Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Obama administration debating care of U.S. national forests

WASHINGTON - The Obama administration is crafting a new plan to manage the nation's 155 national forests, including six in Arizona, for the next 15 to 20 years.

At stake is the future of 193 million acres of forests and grasslands that are the nation's single largest source of drinking water and home to more than 15,000 species of plants and wildlife.

The U.S. Forest Service says the new plan, due by year's end, is urgently needed to replace the so-called forest-planning rule written in 1982 during the Reagan administration. That rule, which emphasized using the forests for logging, does not reflect the latest science on climate change and how best to protect wildlife and water, the Forest Service says.

The rule was never intended to last nearly three decades - about twice as long as expected. President Bill Clinton attempted to replace it in 2000, but his proposal was scrapped when President George W. Bush took office in 2001. Efforts by the Bush administration to draw up its own plan were derailed when the proposals were challenged by environmentalists and thrown out by federal courts.

As President Barack Obama's administration takes up the crucial but contentious issue, it is under intense scrutiny from competing interest groups that hope to shape the plan to their liking. Neither environmentalists nor business interests are happy with the first draft of the new forest rule. Conservation groups say it lacks adequate protection for wildlife and water and gives individual forest managers too much discretion in how to carry out the plan. Business groups say some of its provisions to protect species could end up kicking ranchers, timber companies and others off the land.

Industry groups also point to this year's devastating wildfires in Arizona as evidence that more logging and grazing are needed to prevent forests from becoming overgrown and fueling fires. Environmentalists say the fires underscore the need to make the forests more resilient to climate change, which increases temperatures and decreases streamflows.

A planning rule is required by the National Forest Management Act of 1976. It is intended to provide an overarching framework for the managers of individual forests and grasslands in the National Forest System to use in revising their own land-management plans, which they are supposed to do every 15 years. The rule is intended to provide guidance to forest managers on how best to protect forest health, water and wildlife while providing opportunities for recreation and economic ventures.

The first draft of the Forest Service plan focuses for the first time on how to strengthen the health of forests in the face of climate change and includes enhanced protections for water resources and watersheds, updated provisions for sustainable recreation, and a requirement that the land be managed for such multiple uses as mining, logging, energy production, outdoor recreation and wilderness protection.

The final plan, which does not require congressional approval, is expected to be published in November.

"We believe this is one of the most important conservation policies the Obama administration will undertake," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during the Clinton administration and executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife. "This is land that belongs to all of us as Americans.

'Forests' appeal

The country's national forests attract more than 170 million people a year who hike, camp, hunt, fish, go boating or whitewater rafting, ride horses, ski, and drive snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles. Visitors spend an estimated $13 billion a year in communities surrounding the national forests, supporting more than 224,000 jobs.

In Arizona, visitors are drawn to the lakes in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests (two forests managed as one), the Red Rocks of Sedona in the Coconino National Forest, the diverse "sky island" mountains in the Coronado National Forest, the bison herd in Kaibab National Forest, the Verde River headwaters in Prescott National Forest, and the saguaro-studded desert of the Tonto National Forest.

Nearly 3 million Americans have forest-related jobs in such fields as forest management, outdoor recreation and the forest products industry, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Protection urged

Environmentalists say the current rule has not proved to be strong enough to protect the watershed that carries drinking water to 124 million Americans.

Clark said about three-quarters of the forest watersheds are considered by the Environmental Protection Agency to be "impaired," meaning that federal water-quality standards are not being met. According to the Forest Service, the biggest causes of water-quality impairment include excessive sediment loads, habitat destruction near waterways and contamination from mercury and other metals.

The Forest Service unveiled the proposed rule in February, opening it up for a public comment period that lasted through mid-May. During that time, more than 300,000 individuals, groups, tribes and state and local governments weighed in on the plan, reflecting a strong interest in the issue, the Forest Service said.

Forest Service officials will consider those comments as they draw up a final rule and environmental-impact statement.

Environmentalists applaud the increased protections for water resources and watersheds, stronger requirements to provide habitat for diverse animal and plant species, and a plan to address the impact of climate change for the first time. But they say the plan undermines those goals by giving too much power to individual forest managers to decide how - or even if - to protect wildlife and water.

In Arizona, that means managers could choose whether to maintain healthy populations of bighorn sheep, turkey and elk, designated by the Arizona Game and Fish Department as priority species of concern.

Matt Skroch, executive director of the Arizona Wilderness Coalition, said he would like to see the new forest rule do more to preserve watersheds by preventing development in roadless areas and making it easier to designate new wilderness areas, where logging, mining and other resource extractions are banned. A wilderness area has not been created in Arizona since 1984.

"If you go back 110 years or so, Arizona's national forests were largely created out of an interest in protecting our watershed and our water supply," Skroch said.

View from business

At the same time, the timber, cattle and sheep industries complain that the proposed forest rule's protections for wildlife are too broad and unclear because they require the Forest Service to "maintain viable populations of species of conservation concern," which could lead to restrictions on grazing and logging. In 2010, about 2 billion board feet of timber was harvested from national forests, down from about 12 billion in 1980. The proposed new rule does not specify how much logging would be allowed.

"There is no scientific consensus on what level of any given species is 'viable' or how it is to be 'maintained,' " said Dustin Van Liew, executive director of the Public Lands Council, which represents ranchers, and director of federal lands for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "The viability standard will be impossible for the agency to meet. There will be a litigation feeding frenzy by the radical environmental groups bent on ending grazing and other multiple uses on federal lands."

Environmental litigation and complicated bureaucratic rules already have significantly reduced the number of cattle that Arizona ranchers are grazing on national-forest land, said Bas Aja, director of government relations for the Arizona Cattlemen's Association.

There are about 100,000 head of cattle grazing in Arizona's six national forests today, Aja said, about 55,000 fewer than in 1993. That represents an estimated annual loss of $126 million to ranchers and to the larger Arizona economy, he said.

Ranchers typically acquire a 10-year lease to graze on public land, but that lease must be reviewed by the Forest Service each year, Aja said.

"You may be in the middle of your 10-year lease, but the Forest Service can tell you that they've identified a new species of concern and you can't graze your cattle anymore for who knows how long while they conduct studies and environmental reviews," Aja said.

The debate between environmentalists and ranchers mirrors a split in Congress, where lawmakers have sent dueling letters to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, calling for him to heed their calls for changes in the final forest rule.

A letter organized by Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and signed by 59 House members asks Vilsack to start over. "Please do not lose this opportunity to produce a planning rule that is truly simple, understandable, flexible and (defensible) in court," the letter says.

A letter drafted by Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., and signed by 66 members of Congress, urges Vilsack to go further in protecting water and wildlife. "The course set by these sweeping new rules will determine the future of our national forests for generations to come," it says. "It is essential that we get this right."

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Mexican gray wolves face new challenges in struggle for survival

Life isn't getting any easier for Mexican gray wolves struggling against extinction.

Both politics and nature have produced new hurdles for an animal reintroduced in 1998 to vast native ranges in Arizona and New Mexico. Currently, about 50 wolves live in the wild.

The Wallow Fire, which scorched more than a half-million acres, mostly in Arizona, blazed through prime wolf habitat. A June 21 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service update said there was no evidence wolves had been killed in the fire. Adult wolves wearing radio collars were located near three dens in the burn area, but wildlife officials were still trying to determine whether pups survived. The report gives a status report on 10 packs, all of which were "exhibiting denning behavior."

It appears the wolves will survive the devastating wildfire. The politics, however, are influenced by a variety of competing ideologies ranging from ranching economics to ecosystem health that have given the Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Program a herky-jerky gait.

New Mexico's new governor, Susana Martinez, provided the most recent turn. Martinez replaced four members of the New Mexico State Game Commission, which on June 9 voted to end the state's participation in the recovery program. State wildlife personnel officially ceased their activities on Friday.

"The governor's concerns remain the same about the real and various risks of the program - everything from the cost of livestock that is lost to basic safety concerns of parents and families," said Martinez spokesman Scott Darnell in an email. "She believes we must find an equitable and fair solution to this problem, one that, in particular, provides for compensation to our hard-working ranch families for the loss of their livelihood."
Before the commission voted, Michael Robinson, with the Center for Biodiversity, sent a letter to Martinez endorsed by 12 other national and local conservation groups.

"There is strong and growing support nationally, throughout New Mexico and in the Gila National Forest region for this beautiful, intelligent, social animal that is uniquely adapted to the arid Southwest but is beleaguered and at great risk of extinction," Robinson wrote. He exhorted Martinez and her game commission appointees to "take a stance consistent with dependable science and the broad public interest."

Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson - a Democrat who preceded Republican Martinez - had directed state wildlife officials to stop trapping and killing wolves that were preying on cattle. Wolf advocates hailed that decision and supported state efforts to protect cattle, which included fencing livestock out of wolf denning areas, hazing wolves that venture into potential conflict areas and wolf feeding programs.

That approach, Robinson said, kept packs intact and caused the number of cattle killed by wolves to drop from 36 in 2007 to nine in 2010.

Nonetheless, officials in New Mexico's Catron County - which has large areas of public land designated for wolf recovery - are committed to ending the recovery program. With dwindling water supplies and other hardships, the last thing the livestock industry needs is another predator, said Catron County Commission chairman Hugh B. McKeen. County officials had asked Martinez to end the state's participation.

"Catron County engineered the ouster of New Mexico Game and Fish from the program," Robinson said in a telephone interview. "If there is depredation, I can see them (Catron County ranchers) immediately start clamoring for wolf removal."

McKeen has a different explanation for the drop in wolf attacks. He said wildlife officials under Richardson were feeding the wolves in an effort to ensure those numbers went down. Yet he also says that fewer area ranchers are reporting livestock depredations.

"So many ranchers are fed up with losing cattle," McKeen said. "And we don't want these federal people on our land."

Tod Stevenson, director of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, does not believe the changes will significantly impact the program.

"We will not have a direct hand in dealing with those on-the-ground, day-to-day issues," Stevenson said. "But this is a federal program and it always has been a federal program. We expect the (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) will staff up to continue providing those services."

Fish and Wildlife Service officials did not respond Friday to numerous phone messages requesting an interview.

New Mexico wildlife officials still will conduct biennial status reviews of state endangered species, Stevenson said. And they will continue to conduct law enforcement activities related to taking, possessing, selling or transporting any species on the state's endangered list.

"We will continue to fully investigate and prosecute violators to the best of our ability," Stevenson said.

Since the recovery program began 13 years ago, New Mexico has invested about $507,644. Federal funds obtained by the state over that time amounted to more than $1.4 million bringing the total investment to slightly more than $1.9 million. Two full-time staff members were involved, both of whom will be given the opportunity to find other positions within the department, Stevenson said.

State wildlife officials trapped and transplanted wolves; collared and tracked them; conducted feeding programs, provided range riders, fence modifications and other livestock management tools; made recommendations about wolf removals; and provided wolf location information to landowners and livestock producers, Stevenson said.

Still unknown is whether a $60,000 federal grant that requires a dollar-for-dollar state match will be maintained, Stevenson said. The money was used to reimburse ranchers whose livestock are killed by wolves and to pay for projects that minimize wolf impacts on livestock. Stevenson said his department is negotiating with the FIsh and Wildlife Service to keep that money in the program.

"We haven't got that completely resolved as to what mechanism we use," Stevenson said. "I'm pretty confident, one way or another, that we will get that done."

McKeen said he hopes they get the money "with no strings attached." He would like to see less bureaucracy involved in getting reimbursed for wolf kills and he said prevention techniques do not work.

Wolves are "not going to stay there in the Gila Wilderness," McKeen said. "They came out and started killing cattle again."

The wolf program is just the most recent example of forest mismanagement, McKeen said. A series of bad decisions - Forest Service actions that cut back on grazing and logging - are killing the livestock industry in Catron County, said McKeen, whose grandfather arrived there in 1886.

Logging would have reduced the severity of the Wallow Fire by removing deadwood that has been building up for decades, he said. Periodic wildfires in uninhabited areas also should be left to burn, he said. Without such thinning, trees suck groundwater and dry up wells, he said. Ranchers already deal with numerous other predators, including mountain lions and black bears.

McKeen has heard reports from Yellowstone National Park, where biologists say wolves are benefitting the ecosystem. Elk and deer herds are culled, making them healthier. Wolves also push the herds out of stream beds, allowing them to recover and support a wide variety of plants and animals.

"It's just a lot of hype," Mc-Keen said. "The wolves are here to further put us out of business."

In the meantime, the Mexican gray wolf hangs on.

Robinson said a successful program, which would result in a self-sustaining population, depends on more frequent releases, particularly in New Mexico.

In a May report, an interagency reintroduction team ranked 32 potential wolf release sites based on a formula that considered the results of past releases; appropriate distances from residences, towns, livestock, the recovery area boundary and other territorial wolves; and proximity to deer and elk, Robinson said. "The three top-ranked sites were all in the Gila Wilderness" part of which is in Catron County, he said.

In his letter, Robinson told Martinez that the Fish and Wildlife Service appears to be holding back on releases "in deference to perceived lack of support by your administration."

Chris Roberts writes for the El Paso Times, a member of the Texas-New Mexico Newspapers Partnership, and may be reached at chrisr@elpasotimes.com; (915) 546-6136.

Appeals court quashes rancher's claim on grazing land

The state Court of Appeals has thrown out a bid by a Southern Arizona ranching company to get title to land where its predecessors had grazed cattle for more than a century.

Without dissent, the three-judge panel rejected arguments by attorneys for Robinson Cattle that it was entitled to possession of thousands of acres that was deeded over to the state by the federal government in 1991. The court specifically rejected the company’s claim of vested property rights.

At the heart of the battle is land that became federal government property in 1853 when it got the parcel along with other lands pursuant to the Gadsden Treaty with Mexico. Judge William Brammer Jr., writing for the appellate court, said no competing claims had been asserted under Mexican law.

The federal government took the land out of public domain in 1902 to become the Santa Rita Forest Preserve.

Before that happened, though, Robinson’s predecessors had entered the parcel and later began grazing it. One predecessor even obtained title to a 160-acre homestead within the parcel.

Robinson eventually got the homestead and possessory rights to the parcel. And the company has continued to graze cattle on the parcel in a series of cooperative agreements with the University of Arizona, which manages what is known as the Santa Rita Experiment Range for research purposes.

When the last agreement was not renewed, UA sent Robinson a letter terminating its right to occupy the land.

The state then filed an action seeking clear title. Robinson filed a counterclaim, also seeking title.

When a trial judge dismissed Robinson’s claim without trial, he appealed.

Robinson says it is entitled to ownership of the parcel. That is based on an argument that, under local law and customs, and “pursuant to laws of Congress,’’ its predecessors obtained title to the property — and that its rights vested before the parcel was reserved by the federal government.

Brammer said that argument is flawed.

“Only Congress can authorize rights in public lands,’’ he said.

“Although the United States has allowed persons, sometimes called settlers, to graze livestock on public domain, such permission only gave rise to an implied license,’’ the judge continued. And Brammer said the federal government could revoke that right at any time, with no vested right to those who had been grazing cattle there.

What that means, Brammer said, is any “local laws and customs’’ that Robinson claims entitle the company to the property exist only if Congress authorized those rights explicitly. And the judges said an 1866 law that Robinson cited only acknowledges water and ditch right-of-way rights created under state law.

The judge also pointed out that when the federal government gave the land to Arizona, there were no reservations about any rights belonging to Robinson or any predecessor. More to the point, Brammer said, if the federal government considered Robinson the owner of the parcel, it never would have granted title to the state.

The court sidestepped the question of whether Robinson can access any water rights or improvement on the parcel without the state’s permission. The judges said he may have such rights but that needs to be decided through an administrative appeal to the proper state agency.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Ranchers eye Utah grazing program's success

Idaho ranchers and county commissioners are eyeing a unique grazing program in Utah that has resulted in millions of dollars of improvements in range conditions and water quality in that state.

Created by the Utah Legislature in 2006, the Utah Grazing Improvement Program has enabled that state to team with the private sector and federal agencies to make about $25 million in rangeland improvements.

It has also assisted ranchers sued by environmental groups, a facet of the program that is of particular interest to Idaho cattle producers.

Troy Forrest, a grazing rangeland coordinator with the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, explained the program to Idaho cattle producers recently during the Idaho Cattle Association's mid-year conference.

Though the legislature initially funded the program to the tune of $2 million annually, that amount has dropped to $1.4 million because of the economic recession, Forrest said. Still, he added, the program has been able to leverage the $10 million it has received from the state to generate another $15 million from private and federal sources.

The money has been used to make an extensive array of rangeland improvements, including installing fencing, seeding, managing brush, fighting invasive plant species and improving water quality and availability.

Forrest said about 50 percent of the program's funds are used on water improvement projects, including developing springs and wells and laying miles of pipeline to better distribute livestock, benefit wildlife and lessen impacts to riparian areas.

Program funds have been used to purchase equipment such as drills that are available for lease at a minimal price for range improvement projects.

Utah had its worst ever fire season in 2007 and program funds were used to reseed badly damaged areas.

The program partners with other land management agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service and "we've been able to affect public policy in that way," Forrest said.

Forrest said the program spends a lot of money on monitoring so when BLM allotments come up for renewal, "we have hard data that can be used in federal court to defend (the agency's) decisions."

The program has filed as intervenors on behalf of ranchers in some anti-grazing lawsuits and has also brought in experts to testify and submitted court briefs.

"We have good science to back up what we're doing," Forrest said.

He said federal grazing improvement programs are poorly funded and Utah lawmakers "saw a gaping hole where we could step in and help make improvements to public and private lands."

The presentation got the attention of Idaho Rep. Jim Guthrie, a Southeast Idaho rancher. He said such a program could benefit Idaho ranchers, though he added it's too early to speculate on whether the Idaho Legislature would create and fund such a program.

"Avoiding lawsuits may be the wrong reason for doing it, but taking care of the land is the right thing to do regardless of what motivates you to do it," he said. "I think any time the cattle industry can collectively work to improve range conditions, it's a good idea.