Monday, July 8, 2013

Court sides with ranchers over higher bid for state land lease

PHOENIX -- The Arizona Court of Appeals has rejected a constitutional challenge to the legality of procedures used by the state Land Department to determine who gets to lease state land for grazing.

In a unanimous ruling, the judges rejected the contention by WildEarth Guardians that it should have been awarded the new 10-year lease. Instead the state agency opted to give a new lease to the ranchers who had been there before.

Appellate Judge Kent Cattani, writing for the court, rejected arguments by attorney Tim Hogan of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest that the Land Department ignored a constitutional requirement that the leasing of public lands be made to the "highest and best bidder at a public auction.'

In this case, Hogan said, the agency never even opened the bid by WildEarth Guardians, instead determining that the ranchers would be better stewards of the land. But that action, said Hogan, may have cheated the state -- and the public schools that benefit from trust land proceeds.

Hogan said he will seek Supreme Court review.

The case involves a 6,237-acre grazing lease held by Galyn and Roxanne Knight adjacent to property they own near Springerville. That lease was set to expire in November 2006.

Before the end of the lease, WildEarth filed an application to lease the same land, but not to graze animals but instead let it rest. That conflict required the Land Department to ask each applicant to submit information for it to determine which has the highest and best bid.

The agency's director of the natural resource division concluded that the Knights had a superior offer, even outweighing WildEarth's offer of additional rent. But Maria Baier, who was land commissioner at the time, directed the parties to submit sealed bids for additional rent.

Baier, however, subsequently accepted the recommendation of a hearing officer and agreed to let the Knights have the land, at 40 cents per acre per year, without looking at the bids.

Cattani noted that the federal government gave Arizona about 10 million acres of land when it became a state in 1912, with the proceeds used mostly to support public schools. About 9.2 million acres remains.

He acknowledged the requirement for leases to be made to the highest and best bidder, and that leases not made in "substantial conformity' with this requirement are void.

But Cattani said state law allows the land commissioner not to take bids if one bidder's right or equity on the lease outweigh an offer of additional rent. And he said that meets what the Arizona Constitution requires.

Looking specifically at Baier's decision, Cattani said she considered the ability to protect the land.

The Knights, Cattani said, monitor the land daily, with at least 10 people who live either or or within eight miles of the property. By contrast, WildEarth indicated the land would be monitored once every two weeks.

Cattani said the property has sand, gravel and timer, includes "irreplaceable Native American ruins and fossil beds' and has been the target of illegal dumping and looters. The judge said the record shows that the Knights have better ability to monitor and protect the land, which they had leased for 28 years.

But Hogan said the constitutional requirements to take and open bids are mandatory, and all that trumps the statutory authority given to the land commissioner.

"The constitution says 'highest and best bidder,' ' he said. "How do you determine that without a bid?'

Hogan acknowledged that even the constitution does not guarantee a lease goes to the highest bidder. He said the Land Department also is entitled to weigh what is best for the land and the state.

But he said that does not give the agency the right to "ignore the 'highest' part and determine the 'best' part.'

"They're a trustee here,' Hogan said.

"They don't seem to care how much money they could make off this lease,' he continued. "And it's very clear that no amount of money was going to convince them that (higher bid) would overcome what they say are the 'superior equities' of the rancher.'

Cattani said there was some evidence that what WildEarth was offering would have resulted in $79,344 additional rent over the 10-year period. Hogan said, though, there is nothing to show how much more WildEarth was offering since Baier never opened the bids.

"It could have been $10 million,' he said. "Is that enough?'

If nothing else, Hogan said opening the bids would have given the Land Department the opportunity to ask the Knights if they were willing to pay more. That did not happen.

"The rancher gets the lease at the minimum appraised rate,' Hogan said.

"How does that benefit the trust here, the public schools,' he said. "It's the worst of all worlds here.'


Sunday, July 7, 2013

Megadrought in U.S. Southwest: A Bad Omen for Forests Globally

by caroline fraser

As brutal fires torch tinder-dry dense forests and neighboring homes in the American West, researchers are examining the relationships between drought, wildfire, and a warming climate, predicting mass forest die-offs and prolonged megadrought for the Southwest. These forces are accelerating, they say, and already transforming the landscape. Unchecked, they may permanently destroy forests in the southwestern U.S. and in some other regions around the world.

Across the West, “megafires” have become the norm. With climbing temperatures, after a century of fire suppression, the total area burned has tripled since the 1970s, and the average annual number of fires over 10,000 acres is seven times what it was then. Fighting and suppressing fires costs more than $3 billion a year, not to mention lives lost. So understanding what, if anything, can be done to reduce intense forest fires has assumed an urgent priority.

Currently suffering the worst drought in the U.S., New Mexico has emerged as a “natural experiment” in megadrought, a laboratory for understanding drought’s deep history in the region — and what might lay in store in an era of rapid, human-caused warming.

With a highly variable climate, the Southwest boasts perhaps the best-studied megadrought history in the world. It’s the home of dendrology, the science of studying tree-rings, first developed at the University of Arizona. The pronounced seasonality of hot summers followed by cold winters produces well-defined rings, while archaeological fascination with Southwestern cultures — Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde, and other sites where ancient peoples flourished and disappeared — has supported the collection and study of centuries of tree-ring data. Temperate-zone trees lay down wider rings in wet years, which narrow or vanish during drought. What’s more, rings can be precisely dated, with sets matched against each other, revealing burn scars and patterns of climate, precipitation, drought stress, and tree mortality.

Park Williams, a young bioclimatologist and postdoctoral fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory, has teamed up with other specialists at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the University of Arizona to wring new insight from the data set spanning the years 1000 to 2007. Driving recently into the Jemez Mountains near his office, we pass rust-red pines, dead or dying from drought. Later, kneeling next to a freshly cut stump, he points to a ring near the bark. “That thick ring right there is probably 1998,” he says, a wetter El Niño year.

Armed with 13,147 such site-specific cross-sectioned specimens, gathered from more than 300 sites, Williams and his co-authors devised a new “forest drought-stress index,” integrating tree-ring measurements with climatalogical and historical records for a paper published earlier this year in Nature Climate Change. Winter precipitation has long been thought important to tree growth, but another key variable leapt from this fresh examination of the data, related to a warmer, dryer climate: the average vapor pressure deficit during summer and fall, which is driven by temperature. As air grows warmer, its capacity to hold water vapor increases exponentially, which speeds evaporation and sucks more moisture out of trees’ leaves or needles, as well as the soil itself.

If the vapor pressure deficit sucks out enough moisture, it kills trees, and there’s been a lot of that going on. Looking back in time through the tree rings, Williams determined that the current Southwest drought, beginning in 2000, is the fifth most severe since AD 1000, set against similarly devastating megadroughts that have occurred regularly in the region. One struck during the latter 1200s (probably driving people from the region) and another in 1572-1587, a drought that stretched across the continent to Virginia and the Carolinas. Few conifers abundant in the Southwest — including piñon, ponderosa pine, and Douglas fir — survived that latter event, despite lifespans approaching 800 years; those species have since regrown.

The forest drought stress index correlates strongly with these periods, while 20th-century temperature records show a connection between drought and tree mortality associated with huge wildfires and bark-beetle outbreaks, such as the devastating ones of the past two decades. Williams’ study is also supported by satellite fire data from the past few decades, revealing an exponential relationship between drought stress and areas killed by wildfire.

His projections, based on climate forecasts, sparked grim headlines throughout the region: If the climate warms as expected, forests in the Southwest will be suffering regularly from drought stress by 2050 at levels exceeding previous megadroughts. After 2050, he calculates, 80 percent of years will exceed those levels. “The majority of forests in the Southwest probably cannot survive in the temperatures that are projected,” he says.

Making matters worse in the near-term, forests hit by so-called “stand-destroying” wildfires may not recover. During a recent phone interview, Craig Allen, a co-author of the Nature paper and a USGS research ecologist at the Jemez Mountain Field Station near Los Alamos, explains that the catastrophically hot fires seen recently in New Mexico, while a natural result of a century of fire suppression and dense growth during wet periods, create conditions for permanent forest loss through “type conversion.” Basically, high severity fires that burn over a wide area subvert the ability of southwestern conifers to reproduce, a process requiring nearby mother trees to drop their seeds. Ponderosa pines, for example, can’t cast their seed much more than 100 yards, virtually ensuring that large forest gaps will be replaced by shrub and grasslands, with unfortunate consequences for a range of forest services, particularly those provided by delicate watersheds. “These anomalously big patches where every tree is killed create a high risk that they won’t come back as forests,” Allen says.