Forest Service and BLM slightly lose sage grouse lawsuit in Nevada

The state of Nevada, nine counties, three mining companies, and a private ranch challenged the adoption of greater sage grouse conservation measures in Forest Service and BLM land management plans.  Most of the agency actions were upheld in Western Exploration v. USDI (D. Nevada), including compliance with FLPMA requirements of BLM for multiple use and consistency “to the extent practical” with local plans, and compliance with NFMA.  Here’s the court’s language on Forest Service multiple-use:

“Plaintiffs contend that the SFA (mineral) withdrawal zones, travel restrictions on 16 million acres of land, and grazing restrictions violate the multiple-use mandate of NFMA. They also challenge that the FEIS violates multiple-use principles because it closes millions of acres of land to important uses, replaces “no unmitigated loss” with a requirement for “net conservation gain,” and creates uniform lek buffers that are “no-go zones.”

“The Court’s review of whether the Forest Service Plan violates NFMA’s multiple use mandate is necessarily narrow, and it may consider only whether the Forest Service contemplated all relevant factors in making its determination. First, it is unclear to the Court how travel and grazing restrictions manifest the Forest Service’s failure to consider multiple use. To the contrary, the restrictions demonstrate a balance between conservation of greater-sage grouse habitat and sustainable human use of natural resources. Second, the Court fails to see how multiple use mandates that any particular parcel of land be available for any particular use.  While Plaintiffs point out certain land closures in the USFS Plan, such as complete exclusion of new solar and wind energy projects (on SFA, PHMA, and GHMA), the Plan does not exclude all possible human uses on those lands. Finally, Plaintiffs fail to demonstrate how the “net conservation gain” and lek buffer zones preclude multiple use or demonstrate a failure on the part of the Forest Service to consider all relevant factors. In fact, the move from “no unmitigated loss” in the DEIS to “net conservation gain” in the FEIS demonstrates that the Forest Service reconsidered whether their initial standard consistently balanced sustainable human use with adequate habitat conservation.”

The court did not uphold compliance with NEPA. Plaintiffs had identified several changes between the draft and final EIS, and the court agreed that, “the designation of 2.8 million acres as Focal Areas in Nevada amounts to a substantial change relevant to environmental concerns, requiring the Agencies to prepare an SEIS.  The court focused on the fact that these lands included the town of Eureka, Eureka County’s landfill, power lines, subdivisions of homes, farms with alfalfa fields and irrigation systems, hay barns, and important portions of the Diamond Valley area, and there would be a “spillover” effect from the changes in adjacent federal land management that warranted additional analysis and opportunity to comment.  Because of risk of harm to sage grouse, the court did not enjoin the plan amendments pending completion of the new analysis.

Thinning and Rx Fire Project in Wyoming Faces Competing Objections

This article illustrates the difficulties the USFS can face….

Teton-to-Snake faces competing objections

Bridger-Teton National Forest officials are being pulled hard in two directions as they try to finalize plans to thin and burn wildlands abutting the west side of Jackson Hole.

Tugging on one side of the issue are the Wyoming State Forestry Division and a band of non-Teton County commissioners, who have formally objected to plans to keep chainsaws out of the Palisades until its in-limbo status as proposed wilderness is resolved by Congress. Conservationists and biologists, meanwhile, are yanking in the other direction, asking federal officials to complete a review of the region’s baseline wilderness suitability and better study the effects on wildlife and vegetation.

Wyoming Forestry’s contention is that the most recent Bridger-Teton plans no longer adequately protect the nearly 40 miles of wildland-urban interface and 1,500 private lots adjoining the project area.

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Severe fire increasing in Oregon

Press release today from Oregon State University. The first few paragraphs:

As more of the Pacific Northwest burns, severe fires change forest ecology

CORVALLIS, Ore. — Over the last 30 years, the landscape annually affected by forest fires has slowly increased across the Pacific Northwest, and in some regions, severe blazes account for a higher proportion of the area burned than in the past.

As a result, the ecology of some of the region’s forests is changing in unprecedented ways.

Scientists calculated that less than one-half of 1 percent of the region’s forest is subject to fire in any given year. But in a project using satellite imagery and ground-based tree inventories, they also found that, in areas historically dominated by low- and mixed-severity fires, nearly a quarter of the burned landscape was subject to patches of high-severity fires that often exceeded 250 acres in size.

Studies of fires prior to 1900 suggest that severe fires occurred over smaller patches of forest and accounted for a much smaller proportion of the total burned area than they do today.

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Multiple Use Art and Photo Contest #proudtobeamultipleuseagency

This post follow up on our discussion here of the “BLM photo kerfuffle” (what is the web version of “imaginary tempest in a teapot”?) (Huff Post 0, E&E news, 1)

Everyone here knows I love me my recreation, but I wonder how some statutory missions are seen (and by whom) to be more OK than others (Parks, yes, BLM and FS no, wilderness, yes, other land allocations, no). Since multiple use was a part of the deal originally done with the western counties (as Ron Roizen has pointed out) and it is statutorily required (AKA the current law of the land), I’d like to explore why this might be the case. For example, when was the last “Multiple Use Art Show” you saw? If cities can be seen as beautiful (where people do stuff), why can’t landscapes where people do stuff be equally beautiful? Or are animals grazing only beautiful if they are wild, or in other countries? How does it work, is scenery with hiking people beautiful, fishing people OK, hunters not so much, ATV-ers questionable, coal mines a no-no, and so on. How about other land uses, like gas lines to hospitals or cell towers?

If I were a Rich Person, I might fund art and photography and writing contests that reflect and honor multiple use. However, there doesn’t seem to be a group that provides that kind of support for the concept of multiple use. Perhaps that’s why it has such a low profile. Or perhaps each “use” sticks to itself, or subdivides into groups (e.g. motorized and not recreation), that compete with each other.

I’m curious what others think about this. To kick this off, I posted a photo of elk grazing on a reclaimed methane drainage well site (methane drainage wells from an underground Colorado coal mine).

9th Circuit upholds EA for Shasta-Trinity logging project

The mantra I always use to hear was don’t use an EA if you might get sued.  Maybe things are different now?  Or maybe this was just one of those EAs that looked a lot like an EIS.

  • The Project’s proposed treatment methods will retain all existing snags greater than 15 inches in diameter, “unless deemed a safety hazard by the purchaser, or in the case of a need to meet coarse woody debris (CWD) requirements.” Because the Project only removes snags in two limited circumstances, it was reasonable for USFS to conclude that treatment methods will not reduce snag numbers below Forest Plan standards.
  • The Project’s Environmental Analysis considered a total of fourteen alternatives, five of which were discussed in detail.  The USFS reasonably concluded that not treating 17% of the Project area would thwart the major purposes of the Project.
  • USFS properly analyzed the cumulative impacts of the Project.  The Council on Environmental Quality (“CEQ”) Handbook does not require USFS to use the owl’s “natal dispersal” distance in its analysis.
  • While the uncertain effect of fires in spotted owl foraging areas may cast doubt on some aspects of the Project, the Project’s anticipated effects as a whole are not highly uncertain and do not trigger the need for an EIS.  Also, logging in designated critical habitat will be limited to areas that support lower-quality owl habitat—and no forest treatment will occur in nesting and roosting habitat.  “We think USFS has provided a ‘convincing statement of reasons’ to explain why [the Project’s] impacts are insignificant.”

Conservation Congress v. U. S. Forest Service.  March 31, 2017.

Size Matters: Bigger is better for Wilderness in America

This piece was written by longtime Wilderness advocate Howie Wolke. – mk

When it comes to wilderness, bigger is better.

From a human perspective, it is difficult to experience wilderness values such as awe, oneness with nature, solitude and challenge in isolated natural areas hemmed in by roads or noisy machines. The authors of the Wilderness Act rightly understood that if folks accepted postage-stamp sized natural areas as “wilderness”, then our perception of wilderness would lose its unique distinction. And as the wilderness idea is cheapened, so too, is wilderness on the ground.

Conservation biologists teach us that large, wild areas with connectivity to other wildlands protect native species populations from inbreeding, random loss of adaptive genetic traits (common in small isolated populations), disease, and environmental events such as wildfire, flood or prolonged drought. Species with specific habitat needs such as old growth forest or undisturbed sagebrush steppe are particularly vulnerable to problems associated with small isolated habitats. So are large carnivores, which naturally occur in much lower densities than prey species, and thus are spread thinly across large areas. Many of these vulnerable creatures are called “wilderness dependent species” and small isolated wildland tracts do not promote their survival.

As human population growth continues to explode, wildlands are increasingly impacted by adjacent human activities. Logging, mining, road building, poaching, urban sprawl, off road vehicles, livestock grazing, fences, power corridors, dams and diversions and more all serve to isolate wilderness areas. When wilderness boundaries are amoeba-shaped with “cherry-stemmed’ exclusions, we create lots of edge compared with more secure interior habitat. Along the edges are where many destructive human activities occur. So not only is bigger better, but so are areas with holistic boundaries that minimize edge.

Unfortunately, many conservation organizations are beholden to foundations that demand “collaboration” with traditional wilderness opponents. These collaborations usually produce compromised “wilderness” proposals that exclude most potential conflict areas in order to mollify the opposition. Resulting wilderness units are small, isolated and oddly-shaped, laden with boundary intrusions and non-wilderness corridors that create much edge and minimal secure interior habitat.

Of course, our political system is based upon compromise, and compromise works when both sides have legitimate concerns and common goals. When it comes to wilderness, though, remember that nowadays each wilderness debate begins with an already greatly compromised remnant wildland. So further compromise creates the political illusion of “win/win”, but on the ground the land and the wildlife usually lose.

So, bigger is better. In North America, healthy populations of grizzly bear, wolverine, lynx and many other species thrive only where big wilderness is a dominant landscape feature. Healthy watersheds thrive only where entire watersheds are protected. And dynamic natural vegetation patterns can be maintained only in large protected landscapes. For example, maintaining natural wildfire patterns is incompatible with small nature preserves near suburbs or commercial timber stands.

Protecting and maintaining real wilderness won’t get easier. But unless conservation organizations develop a better understanding of what real wilderness is and the importance of size, connectivity and wholeness, it is unlikely that the very concept of wilderness will survive for many more generations. And I mean generations of four-leggeds and all members of the biotic community, in addition to the upright two-legged great apes that we call “human.”

Howie Wolke is a wilderness guide/outfitter based in Montana’s Paradise Valley and was recently president of Wilderness Watch.

Secretary of Agriculture Nominee Perdue Hearing- DIY Journalism

This seemed like a good summary from Faith Campbell at The Center for Invasive Species Prevention.

Here’s one of my favorites quotes:

The hearing was friendly – except to the President’s proposed budget, which calls for a 21 percent cut in USDA’s discretionary spending. Ranking Minority Member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) said the budget makes it clear that “rural America is an afterthought.” But Chair Pat Roberts (R-KS) and others noted that “the President proposes and Congress disposes,” with a nod down the table to Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee’s agriculture subcommittee. Sens. Thad Cochran (R-MS), Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) — each with considerable seniority — serve on the same subcommittee.

I’m around many younger people nowadays who are really worried about the President’s budget. After spending a number of years watching this “President proposing and Congress disposing,” I am not as worried. Of course, I’m worried about their being worried…

And as for the Forest Service:

Only the U.S. Forest Service received more than passing attention. Its management of national forests was criticized. Several senators noted the crisis in funding fire-fighting. Forests, Gov. Perdue said, provide “opportunities clothed in challenges,” e.g., to implement best management practices and be better neighbors. Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) urged him to restore active management of forests, as well as to limit litigation by “extremist groups.” Perdue sympathized.

Here’s the link to this article.

Any other interesting quotes or summaries from other sources?

Controversial Gaviota Fuel Break Canceled After Lawsuit

The following was posted on the Facebook page of the California Chaparral Institute. – mk

The Forest Service has canceled plans to construct a massive fuel break in a remote corner of the Los Padres National Forest after the California Chaparral Institute and our partners, Los Padres Forest Watch, challenged the project in federal court.

Today, our organizations, along with the Forest Service, notified the U.S. District Court that the project has been canceled and requested that the lawsuit be dismissed.

The project would have removed native chaparral habitat across a six-mile-long, 300-foot-wide corridor along the crest of the Santa Ynez Mountains along the Gaviota Coast, one of the crown jewels of Santa Barbara County. The site was located far away from any structures, and contained some of the most significant stands of Refugio manzanita, one of the rarest and most endangered manzanita species in California.

The Forest Service approved the project last September without preparing an environmental assessment and without proposing any measures to protect manzanitas and other rare plants and animals in the area.

By filing the lawsuit last November, we hoped to protect the Refugio manzanita and other rare plants and animals in the path of the fuel break. The suit was also aimed at encouraging forest officials to focus their limited resources on reducing fire risk directly in and around communities.

The vast majority of fire ecologists agree that the best way to protect communities from wildfire is to create defensible space immediately around homes, and to retrofit structures with ignition-resistant building materials like fire-rated roofs, dual-paned glass, and screening. Clearing vegetation in remote areas, far away from structures, is a costly and often ineffective way to stop wildfires and protect homes.

We appreciate the Forest Service’s decision to reconsider this flawed project, and we will continue to assist forest officials in identifying and implementing proven, cost-effective ways to directly protect homes from wildfire.

Our organizations were represented by Earthrise Law Center, the environmental law clinic at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, OR – one of the top environmental law programs in the country.

U.S. Forest Service Scalped on Tongass Timber Sales

Old-growth forest clearcutting was ongoing last summer on the Tongass National Forest’s Big Thorne timber sale on Prince of Wales Island. Photo by Jacob Ritley, as part of the Tongass Groundtruth Expedition, 2016.

Thanks to longtime blog commenter and contributor, David Beebe, for posting information about this release from PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) in this comment at a previous post. – mk

Washington, DC — Recent timber sales from Alaska’s vast Tongass National Forest have been financial as well as ecological debacles, according to internal reports released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). In violation of its own policies, the U.S. Forest Service let timber operators benefit by cherry-picking more valuable trees and leaving intended salvage trees standing.

A June 20, 2016 Forest Service “Washington Office Activity Review” examined two large Tongass timber sales and found –

• Staggering monetary losses in each, “close to 2 million” in one sale, an amount “more than double the original stumpage” according to a post-harvest Monitoring Report. In the other sale, Forest Service maladministration led to “a reduction in sale value exceeding $1,700,000”;

• Despite being stewardship sales to improve forest health, the agency allowed companies to ignore prescriptions by “favoring removal in the larger diameter, more valuable species groups, such as western red cedar and spruce” while significantly undercutting far less valuable hemlock; and

• Required law enforcement timber theft prevention inspections appear to have been bypassed. Nor could the forest produce a written contract or other “pertinent documentation” for this high-volume sale. That sale also allowed “purchaser selection of trees without prior marking” and the forest’s only follow-on monitoring was completely “reliant on the purchaser’s own data.”

“This national forest runs major commercial timber sales like a cookie jar without a lid,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the review’s call for “an independent review [to] inform solutions and prevent similar issues in future timber and stewardship contracts” has run into a stone wall. “These reports read as if some Forest Service staff are coconspirators in wholescale timber fraud.”

Under the Secure Rural Schools program, a portion of all Tongass timber sale proceeds go to local communities and schools. Depressed sale values therefore cost both the U.S. taxpayers and Alaskan schoolkids. PEER is asking the Inspector General for the U.S. Forest Service’s parent agency to perform a “forensic audit” of recent sale proceeds to calculate total losses, as well as recommend steps to ensure that these sales yield the fair market value they are supposed to produce.

These were also stewardship sales using harvests to reach prescribed tree species cut criteria but they lacked any “defined process for independently confirming whether the criteria are being met. This obfuscates the acceptability of the end result.” Another issue the review identified was temporary timber roads improperly left open “for several years following commercial activity.”

“As a businessman, President Trump would presumably not write a sales contract so open-ended that it is tantamount to a license to steal,” added Ruch, pointing out that during the campaign, candidate Trump promised to increase timber jobs, presumably by directing more and larger timber sales from national forests. “We are asking the Senate to extract pledges from the upcoming nominees for the Chief of the Forest Service and the Agriculture Undersecretary for Natural Resources & Environment to ensure that all future timber sales protect both the forest resources and the taxpayer’s pocketbook.”

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Read the Forest Service Timber Sale Review

View Post Harvest Monitoring report

See PEER call for forensic audit

Look at PEER letter to U.S. Senate

Look at long history of commercial timber theft on the Tongass