Public lands are under widespread attack, just when our need for them is greater than ever

The following guest post was written by Chris Krupp, WildEarth Guardians’ Public Lands Guardian. Chris grew up playing in the fields and woods of his grandparents’ dairy farms in central Wisconsin. He received his J.D. from the University of Washington and his B.A. in Economics from Lawrence University. Prior to joining WildEarth Guardians, Chris was staff attorney for Western Lands Project for fifteen years. He enjoys camping and hiking with his family, as well as vegetable gardening and cooking. – mk

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought to light the importance of wild places in all our lives. Yet the Trump administration is intent on their destruction through unmitigated extractive uses such as oil and gas development, mining, logging, and grazing to benefit private industries.

Wild places—most of which, at least in the U.S., are on public lands—safeguard and improve public health in numerous ways. Studies confirm what is intuitive to anyone enjoying a beautiful day in nature: greater contact with the natural world reduces stress, anxiety, and depression, as well as physical manifestations that often accompany these conditions.

Paradoxically, wild places keep us healthy by limiting our exposure to nature’s ills by creating a physical buffer between human populations and the wildlife that can transfer bacteria and viruses. Covid-19 is not the only recent example of a disease existing in the wild prior to jumping to humans—Lyme disease in the U.S. and the Ebola virus in Africa have been traced to human encroachment upon wild places. Lyme disease, which is transmitted to humans through the bite of ticks infected with a particular species of bacterium, was first diagnosed in Connecticut in 1976. Its current prevalence is thought to be the result of the expansion of suburban neighborhoods into formerly wooded areas and an accompanying reduction in predator populations that control the numbers of deer and rodents that normally host the ticks.

More broadly, wild places support greater biodiversity than places where humans have a heavier presence on the land. And biodiversity gives resilience to the natural systems and cycles that make the planet habitable to humans, as healthy, species-rich ecosystems adapt more easily to stressors such as climate change. It’s no exaggeration to say there’s no humanity without biodiversity.

Wild lands are also carbon sinks that capture and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere—especially forests, though grasslands and deserts store significant amounts of carbon as well. Preservation, and even expansion, of wild places will be crucial in tempering the extent of climate change.

At a time when the need for wild places and public lands is so clear, it’s infuriating and illogical that the Trump Administration is pushing hard for the removal of protections for endangered speciesclean air and water, and public participation in land management decisions, all while federal land management agencies are ramping up efforts to drillminegraze and cut trees on public lands across the West. In Utah, the Bureau of Land Management is plowing ahead with plans to offer more than 100,000 acres of public lands near Canyonlands and Arches national parks for oil and gas leasing. The Trump administration has proposed reopening public lands on the north rim of the Grand Canyon to uranium mining despite a 2012 moratorium imposed to prevent further poisoning of the landscape. In an effort to push projects through faster and with less public oversight, the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service announced they will no longer analyze the environmental or public health impacts of vast categories of extractive uses—including fossil fuels, logging and grazing—that generate corporate profits at the expense of public lands and human health. Capitulation to the extractive industries has also had a disproportionate impact on low incomeBlackIndigenous and People of Color communities. Every extractive industry seems to be getting a sweetheart deal, while vulnerable communities, wildlands, wildlife, wild rivers, and public health bear the consequences.

In the recent past, we have seen states and extractive industries pushing for the transfer of public lands into private or state hands that don’t have to comply with all the federal environmental laws that protect the lands, waters, species, and neighboring communities. Yet advocates for public lands privatization or “transfer” to the states have been surprisingly silent during the coronavirus pandemic. Maybe they’re self-aware enough to know their perceived grievances won’t register with a country currently grappling with systemic racism, a public health crisis, and economic dislocation.

Or maybe they remember that past efforts to legislate the mass sale or transfer of public lands to states or private industries have been overwhelming failures. In 2012 Utah enacted the Transfer of Public Lands Act, which demanded that the United States “extinguish title to public lands and transfer title to those public lands to the state on or before Dec. 31, 2014.” The federal government has not felt compelled to respond to the absurd demand. Utah later passed a bill to authorize a lawsuit against the U.S. to “take back” those same public lands. It’s amounted to nothing, other than lining some lawyers’ pockets. And in 2017, then-Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), after facing widespread public outcry, was forced to withdraw his bill to sell off millions of acres of public lands across the West.

As a result of these past failures, conservative lawmakers and industry proponents have looked to alternative means to make it easier for extractors and developers to exploit public land resources. That’s largely what we’re seeing now: the effective privatization of public lands by weakening the regulatory safety nets that protect wildlands, waters, species, and public health; as well as the removal of public oversight from agency decision-making. It should come as no surprise the Secretary of the Interior was a long-time industry lobbyist who advocated for privatization, reduced public oversight, and weakened environmental laws. Or that the person Trump finally nominated for Bureau of Land Management Director is a dyed-in-the-wool racist climate-change-denying sagebrush rebel.

Despite the recent silence, we shouldn’t expect those who’ve clamored for privatization or state control to keep quiet for long. The issue is too central for its proponents, and the pandemic’s aftermath may offer new pretexts for privatization and state control: boosting government revenue and restarting national and local economies.

Photo by USFS.

The arguments that environmental laws are too burdensome and that public lands have been “locked up” by “Washington bureaucrats” for too long are as short-sighted as ever. But with states facing budgets in shambles and unprecedented unemployment, privatization or transfer may appeal even to those who normally see this scheme for the plundering of public resources it is. We cannot afford to let down our guard.

Public lands in public hands means we all share in the benefits public lands provide—clean water, clean air, recreation, physical and mental health, hunting, fishing, birdwatching, biodiversity, protection against disease, protection of historic and cultural resources, and moderation of the impacts of climate change. Just as important, public lands in public hands means we can all participate in planning and making decisions for how public lands are managed for future generations, through laws such as the National Forest Management Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

For now, we maintain the right to determine whether public lands protect us from disease, or bring it to our doorstep; help us adapt to climate change, or contribute to the crisis; provide refuge for wildlife, or serve as a feedlot for livestock. We must remain vigilant in our defense of public lands against effective or actual privatization by those who seek to destroy them for private gain. Luckily, Guardians, our supporters and our conservation allies are fighting tooth and nail to keep existing environmental safety nets in place. We will continue to do so, and hope you will continue to join us.

Forest Service Stories: An Immigrant and the USDA Forest Service


Ronnie working in the gardens of Batong Technical College


by Ranachith  (Ronnie) Yimsut

(Note from Sharon: I don’t have a date for this story, but it’s probably 1997-ish). Here’s a link to a January 2020 article about him and some of his work.. it begins.  “Ronnie Yimsut – American-Cambodian author, activist, NGO worker, retired senior landscape architect for the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service, official influential person, orphan and Khmer Rouge survivor – had a dream.”  He is the author of a book, Facing the Khmer Rouge: A Cambodian JourneyAt the end of  his FS story, I added a review of his book.

This is a story that need to be told as part of the celebration of the USDA Forest Service proud culture and tradition.  It is a story that very few can associate with, but certainly understood.

I emigrated to the U.S. from a refugee camp on the Thai‑ Cambodian border in early 1979 as a young 15 years old‑‑orphaned, lost, and alone.  I first arrived in Washington, DC.  Within a few weeks, I got to meet the Chief of the USDA Forest Service, whose name I can’t recall, during a tour of the Washington Office.  Of course, I did not speak English then and the Chief did not know Khmer, my native tongue, either.  So a translator was brought in to get our communication going more effectively than just body language.

For about an hour we communicated through a translator on wide-ranging topics.  I did most of the asking as I was very curious.  I recalled asking the Chief if I, as an Asian immigrant, can be the Chief of the Forest Service some day.  My simple question stunned him momentarily, but he quickly responded with a great big smile “NO!”  Then he quickly added, “Not unless you are a U.S. citizen first!”  I told him that I would be happy to just working as a “Ranger” (an employee) of the prestigious and world renounced USDA Forest Service.

By the winter of 1987, while I was spending my fifth year at the University of Oregon, I met a Hispanic employee of the Willamette National Forest.  He was on a recruitment drive for the Forest Service.  I met him accidentally on the campus ground and got his business card, which eventually led to an interview. After the first interview, I was a “perfect” candidate (being a minority student) for the Forest Service’s Cooperative Education Program; so he said. We met five more times after that first interview.  The wheels were in motion, my dream of working for the Forest Service was becoming a reality.

At the same time, I did not at all want to leave school as I was about to finish and get my hard-earned science degree.  The man essentially had to drag me into the Forest Service system through this innovative program.  He must had called me a hundred times in his attempt to recruit me.  With his persistence and compromise, I gave in and I eventually was hired as a Coop Student.

I worked part of my time for the Willamette NF and continued my schooling in between.  The Forest Service paid for my school tuition and salary, what a great deal!.  I thought I got a great deal until I ran into all the acronyms that I had to learn and learn well.  At first, I couldn’t tell the term “WO” from an “RO”, the term “DR” from an “SO” and so on.  Eventually, I mastered almost all of them.  However, as I learned one acronym others were being introduced or invented faster than I could absorb.  It was overwhelming and still is today.  There should be a guide book about Forest Service acronym for all new employees!

After graduation and a full year of practical work with my mentor, Mr. Frank Hunsaker, a Forest Landscape Architect, I was more than ready.  I was later hired by the Deschutes National Forest, a neighboring forest to the east. With the new job and title, I was at last became a full-fledged USDA Forest Service employee, if not a “Ranger” or the “Chief” as I had dreamed very earlier on.

Central Oregon was well known for its harsh winter and “Redneck” country.  I understoond “harsh” winter, but I did not know what  the term “Redneck” meant.  I learned very quickly.  Being one of only few Asian‑American in the area, both the community and Forest Service were a very hostile place.  The acceptance was not there and I felt rejected.  My resignation letter was prepared and ready to turn in to my boss (now called Team Leader), but my immigrant and Asian stubbornness keep me going and going despite of everything.

I worked very, very hard to gain acceptance within the Forest Service and eventually succeeded.  I later got involved with just about every aspect of community activism in Central Oregon.  I felt like I was a pioneer struggling through a harsh and difficult environment, but by golly, it  got better and better after more than seven years later.  Today, I can’t really complain as I and my family (four and all) are well known, respected, and accepted within both the Forest Service family (no longer just a community) and the Central Oregon community itself.  I am no longer a pioneer but in fact a full-fledged, proud, and productive member.

I have come a long way from my native Cambodia to be a successful professional in the USDA Forest Service.  And yes, I now speak English well enough and became a proud American citizen since 1984.  I know that I won’t be a “Ranger” (let alone a Chief) anytime soon, but the possibility is there, if I really, really wanted and willing to work extra hard toward it.

The Forest Service gave me ample opportunities for both personal and professional growth, but there is always room for improvement especially in the Civil Rights area.  And that is where my next concentration shall be.  As an American citizen, it is my utmost duty make the rough road that I had traveled on a much smoother one than ever before; so that others like me can traverse it with less difficulty.  It should be every American utmost duty to make the road smoother for ALL Americans, in my humble opinion.


And here’s a quote from a book review…

Facing the Khmer Rouge is beautifully written, informative and heartbreaking. Ronnie Yimsut’s prose reads like poetry, vivid and captivating; and chock full of crisp details and imageries. With each turn of the page, Yimsut pulls readers deeper into his emotional and spiritual journey through his years of war and horrors. Yet, his story of love, family, and country, told in a soft, meditative voice—also breathes of forgiveness and healing. Facing the Khmer Rouge is a courageous memoir, and one that undoubtedly will leave Yimsut’s readers believing in the best of man’s humanity to man.”

–Loung Ung, activist and author, First They Killed My Father


Notes from the Greater Gila Bioregion

Deep in the heart of the American Southwest lies the Greater Gila Bioregion, a place that is larger and more biodiverse than Yellowstone, as rich in cultural history as Bears Ears, as wild as the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, and the birthplace of the wilderness ideal. WildEarth Guardians believes that the Greater Gila can and should be America’s next, great protected landscape. Photo by Leia Barnett.

The following piece was written by Leia Barnett, Greater Gila Campaigner with WildEarth Guardians. – mk

Last week, I fell in love with country. Not This Country. Not Our Country. Simply country. I perched atop peaks above 10,000 feet and peered out across distances incomprehensible. I squatted beside rivers that swayed and snaked for hundreds of miles, wild from source to sea, flexing their hydrologic muscle to carve canyons and move mountains. I star-gazed, open-mouthed and full of wonder, remembering what’s small and what’s precious and what’s worthy of protecting. I saw black hawks and blue jays and arching sycamores and barking elk and trundling bears and trotting wolves. Yes, trotting wolves! Three of them to be precise. Yipping and stalking and howling and moving something inside me that once was wild and fiercely free.

All in the Gila, that seemingly eternally unfolding expanse of hills and vales and mountains and vistas and wild silences that spread themselves across southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona, what we at WildEarth Guardians refer to as the Greater Gila Bioregion. This is a landscape long inhabited by the Mimbres and Mogollon cultures, and later the Apache, Navajo, Acoma, and Zuni. This place is anciently sacred, humming with the footsteps of Native Ancestors seeding Indigenous Knowledge Traditions deeply prescient for their time. This is a place ecologically abundant, tending to a biodiversity greater than that of Yellowstone. This is a landscape that has known a fire regime and management practices more progressive than anywhere else in the West, where the long-lived cycle of over-grow-burn-regenerate has been allowed to persist with minimal human intervention. This is country wild, where humans have come since time immemorial to travel softly and fit themselves snuggly into the astounding web of living selves, to rest beside Mogollon Death Camas and Mimbres Figwort, to gaze upon Gila chub and Loach minnow, to become, once again, quiet dwellers rather than raucous extractors.

This is the country we need. It requires no undiscerning patriotism, no flaring bias or political unilateralism. It only asks that we give our attention to a greater sense of self, that we assume our membership in this grand community of bipeds and four-leggeds and root-growers and wing-flappers, and that this membership rise to the top of our list of things to be tended to. You may leave your flag and your fearful ideologies at home. Come with me to the Gila, where we may all, once again, fall in love with country. 

Practice of Science Friday: Challenges of Ideological Diversity in the Science Biz

I ran across this opinion piece from October in EOS (the science news journal of the American Geophysical Union or AGU). It’s called “Does our Vision of Diversity Include Social Conservatives?” and is authored by three professors at Brigham Young University.  The original controversy deal with whether professional science societies should handle ads for private universities with honor codes and hiring preferences to members of its religion as discriminatory. But what I thought was valuable, and related to The Smokey Wire, were their arguments for the practice of dealing with those with whom we disagree. Which is what we do here, and sometimes it’s difficult (at least for me)  to explain to others why we think it is important work. They also have some interesting citations on the social science of ideologies and political differences.

Their argument is that if people practicing science are not diverse (and people who decide funding what topics are researched), then scientific information is not as useful or trustworthy as it could be.

Diversity supports our moral values and practical goals. It gives us a glimpse into ways of living and thinking that were invisible or inaccessible to us. It humanizes our ideological and practical competitors and encourages compassion and concern. It ratchets down identity divisions that otherwise short-circuit exchange of ideas and values. It improves the accuracy and innovation of formal and informal research on political, social, and scientific issues [Duarte et al., 2015; Shi et al., 2019]. Liberals and conservatives alike have been shown to dismiss scientific evidence based on political allegiance, meaning that our public credibility depends on good science from diverse scientists [Ditto et al., 2019]. Perhaps most important from a community perspective, diversity favors equal representation and creates crucial opportunities for disadvantaged and discriminated-against individuals.
However, diversity is more than just looking different or even being different. Tolerance at arm’s length will not bring about the many benefits of diversity. Active relationships among deeply different individuals are needed to unlock the power of diversity to improve our science and our society [Holvino et al., 2004; Stevens et al., 2008]. Diversity is difference and disagreement in a context of community and collaboration.
LDS folks, like other religious folks, have great goals that are difficult to live up to:

An alternative response is to engage in discussions and develop relationships with those we perceive as adversaries. In our religious tradition, this diplomatic approach to enforcing norms and influencing others is required by a 19th century scripture: “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of [authority or majority], only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile.” Though our faith community falls short of this ideal often, it suggests that the way to persuade people of the validity of our worldview is not to silence theirs.

Conservation group, agencies reach ‘understanding’ on spotted owl

From the Santa Fe New Mexican…. Excerpt:

An environmental advocacy group has agreed to drop its pending lawsuit that accused federal agencies of planning forestry projects that could harm the Mexican spotted owl.

The bird’s nesting grounds on national forest land in New Mexico and Arizona have become hotly contested battlegrounds. A separate complaint alleging federal agencies failed to properly monitor the threatened owl prompted a federal judge to halt timber activities in owl habitat last year.

Framed as “a new understanding,” a truce was reached this week between the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the states of New Mexico and Arizona, and the Eastern Arizona Counties Organization.

In return for the Center for Biological Diversity scrapping its litigation, the Forest Service has ensured tree-thinning and controlled burns in six national forests in New Mexico and Arizona will better protect the Mexican spotted owl, which has been listed as threatened since 1993 under the Endangered Species Act. 

Greater Yellowstone Grizzlies to Stay on Endangered List

Grizzly bear photo by Sam Parks.

One would suspect that this ruling will have a significant impact on many U.S. Forest Service forest plan revision processes currently on-going in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Here’s a press release from Western Environmental Law Center and WildEarth Guardians, which is also pasted below.

MISSOULA, Mont. —Today, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the Trump administration and state of Wyoming’s appeal of a 2018 decision restoring endangered species protections for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem population of grizzly bears. The original decision halted states’ planned trophy hunts in the ecosystem, which would have harmed other imperiled populations of grizzly bears.

WildEarth Guardians, represented by the Western Environmental Law Center, one of the plaintiffs and victors of the original lawsuit, played a central role in the appeal process, one of the first COVID-19 “virtual court hearing” scenarios.

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem population of grizzly bears in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana totals about 728 animals, up from its historic low of 136 when endangered species protections were enacted in 1975. In the original case, opponents of federal protections for grizzly bears argued that protections were no longer necessary and that a sport hunting season to effectively manage down the population was justified despite the fact that the population represents only a fraction of its historical abundance, and has yet to achieve connectivity to neighboring populations near Glacier National Park and elsewhere.

The recovery of other grizzly bear populations depends heavily on inter-population connectivity and genetic exchange. Absent endangered species protections, dispersing grizzlies essential to species recovery would have to pass through a killing zone outside Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks where Wyoming and Idaho rushed to approve trophy hunts.

“Grizzlies require continued protection under federal law until the species as a whole is rightfully recovered,” said Matthew Bishop, attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. “The best available science says not only are grizzly bears still recovering, but they also need our help to bounce back from an extinction threat humans caused in the first place. Misrepresenting the facts to promote killing threatened grizzly bears for fun is disgraceful. I’m glad the judges didn’t fall for it.”

The Ninth Circuit agreed with the original ruling that the delisting was premature, did not rely on the best available science, and improperly failed to analyze the impact killing grizzlies just outside the safety of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks would have on other imperiled populations in the lower 48 states. The Ninth Circuit wrote: “…because there are no concrete, enforceable mechanisms in place to ensure long-term genetic health of the Yellowstone grizzly, the district court correctly concluded that the 2017 Rule is arbitrary and capricious in that regard. Remand to the FWS is necessary for the inclusion of adequate measures to ensure long term protection [p. 45].”

“WildEarth Guardians applauds the decision of the 9th Circuit Court—a triumph of science over politics—in ensuring that Yellowstone grizzly bears are allowed to truly recover and thrive,” said Sarah McMillan, conservation director for WildEarth Guardians. “Grizzly bears are an iconic species whose very existence is intertwined with the concept of endangered species protection in the United States. This decision solidifies the belief of numerous wildlife advocates and native tribes that protecting grizzly bears should be based upon science and the law and not the whims of special interest groups, such as those who want to trophy hunt these great bears.”

Grizzlies in the Yellowstone region remain threatened by dwindling food sources, climate change, small population size, isolation, habitat loss and fragmentation, and high levels of human-caused mortality. The Yellowstone population is isolated and has yet to connect to bears elsewhere in the U.S., including to bears in and around Glacier National Park. Grizzlies also have yet to reclaim key historic habitats, including the Bitterroot Range along the Montana-Idaho border.

Hunted, trapped, and poisoned to near extinction, grizzly bear populations in the contiguous U.S. declined drastically from nearly 50,000 bears to only a few hundred by the 1930s. In response to the decline, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated the species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1975, a move that likely saved them from extinction. The species has since struggled to hang on, with only roughly 1,800 currently surviving in the lower 48 states. Grizzlies remain absent from nearly 98 percent of their historic range.

A copy of today’s ruling is here:

USFS Bioregional Assessment of Northwest Forests

Received a press release today (below) and links to a Bioregional Assessment of Northwest Forests by the US Forest Service. Lots to read and discuss. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

Although there are benefits from consistent land management policy, land managers struggle with a one size fits all management approach that does not always fit the circumstances. For example, some plan direction hasn’t worked well in distinguishing between the dry and wet forest ecosystems across the national forests and grasslands in the BioA area, especially given the fire adapted ecology of some forests. The landscape-level amendments have focused on protecting and developing habitat for aquatic and old forest-dependent species, and they don’t necessarily reflect today’s understanding of dynamic landscapes. Some habitat types in the wetter parts of the region, such as vegetation that emerges after forest-replacing disturbances, are becoming scarce across the landscape. And, although the Forest Service is one of the largest suppliers of outdoor recreational opportunities in the area, the NWFP and other land management plans and amendments lack modern direction supporting sustainable recreation.

The BioA offers management recommendations to address some of these challenges. As the modernization effort moves into individual national forest and grassland assessments, analyses, and planning, we will use the BioA as a tool during conversations with diverse stakeholders to more fully address the social aspects surrounding natural resource management.

We acknowledge that land management planning alone won’t resolve conflicts in values or tradeoffs. We are committed to learning how and why stakeholders hold different values and to providing transparent public engagement opportunities throughout the entire planning process to increase shared learning and build trusting relationships. We believe that improving and maintaining trust among the Forest Service, Tribes, other agencies, local partners, and communities is essential to developing broadly supported land management plans, which help ensure that we’re moving toward the desired conditions on the lands we manage. With public and stakeholder participation, we’ll determine what current land management plan direction should be carried forward and what can be improved upon based on new information, today’s issues, and what best meets the needs of today’s communities and stakeholders.


Press release, July 8, 2020:

Forest Service Releases Assessment of Current Conditions of Northwest Forests

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service released a Bioregional Assessment evaluating the social, economic and ecological conditions and trends covering 19 units across WA, OR and northern CA in a brief and easy-to-understand format. The assessment uses the best available science and focuses on capturing current conditions and changes on the national forests and grasslands. It provides recommendations on how the Forest Service could address the challenges facing forests, grasslands and communities in the plans that govern how land management decisions are made.

“The release of this assessment gives our region the data and scientific analysis to make future well-informed, landscape-level decisions that benefit our six northern forests,” said Randy Moore, regional forester for the Pacific Southwest Region in California. “Furthermore, we’re now able to move forward and prepare for updating land management plans to provide essential commodities and recreational opportunities, manage and reduce risk from wildfires through vegetative management and other proactive landscape efforts, provide clean air, water and habitat for plants and animals, and preserve our cultural resources, for present and future generations.”

The Forest Service and other federal land management agencies are required by law to develop plans that guide the long-term management of public lands. These plans are developed using public input and the best available science. They establish priorities for land managers and provide strategic direction for how the plan area is to be managed for a period of ten years or more. They may be periodically amended or revised entirely to address changing conditions or priorities.

“This assessment will make it more efficient to modernize our land management plans and reflect the new science, and changes to social, economic, and ecological conditions across this region,” said Glenn Casamassa, regional forester for the Pacific Northwest Region in Oregon and Washington. “It will also preserve the tenets of the Northwest Forest Plan that are working well, so that work can continue effectively and efficiently.”

The Northwest Forest Plan covers nearly 25 million acres of federally managed land in Oregon, Washington and northern California focusing on managing the entire landscape for long-term social and economic stability. The Bioregional Assessment is not a decision document and does not impact current forest management. Instead, it will be used to shape ongoing engagement with stakeholders, state, county, Tribal governments and Forest Service staff as they prepare for the next steps in the planning process together.

More information on Modernizing Forest Plans in the Northwest is available online, and subscribers will receive monthly updates.

Nevada Court Protects Bi-State Sage-Grouse From Off-Road Vehicles in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest

The Bi-State sage-grouse population is isolated from all other sage-grouse populations in a unique area in the Mono Basin along the California-Nevada border. Photo by USFWS.

RENO, Nev. – In a decisive win for Bi-State sage-grouse, the Nevada District Court today denied off-roaders’ attempts to gut protections for the imperiled bird in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.

Conservation groups had intervened to defend U.S. Forest Service measures that protected the bird’s breeding and nesting habitat from motorized rallies and contests by requiring  buffers and seasonal limits to racing in the area.

“The Forest Service restrictions preventing a 250-mile dirt-bike rally through the middle of sensitive Bi-State sage-grouse habitat in the middle of the breeding season were based in sound science and responsible land stewardship,” said Erik Molvar, executive director with Western Watersheds Project. “That kind of motorized mayhem isn’t multiple use, it’s wildlife abuse. Public lands are some of the last remaining habitat for the Bi-State sage-grouse, and the public interest is best served by prioritizing these habitats for sage-grouse conservation, not motorbike rallies.”

The lawsuit, brought by the Sierra Trail Dogs Motorcycle and Recreation Club (STD), sought to strike down a forest plan amendment that blocked motorcycle and off-road vehicle races and contests in sage-grouse breeding and nesting habitats during the spring and early summer, when those areas are most important for sage-grouse nest success and chick survival. Today’s ruling means the club must abide by the Forest Service requirements.

“It’s troubling that an off-road group tried to put its own convenience and hobby ahead of the survival of native wildlife,” said Scott Lake, Nevada legal advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Thankfully the court wisely struck down this attack on common-sense sage-grouse protections. The Forest Service is doing the right thing to protect these beautiful birds, which are teetering on the brink of extinction.”

The Bi-State sage-grouse population is isolated from all other sage-grouse populations in a unique area in the Mono Basin along the California-Nevada border. There are an estimated 3,305 total birds, far below the 5,000-bird minimum viable population threshold established by sage-grouse experts. Conservation groups are also in court to challenge the denial of Endangered Species Act protections for the Bi-State sage-grouse, citing plummeting populations and ongoing threats from livestock grazing, mining, habitat development, and other human activities.

“This is a rare and imperiled population of sage-grouse that deserves the strongest possible protections,” said Judi Brawer, Wild Places Program Director with WildEarth Guardians. “The Forest Service did the right thing by protecting them from motorized use and abuse, and we were happy to step in to support the agency’s decision and defend it from STD’s misguided and selfish challenge.”

The conservation groups who intervened in court to defend the Forest Service’s limits on motorized use in sage-grouse habitats were represented by attorneys from the Stanford Law Clinic and Western Watersheds Project.

USFS NEPA Study: Fast, Variable, Rarely Litigated, and Declining

The July edition of the Journal of Forestry will have a paper of interest here: “US Forest Service Implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act: Fast, Variable, Rarely Litigated, and Declining,” be Forrest Fleischman et al. I don’t have permission yet to post the full text (it’s open to SAF members), but here’s the abstract and Management and Policy Implications — grist for the discussion mill. The last sentence in the Implications is perhaps the root of many of the agencies challenges: “This may suggest that USFS no longer has the resources to conduct routine land-management activities.” But of course there’s much more to the story.

This paper draws on systematic data from the US Forest Service’s (USFS) Planning, Appeals and Litigation System to analyze how the agency conducts environmental impact assessments under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). We find that only 1.9 percent of the 33,976 USFS decisions between 2005 and 2018 were processed as Environmental Impact Statements, the most rigorous and time-consuming level of analysis, whereas 82.3 percent of projects fit categorical exclusions. The median time to complete a NEPA analysis was 131 days. The number of new projects has declined dramatically in this period, with the USFS now initiating less than half as many projects per year as it did prior to 2010. We find substantial variation between USFS units in the number of projects completed and time to completion, with some units completing projects in half the time of others. These findings point toward avenues for improving the agency’s NEPA processes.

Management and Policy Implications

There has been much public debate on how the US Forest Service (USFS) can better fulfill its National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) obligations, including currently proposed rule-making by the agency and the Council on Environmental Quality; however, this debate has not been informed by systematic data on the agency’s NEPA processes. In contrast to recently publicized concerns about indeterminable delays caused by NEPA, our research finds that the vast majority of NEPA projects are processed quickly using existing legal authorities (i.e., Categorical Exclusions and Environmental Assessments) and that the USFS processes environmental impact statements faster than any other agency with a significant NEPA workload. However, wide variations between management units within the agency suggest that lessons could be learned through more careful study of how individual units manage their NEPA workload more or less successfully, as well as through exchanges among managers to communicate best practices. Of much greater concern is the dramatic decline in the number of NEPA analyses conducted by the agency, a decline that has continued through three presidential administrations and is not clearly related to any change in NEPA policy. This may suggest that USFS no longer has the resources to conduct routine land-management activities.