Seasonals Exempt from Federal Hiring Freeze

According to this article, “”Park rangers and firefighters hired each summer to serve the nation’s public lands appear to be exempt from the freeze, according to a memo issued Tuesday evening by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget.”

The memo says this applies to, “Appointment of seasonal employees and short-term temporary employees necessary to meet traditionally recurring seasonal workloads, provided that the agency informs its OMB Resource Management Office in writing in advance of its hiring plans.” And others.

Federal Public Land Grazing Fee Drops 11% , Further Undervaluing Public Lands

According to Western Watersheds Project, yesterday federal public lands management agencies slashed grazing fees by 11% on 220 million acres of America’s public lands – including within some designated Wilderness areas. Below is the WWP press release. – mk

LARAMIE, Wyo. – The public lands management agencies announced the grazing fee for federal allotments today, which the federal government has decreased to a mere $1.87 per cow and her calf (or 5 sheep) per month, known as an Animal Unit Month, or AUM.

“This has got to be the cheapest all-you-can-eat buffet deal in the country,” said Erik Molvar, Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project. “Our public lands are a national treasure that should be protected for future generations with responsible stewardship. It makes no sense to rent them to ranchers for below-market prices to prop up a dying industry that degrades soil productivity, water, wildlife habitat, and the health of the land.”

Two hundred and twenty million acres of public lands in the West are used for private livestock industry profits through the management of approximately 22,000 grazing permits. The low fee leaves the federal program at an overwhelming deficit. This year’s fee is a a decrease of 11 percent from last year’s fee of $2.11 per AUM far less than the average cost for private lands grazing leases. The fee is calculated using a decades-old formula that takes into account the price of fuel and the price of beef, and this year’s fee falls far below the level of $2.31 per AUM that was charged in 1980. Additionally, the fee doesn’t cover the cost to taxpayers of range infrastructure, erosion control, vegetation manipulation, and government predator killing – all indirect subsidies that expand the program’s total deficit.

“The subsidy to public lands livestock grazers just got bigger,” Molvar said. “It’s a totally unjustified handout that persists for purely political reasons, with little or no benefit to Americans.”

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Resilient forests require change in “default” response to fire

Here is the key conclusion in an article published by the Ecological Society of America (the article specifically addresses “dry forests”):

One of the most important and fundamental challenges to revising forest fire policy is the fact that agency organizations and decision making processes are not structured in ways to ensure that fire management is thoroughly considered in management decisions. There are insufficient bureaucratic or political incentives for agency leaders to manage for long-term forest resilience; thus, fire suppression continues to be the main management paradigm. Current resource-specific policies and procedures are so focused on individual concerns that they may be missing the fact that there are “endangered landscapes” that are threatened by changing climate and fire…. Without forest resilience, all other ecosystem components and values are not sustainable, at least over the long-term. It is therefore necessary to create incentives and agency structures that facilitate restoration of wildland fire and ecologically based fuel treatment to forest landscapes.

The authors have recognized the problem that fire planning is not well-integrated with planning for other resources on national forest lands.  A key recommendation is to, “Make forest resilience a stand-alone, top land management priority and connect it to managing long-term for endangered species.” It criticizes the continued emphasis on fire suppression, including the strategy of suppressing fires to protect at-risk species.   The article strangely omits any specific references to the 2012 Planning Rule’s ecological sustainability requirements, which I think has incorporated resilience, and its relationship to species diversity, as a policy about as well as we could expect. The question is what will forest plans actually do to avoid the alleged “tunnel vision.” The authors credit the southern Sierra revision forests as “pioneering some of these efforts.”

The authors do offer one recommendation that I think should receive more attention in the planning process: “analyze long-term impacts of continued suppression.” I would expand the recommendation to more clearly recognize that forest plans are the place where overall fire management strategies will be adopted, including identification of resources and areas deemed in need of protection from fire. Desired ecological conditions based in these needs must then be a consideration in fire management decisions, which must by law be consistent with the forest plan. Decisions in a forest plan about or affecting fire management, including those that promote fire suppression, will have effects on ecosystems that must be evaluated and disclosed during the planning process.

Transition Shout-out to Career Feds

 

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and others at the newly renovated USDA Child Development Center. Note FS employee on the left.

I’ve worked in DC during a couple of transitions, including the last D to R transition. That one was pre-social media, so scrutinizing every miss-step was more difficult.  You had to read the newspapers, and there’s only so much space in newspapers.  And there are many, many agencies and departments where things can go wrong.

Anyway, it’s hard to describe what it’s like to have the top people replaced and for them to get hold of the reins.  Can you imagine running a company that has thousands of locations and employees and responsibilities, and you and your team have never worked there, nor with each other,  before?  It’s kind of amazing that transitions work as well as they do.  That’s because most career federal employees put aside their own partisan views and follow the Constitution, as in their oath of office.  IMHO, they deserve a big shout-out for their work this week and in the coming weeks. It’s invisible, and the glue that helps keep the government running.

Here’s a little flavor of  “another day at the office”, transition version..via this Washington Post story.

“The ARS guidance was not issued in coordination with other offices at the USDA, department officials said, and partially contradicted a department-wide memo that went out on the same day. The USDA-wide memo, issued by the department’s acting deputy administrator, Michael Young, was intended to offer guidance on “interim procedures” until a new secretary takes over USDA.

Young stressed during a phone call with reporters Tuesday evening that his guidance does not place a gag order on publication to scientific journals, does not place a blanket freeze on press releases, or prohibit food safety announcements.

“The ARS guidance was not reviewed by me. I would not have put that kind of guidance out. My guidance has to do with policy-related announcement and that sort of thing,” Young said during a phone call with reporters early Tuesday evening. “I had my memo drafted before the ARS memo, I was not a part of it.”

Young’s memo, a copy of which was given to The Washington Post, emphasizes that press releases and policy statements must be routed through the office of the secretary for approval: “In order for the Department to deliver unified, consistent messages, it’s important for the Office of the Secretary to be consulted on media inquiries and proposed response to questions related to legislation, budgets, policy issues, and regulations,” said the memo. “Policy-related statements should not be made to the press without notifying and consulting the Office of the Secretary. That includes press releases and on and off the record conversations.”

Young stressed that he is a “career official,” not a partisan appointee, and said that the memo he issued closely mirrored one sent at the beginning of the Obama administration. He also said he shared the memo with Trump transition official Sam Clovis before issuing it.

“This is really just formalizing again what is fairly standard practice within the department. I just felt like, yeah, I want to be cautious because I don’t want any surprises on my watch. I was trying to avoid any surprises,” he said.”

 

 

Court protects frog from Freemont-Winema National Forest grazing

In a case with a long history, the Oregon district court enjoined grazing in a pasture on the Fremont-Winema National Forest to protect threatened Oregon spotted frogs and sensitive plant species. The frogs congregate in pools in late summer, and so do cattle.  The court found violations of both NFMA and ESA.

The court held that annual operating plans for grazing were arbitrary and capricious because they were based on a viability analysis that assumed planned levels of grazing instead of the actual trespass and unauthorized use that was occurring and causing damage. Thus the Forest Service couldn’t show that the AOIs met the requirement in the plan to manage for viable populations of these species.

It also remanded the biological opinion that the Fish and Wildlife Service had prepared on the allotment for the newly listed frog. The court found the no-jeopardy conclusion was not supported by the record because there was no scientific basis for a 35% forage utilization rate protecting the frog, it did not provide a rationale for using studies from other areas, and did not explain why it failed to consider non-lethal incidental take in the final BiOp when it had done so in the draft. The magistrate judge suggested the latter was “a strategic application of a measurement convention that results in less apparent OSF loss…”

A NEPA claim was dismissed because Congress has overridden the usual NEPA timing requirements for grazing allotment planning.

Court slams Forest Service wilderness decision

The federal district court in Idaho has ruled against the state’s use of helicopters to collar elk in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. In Wilderness Watch v. Vilsack it held that the Forest Service failed to consider the cumulative impacts of a one-year proposal when it knew the state intended this to be part of at least a ten-year program. It found that the decision to not prepare an EIS violated NEPA.

The court also found that the Forest Service violated the Wilderness Act. In 2010, the court had approved use of helicopters to collar wolves because its purpose of “understanding the wolf” furthered wilderness values. However, the judge warned that, because of cumulative impacts (and probably because of some skepticism about the state’s motives), “the next project will be extraordinary difficult to justify,” and that the Forest Service would need to give sufficient notice to allow opponents to “fully litigate” such projects.

The Forest Service issued a special use permit in January 2016, and within two days the elk collaring was completed, along with four wolves not authorized by the permit. The court rejected state arguments that it didn’t need permission, and held that the Forest Service failed to make a proper determination that the helicopters and collaring were necessary for wilderness management because it considered only “a one-year portion of a much larger long-term plan.”

The relief granted by the court is noteworthy:

  • Injunction preventing the Forest Service from considering any of the data gathered from the elk and wolves as a result of this project
  • Injunction preventing the Forest Service from approving any future helicopter projects without delaying implementation for 90-days to allow affected groups to file challenges to the projects
  • Inunction preventing the state from using any of this data in further proposals seeking approval from the Forest Service
  • Mandatory injunction ordering the state to destroy the data received on the elk and wolves collared in this project

How do you suppose the Forest Service rewards this kind of decision-making?

Pruitt Comments on Federal Green Wood Purchasing

 

Just as I had written in some comments below, that I thought that the Trump administration will have bigger fish to fry than those from our own little policy streamlet, I ran across this from Greenwire via SAF. It’s so easy to be wrong.. Here’s the link.

 

President Trump’s nominee to head U.S. EPA, Scott Pruitt, said he’s “very concerned” about an agency policy — now under review — that has excluded much of the country’s lumber from purchase.

EPA’s preferred green program accepts only lumber certified through the Forest Stewardship Council and not two other programs — the Sustainable Forestry Initiative and American Tree Farm System.

After industry complaints, the agency said in December that it would take a closer look at the policy and removed references to the restriction from its website.

The Sustainable Forestry Initiative said 95 percent of lumber produced in the United States doesn’t qualify under the rules EPA has been following.

In answering questions at his confirmation hearing from Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Pruitt said he shared the senator’s concerns about keeping out such a large segment of the industry.

In addition, Pruitt said, he was concerned about how EPA initially implemented the policy through agency recommendations in 2015 without seeking public comment.

Wicker, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and a handful of other lawmakers have complained to EPA about the policy (E&E Daily, April 5).

“We’ve had a lot of activity on both sides of the aisle challenging this,” Wicker said. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s discrimination against domestic wood.”

While the decision rests with EPA, it affects purchasing across the federal government, noted Nadine Block, chief operating officer and senior vice president for public affairs at the Sustainable Forestry Initiative.

“The differences are few and far between,” Block said. And while EPA has cited Department of Energy policies in citing the recommendation, those policies were “outdated” and the response didn’t satisfy the industry, she said.

 

FWIW,  the EPA policy never made a lot of sense to me. How can one agency (say EPA, with fewer experts no practitioners, and possibly no public involvement) determine that another agency’s management practices (say the FS, determined by many experts, with many practitioners and with public involvement) aren’t good enough to be purchased by the feds?

What is the “best” forest value?

Folks, this is from an op-ed by Andy Geissler, a forester who works for the American Forest Resource Council in Eugene, Oregon. He is writing about a previous op-ed on the recent expansion of a national monument in SW Oregon.

The Jan. 12 guest viewpoint headlined “Expanded monument could benefit economy” offers a strange and disturbing perspective on how economic value is placed on certain commodities, and likewise, how Oregon places value on its economy. The context is the expansion of the Cascade Siskiyou National Monument in Southwest Oregon.

The authors assert that “the economic value of tourism associated with an expanded monument would vastly exceed the value of timber that could be extracted.”

I believe the flaw in this approach is that it assumes that whichever commodity generates the most economic value is inherently the “best” or most useful commodity.

I can relate to this, as I live very close to the Mt. Hood National Forest in Oregon, which attracts more than four million visitors annually. Those visitors certainly have an economic impact, but most of the folks in the local communities don’t get much of a benefit in terms of well-paying jobs. We’d be much better off if some of the former jobs in the woods, trucks, and mills were brought back — jobs that pay far more than most the recreation and tourism jobs here. And I think we could have both. For us, a more-diverse local economy would be much better than one so largely tied to tourism.

FWIW, two of the 14 homes along my rural road that sold last year were bought as vacation homes. That makes 5 homes now that sit empty most of the year. It is rare that these new owners spend any money here….

Trump will pick former fertilizer salesman & vet Sonny Perdue to be Sec of Ag (and oversee USFS)

As all of us clearly know, the person who ultimate oversees the U.S. Forest Service is the Secretary of Agriculture. Lots of people seem to assume that the U.S. Forest Service falls under the Secretary of Interior, but nope.

The choice for Sec of Ag is a huge deal if you care about public lands because the U.S. Forest Service manages 193 million acres of federal public lands all across the country (154 national forests and 20 national grasslands). That means that the U.S. Forest Service manages 30% of America’s federal public lands legacy. The USFS also manages 33% of the acreage within America’s 110-million acre National Wilderness Preservation System.

Some background information about Sonny Perdue can be found here.

In 2014, Perdue mocked “the left” and “mainstream media” for its coverage of climate change. Writing in an op-ed published in the National Review, Perdue challenged the connection between climate change and drought, extreme precipitation, and other weather events. He also wrote that climate change has “become a running joke among the public” and “liberals have lost all credibility when it comes to climate science because their arguments have become so ridiculous and so obviously disconnected from reality.”

In 2007, in the midst of an epic drought, Perdue implored residents to pray for rain, holding a prayer vigil outside of the Georgia state Capitol.

His track record on environmental issues is not much better. As governor, he championed the expansion of factory farms, and pushed against gas taxes and EPA efforts to enforce the Clean Air Act.

Perhaps Sonny Perdue will host a prayer vigil or two during wildfire season. Maybe he could also ask the Lord to forgive environmentalists for causing all these wildfires.

Interior nominee Zinke talks about federal lands

He had a lot of interesting things to say that generally put him within the normal range of political appointees to this position (a nice surprise, given some of Trump’s other nominees), including retaining federal ownership and understanding of climate issues, and this:

An admirer of President Theodore Roosevelt, Zinke said management of federal lands should be done under a “multiple-use” model set forth by Gifford Pinchot, a longtime Roosevelt associate and the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service.

Zinke also pledged to tackle an estimated $12 billion backlog in maintenance and repair at national parks, saying parks and other public lands should be a key part of Trump’s infrastructure improvement plan.

But the former Navy SEAL said his most important task at Interior will be to “restore trust” between the agency and the states and Indian tribes it serves.

“One of the reasons why people want to sell or transfer public land is there’s no trust, because they feel like they don’t have a voice,” Zinke said, referring to elected officials and residents of many Western states. “They feel like they don’t matter. Well, they should matter.”

The question of how much local interests and which local interests should matter to decisions for federal lands has always been a matter of degree and circumstances.  For example he might be talking about the “bi-partisan solutions” mentioned by Trout Unlimited.  But note the “nuanced” comment from Senator Tester, because “Zinke had last June endorsed a bill handing management of federal lands to state or local governments, while leaving ownership of those lands to the feds.”  (We should expect that USDA Forest Service policy under whomever is selected as Secretary would line up with USDI.)