Thursday, December 23, 2010

Obama administration restores wilderness rules undone under Bush

DENVER (AP) — The Obama administration plans to reverse a Bush-era policy and make millions of undeveloped acres of land once again eligible for federal wilderness protection, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Thursday.

The agency will replace the 2003 policy adopted under former Interior Secretary Gale Norton. That policy — derided by some as the "No More Wilderness" policy — stated that new areas could not be recommended for wilderness protection by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and it opened millions of acres to potential commercial development.

That policy "frankly never should have happened and was wrong in the first place," Salazar said Thursday.

Environmental activists have been pushing for the Obama administration to restore protections for potential wilderness areas.

Salazar said the agency will review some 220 million acres of BLM land that's not currently under wilderness protection to see which should be given a new "Wild Lands" designation — a new first step for land awaiting a wilderness decision. Congress would decide whether those lands should be permanently protected, Salazar said.

Congressional Republicans pounced on the "Wild Lands" announcement as an attempt by the Obama administration to close land to development without congressional approval.

"This backdoor approach is intended to circumvent both the people who will be directly affected and Congress," said Washington Rep. Doc Hastings, a Republican tapped to lead the House Natural Resources Committee when the GOP takes control of the House in January.

The Congressional Western Caucus, an all-Republican group, also blasted the decision. "This is little more than an early Christmas present to the far left extremists who oppose the multiple use of our nation's public lands," Utah Rep. Rob Bishop said in a statement.

BLM Director Bob Abbey said it hasn't been decided how many acres are expected to be designated as "Wild Lands" and whether those acres will be off-limits to motorized recreation or commercial development while under congressional review. It's also unclear whether there will be a time limit on how long acres can be managed as "Wild Lands" before a decision is made on their future.

The BLM has six months to submit a plan for those new wilderness evaluations.

These "Wild Lands" would be separate from Wilderness Study Areas that must be authorized by Congress. Wild Lands can be designated by the BLM after a public planning process and would be managed with protective measures detailed in a land use plan.

Ranchers, oil men and others have been suspicious of federal plans to lock up land in the West, worrying that taking the BLM land out of production would kill rural economies that rely on ranchers and the oil and gas business.

Their suspicions have been heightened since memos leaked in February revealed the Obama administration was considering 14 sites in nine states for possible presidential monument declarations.

That included 2.5 million acres of northeastern Montana prairie land proposed as a possible bison range, along with sites in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, California, Nevada, Arizona, Oregon and Washington.

The 2003 policy was an out-of-court deal struck between Norton and then-Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt to remove protections for some 2.6 million acres of public land in that state.

The policy allowed drilling, mining and other commercial uses on land under consideration as wilderness areas.

Salazar's reversal doesn't affect about 8.7 million acres already designated as wilderness areas.

Conservationists praised the reversal, though there has been grumbling that it took the Obama administration nearly two years to overturn the Bush-era policy.

"Washington D.C. always takes longer than you want, but we're glad we've gotten here," said Suzanne Jones, regional director for The Wilderness Society.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Court: Wolf data exempt from disclosure

Environmental groups are not entitled to specific locations of where wolves have killed cattle, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday.

In a unanimous decision, the court said the specific data sought by the organizations is exempt from disclosure under the federal Freedom of Information Act. The judge said that means the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has the information, can keep it secret.

Thursday's ruling met with disappointment from members of the groups. They said the data is needed to provide crucial information they believe ultimately would help preserve Mexican wolves in Arizona and New Mexico.

The wolf was reintroduced to eastern Arizona and western New Mexico in 1998. But efforts to preserve it in the wilderness often have run headlong into the concerns of ranchers when the animals prey on their cattle. What happens, according to Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, is that wolves which are linked to cattle deaths are relocated -- or shot. He said the last census at the beginning of this year found only 42 animals in the wild, a 19 percent decline from the prior year.

Much of that, the groups argued, is because of government action.

In 2007, for example, they said 19 wolves were removed from the wild. That, they said, left a year-end population of just 52 wolves and three breeding pairs anywhere in the world.

Eva Sargent, director of southwest programs for the Defenders of Wildlife, said the data sought would help her organization work with ranchers to prevent "depredation" of cattle by wolves.

For example, she said ranchers can put extra cowboys into the field.

"Wolves are generally discouraged by humans' presence," Sargent said. She said cattle can be moved away or electric fencing can be installed.

And Sargent said there even is a way to have alarms go off when a wolf with a radio tracking collar approaches the fence to scare the animal off.

"In order to know where to center those programs, we need to know where hot spots of depredation are," Sargent said. "And they usually are hot spots, a particular ranch, a particular area."

Matt Kenna, the attorney who represented the environmental groups, said there are other uses for the information.

He pointed out that most of the losses to ranchers occurs on leased public lands and not on private property.

"When the renewals came up, or even before then, we could provide public comment on them," Kenna said. He said that could include requiring ranchers to modify their operations to reduce wolf attacks -- or even proposing that certain lands be off limits to cattle grazing.

The program run by Wildlife Services, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, works with ranchers and others to remove or capture wolves that are causing problems.

The environmental groups sued for the specific locations, saying these federal programs are the "largest factor limiting population growth" among the wolves.

In 2006 they filed a public records request for details of the wolf-removal program. What was not released was the specific location of the removals as computed by global positioning system coordinates.

U.S. District Court Judge John Roll ruled in Tucson last year the groups were entitled to the information. But the appellate court said that conclusion was wrong.

Judge Pamela Rymer, writing for the court, judges said the Freedom of Information Act says the making information public has an exception for data that is specifically exempt from disclosure in other statutes.

And in this case, she noted, the USDA is prohibited from releasing "geospatial information" it maintains about agricultural operations.

Rymer said "agricultural operations" include livestock. The wolf-removal program falls under that, the judge said, because the information concerns "depredations that limit the ranchers' livestock production."

And Rymer said the fact that many of these sites are on public grazing lands leased by ranchers, rather than on their private property, does not change that exemption.