Monday, January 31, 2011

Oregon ranchers fear financial hit from court-ordered loss of grazing territory

Rancher Ken Brooks is standing in his ranch yard near the ghost town of Fox , his eyes sweeping the timber-covered Malheur National Forest that holds the key to his future and that of 18 other Grant County ranching families.

"They're all pretty angry," he said. "We're all in the same boat. We're unsure what we're going to do. And most of all, we're unsure of the reason we have to do it."

A Dec. 30 ruling by U.S. District Judge Ancer Haggerty prohibits the ranchers from turning their cattle out on seven summertime U.S. Forest Service grazing allotments to protect threatened Middle Columbia River steelhead.

The latest decision in a years-long battle over the effects of grazing on stream habitat bans cows on 16 percent of the 1.7 million-acre forest, which has one the largest grazing programs of any forest in the Pacific Northwest.

The ban starts in June and would affect almost 4,000 mother cows and their annual calf crop valued at $2.8 million, ranchers and forest officials said.

Environmentalists who filed the steelhead lawsuit said the Forest Service and National Marine Fisheries Service must do a better job enforcing laws to preserve stream banks from roaming cattle.

"The court makes clear that the agencies have to make steelhead protection their highest priority," said Brent Fenty , executive director of the 1,400-member Oregon Natural Desert Association.

But outside the courtroom, Grant County is bracing for the economic repercussions, said county Commissioner Boyd Briton.

"There are families involved, there are employees," Briton said. "All those cows, the feed stores, the Les Schwab tire store downtown, the grocery stores, it affects all of us."

The sprawling, mountainous county has a single stoplight, no rail or interstate highway access, only three fast-food restaurants, one theater in an old Rebekah Lodge and a mere 7,500 residents on land twice the size of Delaware.

The county already is coping with unemployment higher than 14 percent. The 19 ranchers affected by the judge's decision represent about 20 percent of those who hold grazing permits on the Malheur.

The overall hit from the ban, perhaps 60 jobs, is the equivalent of losing roughly 7,000 jobs in Multnomah County, said Mark Webb, Grant County commission chairman.

Brooks, whose family has ranched between Fox and Mount Vernon for a century, expects some of his neighbors to quit ranching. He would have to reduce his herd from 450 to 150 cows, he said.

A reduction that dramatic would force him to lay off his two cowhands, he said, including one who's worked for the family since 1975.

The judge's ruling surprised John Grubel, a Forest Service district ranger in John Day, and Spencer Hovekamp, a branch chief with the National Marine Fisheries Service in La Grande.

Both said ranchers have made significant strides in the last two years toward meeting government stream bank standards.

Hovekamp, a fish biologist who keeps track of John Day River system steelhead, said recent adult returns have been high -- mostly due to favorable ocean conditions and not, as some ranchers claim, owing to improved range management. Ranchers also blame habitat problems on wild horses and elk.

Still, they "are putting in a lot of work" riding the allotments on horseback, monitoring cattle, repairing fences and shutting gates left open by other forest users so cows and calves stay out of areas where they aren't supposed to be, said Jeff Shinn, a Forest Service spokesman in John Day.

Hovekamp also noted that some problems are out of ranchers' control, including logging reductions and wildfire suppression that contribute to canopy shade that leaves less grass for grazing.

"Where the grass remains lush and growing is near streams," he said, and that's where grazing has the biggest potential impact on fish.

The grazing ban doesn't leave them many other options, ranchers said.

Private summertime pasture is relatively scarce. More than 60 percent of Grant County is federally managed, and ranches tend to be at low elevations and devoted to summertime hay production to feed cattle in winter.

Brooks, for example, owns 9,000 acres, but he needs to set aside some to produce 800 tons of hay, and much of the rest is in parcels scattered among federal allotments. Grazing those tracts while keeping his cows off enjoined federal lands would mean building 18 miles of fence at a cost of $10,000 per mile, he said. He can't afford that.

The one hope for ranchers is if a new biological opinion can be drafted by the Forest Service and approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service before June, showing that cattle can graze on those allotments without harming fish runs.

But Hovekamp said getting that done in time "doesn't seem likely" with a large and complicated grazing program. A more reasonable deadline would be June 2012, he said.

The quandary for ranchers is what to do now:

Should they hold onto their herds, gambling that they'll find summer pasture or that the judge will relent on the timetable? Or should they sell?

"The price is highest for cow-calf pairs in January and February," Hovekamp said.

-- Richard Cockle

Grazing battles

U.S. District Judge Anser Haggerty's ruling is the latest in a series of legal squabbles over the Middle and Lower John Day River and its North Fork and Middle Fork subbasins.

2003: The Oregon Natural Desert Association, Center for Biological Diversity and Western Watersheds sued the National Marine Fisheries Service, claiming Middle Columbia steelhead -- federally listed as threatened in 1999 -- have declined below historic levels because of stream bank damage caused by livestock.

2008: A ruling by Haggerty halted grazing on 100,000 acres of the Malheur National Forest.

June 2009: Haggerty reversed the 2008 order and denied a request by environmentalists to halt grazing on another 200,000 acres on the Malheur. The reversal allowed livestock to return to the Murderer's Creek and Lower Middle Fork John Day River allotments. The judge also allowed grazing on other allotments that environmentalists wanted off-limits to cattle. At the same time, ranchers and the U.S. Forest Service agreed to rest the so-called Long Creek allotment from grazing.

2010: Haggerty closes grazing on seven Malheur allotments encompassing 283,000 acres, starting in June 2011.

2011: The Hells Canyon Preservation Council and Oregon Natural Desert Association file a separate, major lawsuit challenging the U.S. Forest Service's renewal of grazing permits on the Malheur, Wallowa-Whitman and Umatilla national forests. Environmentalists charge that grazing was improperly reauthorized on more than 250,000 acres of public lands without thoroughly assessing the effects and without adequate public disclosure, among other things.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Powell raising bar at NM Land Office

SANTA FE (AP) - What matters to New Mexico Land Commissioner Ray Powell is sunshine.

He's quick to trade in his undecorated office for a few moments outside under the northern New Mexico sun.

But Powell's obsession with sunshine goes beyond being warmed up by the golden rays on this winter day. He's more interested in the kind of sunshine that will bring openness and transparency to what goes on at the State Land Office. He wants to restore confidence in the agency, protect state trust lands and continue to rake in hundreds of millions of dollars each year for public schools and other beneficiaries.

"Our objective is to put as much sunshine as we possibly can on these projects and let them live or die by their merits," he told The Associated Press during an interview. "The way we inoculate ourselves from future problems is just to have sunshine on everything that we do."

The Land Office during the previous administration was embroiled in legal battles over the exchange of trust land for private land around White Peak in northeastern New Mexico and other questions were raised about appraisals, commercial land leases and the lack of analysis on some projects.

Former Land Commissioner Patrick Lyons has defended his administration, but just this week the New Mexico Supreme Court rejected two of the White Peak land swaps that were orchestrated by Lyons.

Supporters of the swaps had argued that they would improve public access and resolve management issues. But critics turned out in force, marching on the state Capitol with protest signs and calling on lawmakers to do something to keep the state from getting what they considered to be a raw deal.

Since taking office Jan. 1, Powell and his team have been reviewing the office's policies and have placed moratoriums on pending land exchanges and planning and development leases to ensure something like White Peak doesn't happen again.

"The whole point is to look at what we're doing and how we're doing it, and if we start finding some things that just don't make sense, then we need to really deliberate on it," Powell said, likening it to his veterinary practice. "If something is bleeding, you address it or you lose the patient. We don't want to lose the opportunities, but we want to make sure the opportunities are dealt with in the most appropriate way."

Every time he thinks about the trust land that could have been lost, Powell said his blood pressure rises. Once state land is traded or sold, it's gone along with the opportunity to earn more revenue for trust beneficiaries, he said.

"We want to assure the public that their public lands are going to be there for the future and are being used in a manner that keeps them healthy and productive," he said. "I'm looking at the trust as something in perpetuity. So when we optimize our resources, we're looking at it generationally."

The Land Office, considered one of the most powerful offices in state government, wields control over more than 13 million acres of mineral estate and 9 million acres of surface estate with the potential to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Leases, rents and royalties from oil and gas, renewable energy projects, commercial developments, farms and ranches make up a large chunk of the annual revenue funneled into state coffers. During the last fiscal year, the office collected $420 million and a total of more than $3 billion over the past seven years, with most of that coming from oil and gas operations.

Most revenue generated by the office goes to trust beneficiaries — public schools, universities, hospitals, correctional facilities, water projects and public building repair and construction.

Powell, who first served as land commissioner from 1993-2002, expects to bring in more than $500 million this year.

That's money that will not have to come from the taxpayers, he said.

Oil and gas will continue to be a large source of revenue into the foreseeable future, but Powell is looking for innovative ways to bolster economic development and insulate the trust from the hills and valleys that often plague the oil and gas market.

During Powell's first stint in the Land Office, he helped craft lease agreements that resulted in state lands being used for industrial and technological parks and a massive planned commercial and residential development on the southern edge of Albuquerque.

Sunshine will help the office make more of those deals, Powell said, because the communities that will be directly impacted can weigh in on whether a proposal is worth pursuing or offer ideas for making it better.

He also vowed that decisions will be based on the legal and scientific expertise at the Land Office, not by a handful of people in the front office.

"The secondary and tertiary benefits outside the money you generate are enormous," he said. "That's why this thought process is so important and only comes by collaboration, not by hiding the ball and doing deals in the dead of night."

In his 60 years, Powell acknowledged he has become more cynical. But spending the last few years working with children on social service projects through the Jane Goodall Institute has given him a renewed perspective that will come in handy at the Land Office.

He talked about the 10- and 12-year-olds he met who, against odds, raised money for feeding the homeless or helping animals.

"My first instinct was to say 'Too big. Too grand. You can't do that.' But these young people just took on these projects because they felt it was the right thing to do for their communities," he said. "To me, that's nourishing. That's a sense of empowerment."

Rather than being powerful, Powell said he sees the Land Office as having the ability to empower local communities.

"Being in this office, you get more and more excited because you have so many opportunities to influence things in a positive way," he said.

Friday, January 28, 2011

'We Will Take a Stand'

Cattlemen, new sheriff dig in heels, vow to renew fight against Forest Service

By Andrew Kasper
SUN Staff Writer

The federal Forest Service shot down earlier this month appeals from cattlemen on the Alamosa and Jarita Mesa grazing allotments that sought to preserve grazing rights the cattlemen say pre-date the Forest Service’s jurisdiction.

The Forest Service passed a decision to cut the number of cattle allowed to graze on the allotments by 18 percent over the next five years. The appeal, disputing the reductions proposed by El Rito District Head Ranger Diana Trujillo, was denied Jan. 13 by Carson National Forest Supervisor Kendall Clark. Clark upheld Trujillo’s decision to follow the recommendations of an “environmental assessment” of the area that recommended the “unsustainable” grazing numbers be reduced to lessen the ecological impacts on the land.

Neither Trujillo nor Clark returned calls for this article.

In the wake of the denial, Rio Arriba County ranchers are considering further appeals which could take them to the federal Forest Service’s regional supervisor in Albuquerque or even its national headquarters in Washington, D.C.

County Clerk Moises Morales, a member of the Northern New Mexico Stockman’s Association who owns 84 cattle in Canjilon, was angered by the decision. Although Canjilon, an area adjacent to El Rito, is not affected by the proposed reductions, Morales has threatened marches and protests against what he considers unilateral action by the Forest Service.

“We must start a march,” Morales said. “These guys think they’re gods.”

Rancher Sebedeo Chacon, who said he stands to lose 26 cattle in the reductions, has demanded the resignation of Trujillo. He has a petition from last February with over 500 signatures supporting her resignation after Trujillo and local ranchers butted heads over her management of the District.

And some cattlemen want outright defiance of the federal rules by local law enforcement. Forest Service rangers need to be deputized by Sheriff Tommy Rodella to have law enforcement authority in Rio Arriba County, according to statute.

Carlos Salazar, president of the Association, suggested Rodella consider snubbing federal agents and simply not enforce the reductions — a proposition in which Rodella expressed tentative interest.

“We are researching it, and within the parameters of the law, we will take a stand,” Rodella said.

Rodella said that policy differs from that of the former sheriff. Unlike Joe MascareƱas, Rodella said he will not deputize federal agents. Instead Rodella said he wants his own deputies to carry out enforcement on federal lands.

“It doesn’t make sense to deputize federal agents with no oversight,” Rodella said.

At its Jan. 7 meeting the County Commission expressed support for strengthening the County’s role in dealing with the federal government. County Commissioner Felipe Martinez said he wants to pass an ordinance that at least “brings the County to the table” when dealing with the federal government. Martinez said the possible ordinance may resemble one used in Otero County, but specifics have not yet been hashed out.

Rodella said he will uphold any ordinance passed by the Commission, but said in the meantime the stockmen’s problems should be addressed by a Congressional delegation.

David Sanchez, an Association Board member who supported Rodella’s bid for sheriff last spring, agreed.

“We believe the only way we’re going to stop this is through Congressional hearings and presenting the issues to the Secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez and the Association have already sent a letter to U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) on Jan. 10 calling for a hearing and listing the sequence of perceived injustices done to the ranchers by the Forest Service. He said there were over 2,000 permittees with cattle on federal lands in New Mexico before the 1970s; now there are roughly 600.

Sanchez hopes a Congressional hearing will at least call attention to their grievances, but said the dispute never should have progressed this far. He claimed Trujillo’s most recent decision on the Alamosa and Jarita Mesa allotments was a personal vendetta against the cattleman for a petition seeking her removal last February.

Trujillo wrote in a document outlining her decision to impose the reductions that although the reductions would appear to have a negative effect on the permittees, the expected result is a more sustainable grazing environment that would be resilient to changing weather conditions and beneficial for coming generations.

Chacon, a fifth-generation cattleman on the Jarita Mesa, said his family has grazed cattle on the land since before the Forest Service, or even the state of New Mexico, existed.

Chacon and Sanchez also argued Trujillo is not a good fit for the region and its unique, old culture of ranchers.

“She’s a very good speaker,” Chacon said. “She has a nice voice and she’s smart, but she can’t even bridle a horse.”

Chacon argued the reductions couldn’t have come at a less opportune time in light of the recent economic downturn. After the announcement of the reductions, in search of compensation, he and other ranchers from the Jarita Mesa and Alamosa Livestock Associations sent a $925,000 bill to Clark, Trujillo, the County Commissioners, former governor Bill Richardson, and other politicians.

The bill is based on amounts the ranchers calculate the two communities will lose due to the loss of 185 total cattle. Most likely the cattle that are removed from the federal land will be sent to slaughter because they are too expensive to sustain on the ranchers’ own lands, Sanchez said.

Chacon said they have received no response to the bill, and he fears the worst is yet to come.

“(The reductions are) 18 percent now,” Chacon said. “In 10 years they’ll reduce another 20 percent. There’s no hope for this community.”

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Wilderness - Schools Suffer Under Obama’s Land Grabs

By Rebekah Rast -
“The school is the last expenditure upon which America should be willing to economize.”—Franklin D. Roosevelt
There has not been a leader of this country that didn’t stress the importance of educating America’s youth.
Even Obama, very recently in his State of the Union address, acknowledged, “Over the next 10 years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school education.  And yet, as many as a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school.  The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations.  America has fallen to ninth in the proportion of young people with a college degree.  And so the question is whether all of us — as citizens, and as parents — are willing to do what’s necessary to give every child a chance to succeed.”
It is clear that education in this country has always been a priority.
Troubling and a bit ironic then is the fact that some states are battling with the federal government over revenue sources for education.  These states aren’t in a fight to receive any handouts from the federal government; instead they are struggling to keep a revenue source that belongs to them — their land.
It wasn’t always this way.  The Founding Fathers designated special territories in each state that were purposed to support schools.  A short video by CLASS, Children’s Land Alliance Supporting Schools, explains that states received these lands as they entered statehood and more than 134 million acres of land were granted by Congress to support schools.  By 2005, about half of all the states, mainly eastern states, had lost their school lands and funds due to mismanagement, but the remaining states have grown their funds to a total of $35 billion, compared to $210 million in 1905. Only 45 million acres of school trust lands remain in the U.S.
Though each state with a remaining trust fund handles it differently, they are all dependent upon the profits of the land to help support education.  Revenues off these lands are accumulated from permits that allow grazing, ranching, farming, mining and hunting and in some cases involve selling the land to a developer for the building of a residential area or mall.
These states have made wise investments over the past century to ensure future generations have a properly funded education, but it hasn’t been easy.  Many of these school trust lands are located in prime real estate locations that the federal government labels wilderness areas — areas where the land cannot be touched, taxed or profited from.
“It is a terrible truth that the federal government has more control over the economy and lands of states than elected governors and legislatures do,” says Don Todd, senior research director at Americans for Limited Government (ALG).
The federal government as of late has had a heyday labeling land as wilderness areas.  And though the federal government cannot take school trust land per se, they can take all the surrounding land, thus reducing the value of the school trust land.
“When the government takes land and ties it up, that money is not going to educate our children,” says Susan Edwards, School Community Council Member in Utah for Crescent View Middle School and Alta High School.  “The federal government is taking money away from our school children.”
If land belonging to the trust fund becomes locked in by land labeled as a wilderness area or land that needs to remain untouched due to an endangered species ruling, it is much harder for schools to generate funds off that land.  A farmer or developer would be hesitant to purchase and invest in a parcel of land that is surrounded by federal rules and regulations.
“When the federal government declares their land off limits for productive uses, the in-held school lands cannot support our schools, and Utah’s children statewide suffer,” Utah Governor Gary R. Herbert explains to ALG.
States cannot afford to receive dwindling profits from these land trust funds.  These funds are critical for schools as they finance building repairs or new technology.  In the state of Utah, trust land funds are used for student’s academic success.  The money might be spent to hire more classroom aids, form mentorship programs, build a computer lab or pay teachers who stay after hours to help at-risk children.
Utah’s Gov. Herbert goes on to say, “These issues are not merely rural issues or land issues.  They have a direct effect on public education throughout the State of Utah.  If wells are not drilled in the Uintah Basin, there will be fewer textbooks, fewer library books, fewer computers, and fewer teachers’ aides in public schools everywhere in Utah, including in the heavily populated Salt Lake Valley.  The effects of these harsh restrictive federal measures will be felt by Utah’s public school children for generations, because the school trust is a permanent trust.”
The state of Utah is already at a disadvantage when it comes to funding for its education system.  About two-thirds of the state, roughly 70 percent, is owned by the federal government.  Though the federal government said much of this land would be sold upon the state achieving statehood and that 5 percent of the proceeds would go directly to fund education, it has yet to happen.
With two-thirds of the land already swallowed by the federal government, Utah’s education revenue comes from the land it has left.  Of that land that is left, about only about 7 percent is designated as school trust land, says Cody Stewart, legislative director for Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT).  The rest of land is at risk of falling into the hands of the federal government.
Utah State Senator Steve Urquhart stated on his blog, “Wilderness designation shuts down economic activity on federal and state lands.  (Loss of royalties, severance tax, income tax, and sales tax).  It stops motorized access to those areas, meaning most people stop going there to recreate, hunt, fish, picnic, etc.  It stops oil and gas production.  It stops timbering.  It stops ranching.  It stops most any activity that adds money to Utah’s coffers.  We could be receiving serious revenues for education off those lands, but wilderness cuts that off.”
Why don’t states negotiate with the federal government and work out a land exchange?  Because, Paula Plant, co-director of CLASS explains, “land exchanges are expensive and time intensive.”
She knows of a land exchange near the Colorado River corridor that has been underway for seven years.  “If the federal government is going to create this many wilderness areas then it’s hard to find land to exchange,” she says.  “You can’t trade land that has an endangered species; you won’t be able to do anything with it.”
Another disadvantage these school trust lands might soon face:  “There is a tendency on the part of the legislators to want to use this money on other things, such as highways.  There is always a fear of the state or federal government taking over the funds,” says Kirk Sitterud, Emery School District Superintendent, a rural school district in central Utah.
But for now, those Western states that retain their school trust lands hold on to them tightly — they depend on them as will future generations.  But that isn’t to say they don’t feel the impact of actions already taken by the federal government.
“Education in the West is hurt, salaries for teachers in the West are hurt, the retirement system for educators in the West is hurt. The West is put at a decided disadvantage and very few people east of Denver comprehend that or understand that,” Utah’s Rep. Rob Bishop told ALG.  “This Administration’s policy to lock up lands and refuse to develop them to their potential, hurts kids, it hurts the education in the West, period.”
Taking a trip to Western states like Utah looks as if the federal government puts environmental policies ahead of the education system and the nation’s school children.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt said that the school should be “the last expenditure upon which America should be willing to economize.”  This doesn’t appear to be the thinking of the current Administration, and the nation’s school children of today and those of future generations will suffer for it.
Rebekah Rast is a contributing editor at Americans for Limited Government (ALG) News Bureau.  You can follow her on Twitter at @RebekahRast.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

BLM Charm Offensive Backfires, Critics Fume Over 'Wild Lands' Policy

Bureau of Land Management Director Bob Abbey's meetings with top elected leaders from Western states has failed to soothe anger over his agency's new "wild lands" policy that could extend the highest level of federal protection to millions of acres of public land.
Some who have met with the BLM director in the past week say Abbey has failed to provide key details about how the Dec. 22, 2010, executive order from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will be enforced and what impact it will have on key policies like energy development and recreation on public lands.
Utah Rep. Rob Bishop (R), who met privately with Abbey on Wednesday in Washington, D.C., said he came away "extremely frustrated" with the BLM chief's responses to fundamental questions about how the new wild lands directive will be implemented.
"I kept asking for reasons and specifics," said Bishop, chairman of the House National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee.
"'Why replace the resource management plans already in place?' They won't tell me why or what that was about," he continued.
"'How are you going to manage wild lands differently than others?' They say they'll have a new criteria or standard. 'What will that be?' They don't know, and they can't give me an example.
"'How are you going to adjust the prioritization of multiple use?' They don't know. I'm sorry, I got absolutely no answers," Bishop concluded.
The Utah Republican vowed to call top Interior officials before his subcommittee to provide more detailed answers. Meantime, he said, he and like-minded colleagues in Congress will use "whatever means of pushback is available" to keep the new wild lands policy from changing the regulatory landscape for users of public lands.
Abbey and Salazar also met this week with Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and the Environment. Simpson's office issued a statement that indicated the congressman was unmoved by the meeting and still has concerns about Interior overextending its authority on lands management.
The pressure is coming from statehouses as well.
Newly elected Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R) on Tuesday sent a letter (pdf) to Salazar asking the secretary to repeal the wild lands order lest the state's economy take a hit from new regulations created by an "administrative fiat" (E&ENews PM, Jan. 18).
In a follow-up conference call with reporters, Mead said the order "ignores the revenues our state and local governments depend upon for minerals and other development, and it fails to address the impact to ranchers and those involved in recreation."
Mead's letter came three days after Abbey sat before Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's (R) Balanced Resources Council, where senior state officials -- including Herbert and Lt. Gov. Greg Bell (R) -- grilled him for more than an hour on the new policy.
Fateful meeting
Some took as a symbolic gesture Abbey's literal misstep as approached the podium at the Utah Senate committee room in Salt Lake City, resulting in the BLM director falling face down.
The packed meeting was also punctuated by groans and jeers, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, with many in the standing-room-only crowd sporting "Stop the Land Grab" buttons.

Former Rep. Jim Hansen (R), who represented Utah's 1st congressional district from 1981 to 2002, was applauded when he told Abbey that protecting new lands without congressional approval is illegal, according to the Tribune. But the decision to invite Hansen to address the meeting was protested by council member Patrick Shea, who served briefly as BLM director under the Clinton administration.
According to others who attended the meeting, Shea stormed out after Hansen was permitted to speak.
Ted Wilson, Herbert's senior environmental adviser and chairman of the Balanced Resources Council, in an interview with Land Letter this week, downplayed the tension at the Salt Lake meeting.
"Bob's a very good guy and he tried very hard to answer the questions," Wilson said of Abbey. "I think more than anything the meeting exposed the complexity of the issue. We were hoping for easy answers, which we always do, but there aren't any and I think even director Abbey is still trying to figure it all out."
Yet some environmentalists who tried to get into the packed main meeting room but were directed to adjacent rooms where only an audio feed of the hearing was available accused state officials of stacking the meeting room with opponents to the wild lands policy.
"That meeting was designed as an opportunity to beat up on the Bureau of Land Management, and many people took advantage of that," said Heidi McIntosh, associate director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and one of the few environmentalists who got a seat in the main meeting room. "It was rigged."
Wilson scoffed at the allegation. He said opponents to the wild lands policy just arrived to the meeting earlier than SUWA and other environmentalists and got the better seats.
"We didn't have anything to do with that," he said. "The state's neutral. We're not trying to inflame anybody."
Not deterred
Celia Boddington, a BLM spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., said that the heated rhetoric from Western leaders would not shake the agency's resolve to implement and enforce the new policy to protect pristine public lands deemed to have wilderness characteristics.
Boddington said BLM experts are working to finalize the language and requirements of the wild lands order by the end of next month and the final document will contain many of the details that Western lawmakers say they want. BLM will then spend months conducting an inventory of wilderness-quality lands in each state where it has parcels.
"Whenever we do something and move forward, we're pretty certain it will attract some controversy. It's the nature of the agency," she said. "Bob Abbey wants to reach out to people, but we are moving forward."
As part of its public relations strategy, Interior this week repackaged its "wild lands" policy documents into a press release (pdf) titled "Wild Land Protection: Common Sense Management for Places Americans Love." Among other things, the release highlights editorials from national and Western newspapers praising the wild lands order.
McIntosh of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which lobbied hard to promote the new policy, said Interior is doing the right thing by pushing forward with the plan.
"I know that Bob Abbey and Interior will stick to this because they're right," McIntosh said. "And they have a lot of support."
Chilling effect on drilling
But Richard Ranger, a senior policy adviser with the American Petroleum Institute, said the wild lands policy could greatly impede energy development on public lands across the West.
Ranger said about 27 percent of the natural gas and 14 percent of the domestic crude comes from Intermountain West region, and nearly half of that production comes from wells on public lands.
"Right now, public lands in the [Intermountain West] are a key component of our domestic energy supply," Ranger said. "So we have very real concerns about the immediate and practical impacts standing in the way of new leasing in the Intermountain West."
Peter Jenks, Bishop's district director in Ogden, Utah, said some county commissioners in the district have told him that the wild lands policy has prompted BLM to re-evaluate or delay potential oil and gas leases within their counties.
"It's already having an impact," Jenks said.
But Abbey noted during last week's Balanced Resources Council meeting that 5 million acres of BLM land in the state is under lease, but only 1 million acres of leased land is in use.
And McIntosh, the SUWA official, pointed to studies showing that as much as 80 percent of BLM land in Utah is available for lease. "Something is keeping the industry from drilling," McIntosh said, "but it's not wilderness."
Click here to read Salazar's order.
Click here (pdf) to read Mead's letter.
Click here (pdf) to read the DOI press release.
Streater writes from Colorado Springs, Colo.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

New rule under fire from N.M. Cattle Growers Association

The New Mexico Cattle Growers Association filed a motion Friday with a state water-quality board to stop a new rule protecting headwater streams in designated national forest wilderness areas, even though ranchers are exempt from the regulation.

The association says the rule is another avenue through which environmental groups can sue the U.S. Forest Service over grazing on public forest lands in New Mexico.

Environmental advocates with WildEarth Guardians say the rule designating 199 perennial headwater streams as Outstanding National Resource Waters is a hard-won, common-sense regulation to protect stream quality. The rule was approved by the state Water Quality Control Commission Dec. 14 in a 7-3 vote.

The motion asks the commission to review the designation with an eye toward discarding parts, or all, of it.

The commission's makeup is likely to change under newly elected Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, and that will affect decisions on the rule, which was two years in the making. Of the 14 members on the board, 10 are appointed by Cabinet secretaries, such as the head of the state Environment Department, and four are appointed directly by the governor.

The headwaters petition was filed in February by the state Environment Department, the state Department of Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources, and the state Department of Game and Fish. The final rule exempts existing grazing permittees and also exempts acequias. The commission declined to expand the scope of the petition to include other streams in roadless areas.

The designation protects 700 miles of streams, 29 lakes and 6,000 acres of wetlands in federal wilderness areas in New Mexico. "The Outstanding Waters rule is a common-sense approach to protecting water and makes special provisions for existing uses. I simply see no basis for reversing it," said Bryan Bird of WildEarth Guardians. "The state bent over backwards to give a special exemption to cattle growers."

Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, said the rule doesn't really protect grazing permittees.

"The rule puts the onus for compliance on the U.S. Forest Service. This creates another 'cause of action' environmental groups can use to sue the Forest Service for noncompliance."

Bird said that "when the Forest Service goes to review a grazing permit that is on an allotment with a designated ONRW stream, then the Forest Service will have to make sure there are no changes that would degrade the water."

The Cattle Growers Association wants the Water Quality Control Commission to review the rule and consider designating smaller watersheds one at a time. The motion notes the association did not protest when an outstanding waters designation was sought for the Valle Vidal and the Rio Santa Barbara.

"Local people were not unhappy or upset, so we stayed out of it," Cowan said. "If this was done basin-by-basin or wilderness-by-wilderness so those people most impacted could really participate, we wouldn't be having this fight," she said.

The association continues to maintain there's a lack of scientific evidence to prove all 199 stream systems in the petition meet criteria for outstanding waters protection.

WildEarth Guardians, the Environment Department and other parties have two weeks to respond to the motion. The commission will consider the motion at its next meeting.

Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Western Watersheds Project Files Two Federal Court Cases in Wyoming

Friends, Western Watersheds Project welcomes the New Year with two new federal court cases filed in Wyoming !

WWP Challenges the Wyoming BLM Lander Field Office's Authorization of Livestock Grazing on the Green Mountain Common Allotment

WWP has conteste livestock management on the 520,000 acre Green Mountain Common allotment located south of Jeffrey City, Wyoming for more than a decade.
Last June, Administrative Law Judge Harvey Sweitzer vacated BLM's decision to authorize grazing on the allotment in response to a request for summary judgment accompanying WWP's administrative appeal.  That BLM decision would have extended the failed status quo management in addition to constructing 32 miles of new fencing in an area that is currently the largest unfenced landscape on public lands in the American West.

In response to WWP's succesful administrative challenge, BLM removed from the decision the proposed new fencing but immediately reissued a new decision which includes threat of the same degradation of riparian areas and rampant trespass as has taken place in previous years. This time, WWP is taking action in federal court to force BLM to correct these environmental problems.
The case has been assigned to the new Wyoming federal District Judge Nancy Freudenthal.
Thanks to attorney Natalie Havlina of Advocates For the West for preparing and filing this Complaint, WWP's Wyoming Director Jonathan Ratner, Dr. John Carter, WWP supporter and soil scientist Don Clarke and many others for all their support and expertise ennobling this important challenge of the Bureau of Land Management on over 500,000 acres of the Green Mountain Common Allotment.

WWP Challenges Livestock Grazing on the Split Rock Allotments of Wyoming BLM's Lander Field Office

A year ago, Western Watersheds Project appealed a Bureau of Land Management decision to authorize continued livestock grazing on over 100,000 acres of public land in a group of Wyoming BLM grazing allotments known as the Split Rock Allotments.
These allotments are adjacent to the Green Mountain Common allotment and also administered by the Lander Field Office of the BLM.  The allotments are permitted to a partnership of multi-millionaires including Dean Singleton, the primary owner of one of the largest media empires in the United States, the Media News Group that owns the Denver Post and the San Jose Mercury News among many other holdings. Another of the permittees is Dallas Horton, a Colorado veterinarian and owner of cattle feedlots and slaughterhouses.  The allotments also include the largest single sage grouse lek in all of Wyoming with several hundred male sage grouse attending each spring. 
The number of cattle the BLM approved to graze on the allotments far exceeds any scientifically justified level of use that promises degraded habitat for big game, sage grouse, and other wildlife that rely on the public land.
Having exhausted administrative remedy, and with the representation of WWP's Arizona legal council Erik Ryberg and WWP's Wyoming local council Gay George, Western Watersheds Project recently filed a challenge to the Lander Field Office decision in the Wyoming federal District Court.
This case will be heard by Wyoming federal District Court Judge William F. Downes assisted by Magistrate Judge William Beaman.

Jon Marvel
Executive Director