding land swaps will be made.

Lyons has been criticized over his handling of the exchange of thousands of acres of state land around White Peak in northeastern New Mexico. The case, now being heard by the state Supreme Court, pits residents and sportsmen against one another and the state attorney general against the Land Office.

The candidates have all vowed that their dealings will be open and honest, and Salazar said that's the least voters can expect.

"Whoever gets in there has a lot of say about what goes on with our public lands, whether to sell them or whether to use and maintain them for the long term. It's a very important office," he said.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

New Mexico Natural Heritage Conservation Act

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson recently signed the Natural Heritage Conservation Act, a bill passed during the recent legislative session to protect land, water, wildlife, and working farms and ranches across New Mexico. This new legislation, sponsored by state Senator Carlos Cisneros (D-Taos), will establish a program that will enable the state to make grants to fund conservation easement and restoration projects on private lands.

''For the first time, New Mexico will have a permanent mechanism for funding conservation projects across our state,'' said Governor Richardson at the signing ceremony for the Natural Heritage Conservation Act. ''I am also pleased that we were able to secure $5 million during the legislative session, so that we will be able to start funding these important initiatives right away.'' Despite the state's current financial problems, New Mexico House Speaker Ben Lujan (D-Santa Fe) said it was important to earmark land for conservation. At the signing ceremony, Lujan posed the question, ''If we don’t do it now, when? When the land is gone?''

With conservation easements, willing private landowners voluntarily enter into agreements with qualified conservation organizations or public agencies to restrict subdivision, development and certain incompatible uses of the land in order to protect the wildlife, agricultural, scenic open space, cultural and/or recreational values of the subject lands. Landowners who grant easements retain ownership of their land and can continue to farm, ranch and engage in other traditional forms of land use that are consistent with the purposes of the easement. They can also lease, sell or pass their land on to their heirs, but the easements run with the land and are binding on all future landowners.

''Every year, New Mexico is losing thousands of acres of productive farm and ranch land along with the associated conservation values they provide to unbridled growth and development,'' said Larry Winn, Chair of the New Mexico Soil & Water Commission. ''We view conservation easements as a way to keep agricultural land in family ownership and in production, and as an important option for farmers and ranchers to consider as an alternative to simply selling, subdividing and developing their lands.''

''Easements are as much a tax and financial planning mechanism as they are a conservation tool for private landowners,'' said Scott Wilber, Executive Director of the New Mexico Land Conservancy, a statewide non-profit land trust based in Santa Fe. He noted that landowners can receive significant federal and state tax incentives by donating part or all or the value of a conservation easement, but added that in a state like New Mexico where many of the landowners are land-rich and cash-poor, particularly within the agricultural community, tax benefits alone are not always enough to get the job done.

''Conservation easements and restoration cost money,” said Wilber. ''A combination of state funding and tax incentives will further enhance the ability of conservation organizations, public agencies, municipalities, land grants, tribes, and soil and water conservation districts to work with private landowners to conserve their lands.''

The program created by the Natural Heritage Conservation Act will also help leverage other sources of conservation funding, through federal programs such as the Land & Water Conservation Fund, the Farm Bill, the Clean Water Act, the USDA Farm & Ranchland Protection and Forest Legacy programs, as well as state wildlife grants and local conservation funding from New Mexico’s cities and counties. Studies have shown that New Mexico misses out on approximately $20 million in federal land and water conservation funding each year because it does not have adequate state matching funds. By creating this program, New Mexico is capitalizing on a major opportunity to draw more resources to the state to help preserve what makes it the ''Land of Enchantment'' – its natural, agricultural and cultural heritage.


Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Enviro group sues to protect endangered species

At the end of April, the Center for Biological Diversity announced it plans to sue the Forest Service for not protecting rare species on lands throughout Arizona and New Mexico.

According to Taylor McKinnon, the center’s Public Lands Campaigns Director, the agency has continued to approve projects that destroy endangered species and their habitat without undertaking the monitoring required by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Five years ago, that agency—which enforces compliance with the Endangered Species Act—ordered the Forest Service to monitor rare species and their habitats on all 11 forests in the southwest.

But in a 2008 report, the Forest Service admitted it had not completed such monitoring. The following year, it also requested that the Fish and Wildlife Service change its opinion.

“The Forest Service manages expansive acreage of forests, and that public land is the cradle of life for a whole host of native species, including threatened and endangered species,” said McKinnon. “We need the Forest Service to manage its lands in a way that sustains life, rather than dragging species further toward extinction.”

The Center’s lawsuit will involve at least nine species listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act, including the Mexican spotted owl, southwestern willow flycatcher, Mexico ridge-nosed rattlesnake, Chiricahua leopard frog, Apache trout, Chihuahua chub, loach minnow, spikedace and ocelot.

McKinnon also said that the agency is rolling back existing wildlife protections as it revamps individual forest plans for New Mexico and Arizona.

“We’re seeing a really sharp turn away from providing habitat and protections for threatened and endangered species, and other species, in those plans,” said McKinnon. He pointed out that though they are inadequate, the current plans—written in the 1980s—do include protection measures for wildlife and their habitat.

But within the draft plans for Arizona, including the Coronado National Forest in southern Arizona, the Forest Service has essentially abandoned wildlife protections, he said. Along with the agency’s refusal to monitor the impacts of projects on endangered species, this trend of aggressive rollbacks troubles McKinnon.

“Rather than increasing and enhancing wildlife protections in the Southwest forest plans, forest plans under the Obama administration seems to be heading in the opposite direction,” he said. “They seem to be weakening those protections, and we think that’s the opposite of what wildlife in the forests need.”

Forest management plans are being updated

In 1976, Congress passed the National Forest Management Act (NMFA), which required each of the nation’s forests to have plans that would then guide local management, activities and projects.

Now the agency is updating those plans to incorporate “current thinking and current ways of doing business,” Matt Turner, head of regional planning for the agency’s Southwest Region, told the Independent. In New Mexico, for example, there are five national forests, as well as the grasslands of the Cibola National Forest. Plans for the grasslands are currently being updated and managers will soon revise the other five plans once the new national rule is in place.

One issue that has become more important in recent years, Turner said, is climate change. “Other issues, based on what was in NFMA, [include] how to address the diversity of plants and animals and maintain their sustainability,” he said. “Also, how do we restore and maintain our watersheds? How do we ensure that our communities, rural and urban, maintain their relationships with the forest? And how do the forests provide for the needs of those communities?”

The agency must also manage fire, recreation—everything from hiking and cross-country skiing to off-road vehicle travel—and business. Oil and gas development, for example, is prevalent on the Carson National Forest in northern New Mexico. The planning process, he explained, provides the overall framework for the Forest Service to work on individual projects, including recreation, grazing, energy development and mining.

“Much of the beef people eat comes from cattle grazed on National Forest lands, and, not so much in the Southwest, but in other Forest Service regions, much of the wood that goes to build your homes—and keeps the price of wood construction down—comes off National Forest lands,” said Turner. “There’s quite a bit National Forest lands throughout the country provide—even if you never step foot on Forest Service land, it provides goods and services.”

Now’s the time for wilderness

In 1976, Congress also passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), which guides another federal land agency—the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Among other things, that law required the BLM to inventory its lands for wilderness characteristics, and to re-examine those lands as time passed in order to designate new wilderness areas. Wilderness areas are permanently protected as off-limits to development and motorized travel.

But the Forest Service has no such mandate, said Nathan Newcomer, associate director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. It has completed what are called Roadless Area Review and Evaluations: “But they have no mandate, nothing written that says they need to look at their forests and do periodic wilderness inventories,” Newcomer told the Independent. “This rule should have that—it should direct districts to go out there and study their lands for wilderness-quality designations.”

The alliance is also looking ahead to the development of New Mexico’s individual forest plans, which will be guided by the new national rule.

Of the 9.3 million acres of National Forest lands in the state, 1.6 million of those are roadless, according to Newcomer. Although activists in New Mexico have long focused on wilderness-worthy areas on BLM lands, they’re now looking more actively at the National Forests: “The [revised plan] is one example of why we need to do that: The federal agency is giving us the opportunity,” he said. “We need to make sure that the bevy of beautiful, wild places we have in this state are left intact—not just for the people, but for the land’s sake.”