Thursday, May 31, 2012

Drought, policy changes may spark more huge fires

RESERVE, N.M.—A massive wildfire in the New Mexico wilderness that already is the largest in state history spread in all directions Thursday, and experts say it's likely a preview of things to come as states across the West contend with a dangerous recipe of wind, low humidity and tinder-dry fuels.
The erratic Gila National Forest blaze grew overnight to more than 190,000 acres, or nearly 300 square miles, as it raced across the area's steep, ponderosa pine-covered hills and through its rugged canyons.
More than 1,200 firefighters are at the massive blaze near the Arizona border, which has destroyed 13 cabins and about a dozen outbuildings, fire information officer Iris Estes said.
Experts say persistent drought, climate change and shifts in land use and firefighting strategies mean other western states likely will see similar giant fires this season.
"We've been in a long drought cycle for the last 20 years, and conditions now are great for these type of fires," said Steve Pyne, author of "Tending Fire. Coping with America's Wildland Fires" and a life science professor at Arizona State University. "Everything is in line."
Agencies in New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and other western states are bracing for the worst. Many counties have established emergency telephone and email notification systems to warn of wildfires, and most states have enlisted crews from nearby states to be ready when the big ones come.
"It's highly likely that these fires are going to get so big that states are going to need outside resources to fight them," said Jeremy Sullens, a wildland fire analyst at the National Interagency Fire Center. According to the National Weather Service, a dry climate is expected to prolong drought conditions across the Great Basin and central Rockies during the fire season. Large portions of Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico will remain under severe drought conditions.
"We're transitioning from La Nina to El Nino so we have no guidance to what's going to happen, like if we will get more rain or less rain," said Ed Polasko, a National Weather Service meteorologist.
And it's unclear what type of relief will come from monsoon season, which starts in mid-July, since experts say it's difficult to predict what areas in the West will benefit, Sullens said.
A lack of moisture means fewer fuels to burn in some areas, but unburned vegetation elsewhere could pose a problem since states received no sustained snow or rain this winter and spring.
That's what happened in New Mexico's Gila Wilderness, where a lack of snow failed to push down grass, which worsened the fire danger, Sullens said.
Typically fires in the area don't cross the middle fork of the Gila River, said Danny Montoya, a member of the fire's incident command team.
"This year, it did get across," Montoya said. "We're getting humidity levels during the day about 2 to 3 percent. Normally, during summer you'd see 5 to 12 percent."
The two-week-old Gila forest fire is the largest wildfire burning in the country. Its size this week surpassed New Mexico's last record fire, a blaze last year that charred 156,593 acres and threatened the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the nation's premier nuclear facility.
Officials on Thursday closed the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument due to smoke generated from the fire. The National Park Service said the closure would remain in effect until conditions improve.
Montoya said he wouldn't be surprise if smoke from the fire remained until monsoon season since the fire is burning in rough areas and it's difficult for crews to fight it head-on.
Estes said the blaze is 5 percent contained.
"We're continuing with burnout operations and we've been helped with a slight rise in humidity and decreased winds," she said.
New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez was scheduled to fly over the fire Thursday to survey the damage.
Other reasons states in the West will see more massive fires this season is because, coupled with drought and dry climate, crews have experienced changes in firefighting strategies and agencies have changed some policies in fighting wildfires in isolated areas, Pyne said.
"In the last 20 years or so, agencies have generally been reluctant to put firefighters at risk in remote areas," Pyne said. "It wasn't like that decades ago."
Instead, he said agencies have focused attention on burnout operations until conditions are safe to begin containment.
Not that those practices and the larges fires are bad things, Pyne said. For example, he said the Gila Wilderness has been a target for controlled burns.
"So maybe," Pyne said, "this is how it's supposed to happen."

Wednesday, May 16, 2012


Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility News Release (
For Immediate Release: May 14, 2012
Contact: Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337

33 million Acres of BLM Grazing Allotments Fail Basic Rangeland Health Standards 

Washington, DC — A new federal assessment of rangelands in the West finds a disturbingly large portion fails to meet range health standards principally due to commercial livestock operations, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).  In the last decade as more land has been assessed, estimates of damaged lands have doubled in the 13-state Western area where the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) conducts major livestock leasing.     

The “Rangeland Inventory, Monitoring and Evaluation Report for Fiscal Year 2011” covers BLM allotments in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.  The report totals BLM acreage failing to meet rangeland health standards in measures such as water quality, watershed functionality and wildlife habitat:
  • Almost 40% of BLM allotments surveyed since 1998 have failed to meet the agency’s own required land health standards with impairment of more than 33 million acres, an area exceeding the State of Alabama in size, attributed to livestock grazing;
  • Overall, 30% of BLM’s allotment area surveyed to date suffers from significant livestock-induced damage, suggesting that once the remaining allotments have been surveyed, the total impaired area could well be larger than the entire State of Washington; and
  • While factors such as drought, fire, invasion by non-native plants, and sprawl are important, livestock grazing is identified by BLM experts as the primary cause (nearly 80%) of BLM lands not meeting health standards.
“Livestock’s huge toll inflicted on our public lands is a hidden subsidy which industry is never asked to repay,” stated PEER Advocacy Director Kirsten Stade, noting that the percentage of impairment in lands assessed remains fairly consistent over the past decade.  “The more we learn about actual conditions, the longer is the ecological casualty list.”

Last November, PEER filed a scientific integrity complaint that BLM had directed scientists to exclude livestock grazing as a factor in changing landscapes as part of a $40 million study, the biggest such effort ever undertaken by BLM.  The complaint was referred to a newly appointed Scientific Integrity Officer for BLM but there are no reports of progress in the agency’s self-investigation in the ensuing months.

At the same time, BLM range evaluations, such as this latest one, use ambiguous categories that mask actual conditions, employing vague terms such as “making significant progress” and “appropriate action has been taken to ensure significant progress” that obscure damage estimates and inflate the perception of restoration progress.  For example, in 2001 nearly 60% of BLM lands (94 million acres, an area larger than Montana) consisted of grazing allotments that were supposed to be managed to “improve the current resource condition” – a number that has stayed unchanged for a decade.

“Commercial livestock operations are clearly a major force driving degradation of wild places, jeopardy to wildlife, major loss of water quality and growing desertification throughout the American West,” Stade added, while noting that BLM has historically been dominated by livestock interests.  “The BLM can no longer remain in denial on the declining health of our vast open range.”


Look at the PEER distillation of the new BLM numbers
See BLM 2011 Rangeland Evaluation Report

View all past BLM Rangeland Evaluations
Review PEER complaint that BLM excludes grazing from scientific assessments

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Endangered-species truce faces big test from little sand dunes lizard

It wasn’t too hard for the Fish and Wildlife Service to decide the fate of 92 freshwater snails, or 17 dragonflies, or indeed more than 500 species over the past year. But when it comes to the dunes sagebrush lizard, trouble looms.
The small spiny reptile seeks refuge from the hot sun and potential predators in the shinnery oak dunes of southeastern New Mexico and West Texas. Ranchers have been clearing the oak shrubs, and oil and gas companies are drilling in the dunes. If the lizard is designated as an endangered species, some of those activities could be in jeopardy.
The lizard’s future is among the first in a series of wrenching tests threatening what has been a year-long cease-fire in the fight over endangered-species listings.
Since two environmental groups reached landmark settlement agreements last year with the Fish and Wildlife Service, the government has resolved dozens of long-standing cases. State and industry officials who spent years largely resisting conservation efforts are now scrambling to protect imperiled species in the hopes of keeping them off the federal endangered-species list.
But now the Obama administration must decide whether to provide federal protection to a handful of animals that share their habitat with oil and gas rigs, cattle and wind turbines. And groups on both sides of the debate are skeptical of whether federal officials can make fair decisions — several of which will have ramifications for swing states in the West — in a presidential election year.
“Clearly the notion that there’s a truce is very fragile,” said Defenders of Wildlife President Jamie Rappaport Clark, who headed the Fish and Wildlife Service under President Bill Clinton.
According to last year’s settlements, WildEarth Guardians agreed to curtail its petitions and lawsuits aimed at the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Center for Biological Diversity agreed to space out its litigation, in exchange for a commitment that the agency will issue protection decisions for 841 plants and animals.
“This settlement gave us the breathing room to really focus on conservation, which is really what the [Endangered Species Act] is about,” said Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe. “We’re really able to focus our conservation effort.”
In fiscal year 2011, the agency made more positive listing decisions, 539, than in any year in the law’s 39-year history. But those decisions — that a species deserved federal protection or warranted further review — covered those whose conservation did not have huge economic implications, such as mollusks in the Pacific Northwest and springsnails in the West’s Great Basin region.
“It’s the calm before the storm,” said Sen. James M. Inhofe (Okla.), the top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

The dunes sagebrush lizard
The storm may start with the dunes sagebrush lizard, first listed as a candidate for federal protection in 1982. Since then its habitat has been reduced by 40 percent. Fish and Wildlife proposed listing the animal, also known as the sand dunes lizard, as endangered in December 2010.
The agency was set to issue a final decision a year later but delayed doing so by six months in the face of fierce congressional resistance. Now it must decide by mid-June what to do about the lizard. Some of its habitat overlaps with the oil-rich Permian Basin, which produces 17 percent of the nation’s annual onshore oil supply.
Permian Basin Petroleum Association President Ben Shepperd, whose group represents 900 oil and gas producers in New Mexico and Texas, estimates that the association has spent between $500,000 and $1 million on consultants who have conducted their own census of the lizard and challenged several aspects of agency’s listing proposal.
“The evidence does not point to a threat to this species,” Shepperd said, adding that his members fear this decision — along with ones on the lesser prairie chicken and spot-tailed earless lizard, also mandated under the settlement agreement — could restrict oil and gas drilling. “We think the impact is in the billions of dollars.”
Rep. K. Michael Conaway (R-Tex.), who has threatened to block Fish and Wildlife from listing the dunes sagebrush lizard, said the agency needs to prove it can do a better job of taking economic considerations into account in listing decisions.
“We have to factor that into what we can and cannot do,” he said.
The agency cannot take economics into consideration when making a listing decision, though it can factor in economic impact when drafting plans to conserve listing species.
“The listing decision is a scientific diagnosis,” Ashe said. “Once that’s been made, you can take into account other factors.”
Advocates for the lizard call Shepperd’s dire economic predictions exaggerated. Its historic habitat accounts for just 2 percent of the Permian basin, said Center for Biological Diversity Executive Director Kieran Suckling, and federal officials have already indicated they will not prohibit energy exploration on that entire range.
One of the main reasons why the lizard may not mean economic doom for New Mexico and Texas oil and gas firms lies in the “candidate conservation agreements” they have just forged, under which they voluntarily agree to protect its range. New Mexico now has a plan for 93 percent of the lizard’s habitat. Private companies contributed at least $2.5 million to invest in sand dune lizard conservation and pledged to consider voluntary steps that include removing well pads and roads on abandoned wells and designating buffers of more than 600 feet around sand dune complexes where the lizards live. Texas is still assembling a program.
In Texas, the comptroller will enter into an agreement with private landholders; in New Mexico, a nonprofit organization will oversee the pact.
Ashe said the plans are encouraging, adding that it is not clear yet whether it will be enough to avoid listing the lizard.
The lesser prairie chicken
Western oil and gas drillers are not the only ones scrambling to protect vulnerable species as a way of keeping them from being added to the endangered list. Fish and Wildlife must decide by Sept. 30 whether to propose listing the lesser prairie chicken, a grayish-brown grouse that lives in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. In 2015, it must decide whether to list the greater sage grouse, whose historic habitat traverses 11 states.
Tyler Powell, director of Oklahoma’s Office of the Secretary of the Environment, estimated that he spends a fifth of his time working to keep the lesser prairie chicken off the endangered-species list. The state hired two firms to develop a management plan that aims to minimize conflicts between the bird — which rams into ranchers’ fences and is deterred from nesting by tall wind turbines — and the energy and farming sector in northwest Oklahoma.
“We think we’ve started to get some room where we’ve shown we’ve taken this seriously and we’re going to take every effort possible to conserve the species,” Powell said.
Inhofe, who initially held up Ashe’s nomination as director over the issue, pressed Ashe last week over whether he would provide Oklahoma with “flexibility” in terms of the listing. In an interview, Ashe said that could mean a six-month delay in finalizing a proposed listing decision, which otherwise would come at the end of 2013.
Chermac Energy President Jaime McAlpine, who has developed three wind farms in the bird’s historic habitat and is considering three more projects in its range, recently agreed to pay $2.5 million for lesser prairie chicken habitat conservation as part of a transmission line deal with the state wildlife department.
“Needless to say, I reluctantly agreed to pay,” McAlpine said. “Economic development is hard enough as it is.”
Mark Salvo, wildlife program director at WildEarth Guardians, questioned whether these efforts will be enough to help the lesser prairie chicken.
“There is no reason why states shouldn’t have been working to protect and recover the species years ago,” he said, noting it has been on the candidate list for a decade.
Even when the law has produced successes, it is not without controversy. A year ago, Congress voted to take gray wolves in the northern Rockies off the endangered-species list, ratifying a decision by Fish and Wildlife that had been blocked by a federal judge. Idaho recently ended a hunting and trapping season in which nearly 40 percent of the state’s gray wolf population was killed.
Clark, of Defenders of Wildlife, described the gray-wolves situation as “a powder keg ready to go off.”
“You can’t just go from fragile recovery to open season in a blink of an eye, and that’s what’s happening,” she said.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

NM Bootheel ranchers in fight with big landowner

 By RUSSELL CONTRERAS Associated Press

    CLOVERDALE, N.M.—Deep in New Mexico's Bootheel along the U.S.-Mexico border sits a historic 500-square mile ranch once owned by William Randolph Hearst. Now called the Diamond A Ranch and operated by Seth Hadley, a descendant of Anheuser-Busch founder Adolphus Busch, the large holding that straddles the New Mexico-Arizona border has been called one of the "Last Great Places" by environmentalists for its focus on saving wildlife.
    But among the canyons of the Peloncillo Mountains and the serenity of the pinon-juniper woods of the Animas Mountains, Hadley and neighboring area ranchers are locked in an ongoing dispute over traditional ranch land usages and access to public lands and country roads. Smaller, area ranchers accuse Diamond A Ranch of routinely putting up fences on public land and trying to close roads by erecting gates with padlocks, a move that on at least one occasion drew an injunction from a state judge.
    They also say Hadley's focus on environmental concerns, which sometimes result in vast chucks of land being set aside for wildlife, makes it harder for them to navigate through the sprawling ranch and keep up with usage rules.
    All those moves, ranchers say, are slowly changing the way of life in the Bootheel as areas long visited by hunters, ranchers and originally by homesteaders are being shut out.
    "I think (Diamond A Ranch) would rather ask for forgiveness rather than ask for permission," said Judy Keeler, a neighboring rancher who runs an 8,000-acre ranch. "We're friendly with them but it's been an ongoing battle."
    A Diamond A Ranch spokeswoman declined to comment for this story.
    Currently, the two sides are locked in a fight over a fence on Diamond A property that prevents hunters from parking to hunt in the Coronado National Forest.
    The disputes between the ranchers and Diamond A also played out in January when the U.S. Border Patrol announced it would build an outpost on a plot owned by Diamond A rather than on U.S. Bureau of Land Management land closer to the border. For months prior to the U.S. Border Patrol's decision, ranchers had held meetings in nearby Lordsburg, N.M., signed petitions and wrote letters demanding that the border patrol build the outpost on federal land closer to the border.
    Border Patrol officials have called the unforgiving terrain, where Geronimo made his last stand, one of the last unguarded regions between the United States and Mexico. They said the proposed outpost on Diamond A land made the most strategic sense in battling Mexican cartel traffickers who routinely travel through nearby mountains with carpet stuck to the bottoms of their shoes to hide their tracks.
    Still, the decision only hardened the belief among some ranchers that Hadley's influence outweighed their concerns. "I wasn't surprised," said Meira Gault, 62, who along with her husband, Stephen, 71, operates a 20,000 acre ranch just north of the border. "He usually gets his way."
    In 1993, the Hadley family bought what was then called the Gray Ranch. The Nature Conservancy included the Gray Ranch on its "Last Great Places" list, and the Hadley family gave portions to the Animas Foundation, an environmentally concerned group headed by the Hadley family.
    Environmentalists immediately praised the ranching foundation for preserving and improving the ecosystem of the large ranch and for providing pastures for nearby drought-stricken ranches in a unique "Grassbank" arrangement that lets ranchers graze their cattle on the ranch in return for an agreement never to subdivide their own land.
    But while Diamond A won praises from environmentalists, area ranchers complained that Hadley bought up smaller ranchs to increase his holdings, and also would put up fences on public land, regardless of complaints, preventing movement of cattle.
    In 1997, a district judge ordered Hadley to remove the padlock he put on a cattle gate on County Road 2 near Cloverdale. Hadley said he owned the road built during the Mexican-American War, but county officials disagreed and said it was preventing others from using the public road built by the U.S. Army.
Despite the constant back and forth, area ranchers lament that the biggest transformation since the Hadleys bought the ranch has been a discontinuation of annual community events.
    For example, families who descended from the area's original homesteaders used to hold reunions on land now owned by Diamond A. During a recent afternoon, an abandoned concrete dance floor could be seen among shrubs and grass.
    "There used to be events here all the time and everyone would come together," said Gault. "That just doesn't happen anymore."

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Two New Studies Identify Major Flaws in the Equal Access to Justice Act

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Contact: Christine D’Amico (202) 225-2311 May 2, 2012 To support the nation’s veterans, seniors and small business, Lummis and Barrasso call for swift passage of Government Litigation Savings Act Government Litigation Savings Act ends misuse of tax-payer reimbursements, and improves EAJA for needful users. WASHINGTON – The Government Accountability Office (GAO) and Notre Dame Law School published separate studies on the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) this week that show funds intended for the nation’s veterans, seniors and small businesses are flowing to environmental groups contrary to Congressional intent. The Notre Dame law review article provides a comprehensive history of EAJA, and relies on a broad analysis of court records and public tax returns to show that millions of dollars are paid out to environmental groups using a social safety-net program not designed for them. The GAO study confirms that while the amount of tax-payer reimbursements to environmental groups is likely in the millions, the federal government has not kept track. “We have known for some time that the Equal Access to Justice Act needed attention, but these new reports from respected institutions shine a spotlight on the urgency of the matter,” Rep. Lummis (R-WY) said. “These two studies confirm that EAJA is broken and the government is not keeping track; it throws up unnecessary roadblocks to those who deserve the help, and at the same time is a free-flowing spigot for those the law was not intended to assist. But it can and should be fixed as soon as possible. Environmental laws exist for environmentalists; EAJA is for seniors and veterans in need.” “It’s time to return EAJA back to its original intent of helping our nation’s veterans, seniors and small businesses,” said Barrasso. “For far too long, we’ve watched special interest groups fund their anti-multiple use agenda with Americans’ hard earned taxpayer dollars. These new reports confirm the pressing need for more accountability and transparency when it comes to EAJA payments. Americans deserve to know who their money is going to and how exactly it’s being spent.” H.R. 1996, the Government Litigation Savings Act, will modernize the Equal Access to Justice Act by improving the process for legal fee reimbursement for veterans, seniors and small businesses, and providing greater certainty on the amount of reimbursements available for these deserving groups. At the same time, H.R. 1996 removes tax-payer subsidies for litigation filed outside the boundaries set by the nation’s environmental laws. The bill is supported by over 100 groups representing conservationists, sportsmen, outdoor recreationists, small businesses and farmers and ranchers. Highlights from the GAO and Notre Dame studies include: · Intended originally as a cost saving mechanism, the $125 an hour cap on attorney’s fees is routinely “evaded,” and despite court instructions to narrowly interpret EAJA’s language to increase fees for special factors, EAJA reimbursements range from $157 to over $500 an hour. Notre Dame Journal of Legislation, pages 36 – 41. o The Government Litigation Savings Act corrects this problem by creating a clear hourly rate applied equally to all legal representation no matter their area of expertise. · The absence of an equitable cap on the net worth of groups eligible to receive EAJA reimbursement, combined with the absence of any federal oversight provides the opening for well-heeled organizations to sue the federal government repeatedly over procedural issues outside the bounds of environmental law. Notre Dame Journal of Legislation, pages 41-45. o The Government Litigation Savings Act corrects this problem by establishing a uniform net worth cap of $7 million, and institutes a robust tracking and reporting requirement. · Reviews of open court documents from September of 2009 to October of 2010 reveal payments to twenty environmental litigants that totaled at least $5.8 million, while an examination of tax returns from these same twenty groups showed the average yearly attorneys’ fees totaled $9.1 million. Notre Dame Journal of Legislation, pages 48 – 54. o The Government Litigation Savings Act corrects this problem by requiring an EAJA applicant to show a “direct and personal” impact of the government’s action to receive reimbursement. · After interviewing 75 bureaus and agencies within the United States Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior, the GAO determined that only 10 could provide any data on EAJA reimbursements. One of those ten, which is housed in the Department of Interior, relied on employee memory to create the data. The GAO study is clear that the number of cases and awarded amounts the agency could identify are not “comprehensive, or precise.” Limited Data Available on USDA and Interior Attorney Fee Claims and Payments, Government Accountability Office. · GAO, which relied only on what the 10 agencies were able to provide, still identified $4.4 million in EAJA payments. This number does not match court documents, tax returns, and is derived from a much larger amount of legal fees. For example, the Forest Service identified over $16 million in legal fees, but could only identify the source of $2.3 million. o The Government Litigation Savings Act corrects both of these problems by requiring a robust tracking and reporting requirement administered by a third party, disallowing any agency from making the decision that a payment of tax-payer dollars is “too small” to track, or “not needed.”