Shout-out to Reporters! and Gerth’s Piece in the Columbia Journalism Review and How It Relates to Our Issues

The Alaska Roadless writing I did last week reminded me of how difficult it must be to be a journalist in our space. I worked on Colorado Roadless for years and it’s still complicated.  And simplifying tends to degenerate to good guys and bad guys. Not to speak of the fact that explanations are too lengthy and most people aren’t interested to that extent.  To which I would add Friedman’s Law of Natural Resource/Environmental Conflicts: there are always more than two sides.  With a corollary: If someone reports on only two, they are missing the picture.

Bottom line… a big shout-out to journalists who cover our stuff.  We know it’s not easy.  And an offer- my virtual door is always open to reporters who want a glimpse into the different perspectives and possible sources on any related issue.  I’ve been impressed by the quality of the discussions I’ve had with newbies (and the usual reporter suspects) in this space and want to make sure that you all feel welcome.

That being said- I’d like to talk about three things that came across my desk in the last few weeks that have to do with journalism institutions. I understand that many of these institutions are under a great deal of financial pressure (and of course transfer that to their workers), so I am sympathetic.  Today’s post is on the  Columbia Journalism Review piece by Jeff Gerth.

I recommend.. don’t read commentary on it.. just read it if you’re interested. It’s not that long.  If you do, you will be amazed and tired and impressed by how many documents, phone calls and other information Gerth sorted through. The key part for me was the Afterword.  It’s written by someone who obviously really cares about the profession of journalism, as I do, and I think all of us should. Because these are the folks who interpret our world for the public.

I think most reporting in our space doesn’t deal with anonymous sources or “people familiar with”, but others of Gerth’s recommendations might be relevant. The outlets NYT and WaPo, though, who do write in our space, do not come out very well in the Gerth’s story. Note what Gerth says is needed to build back trust.  I’m thinking a 90-day stand-down and a public process with sets of recommendations- whoops, that was prescribed fire.

I’ve avoided opining in my more than fifty years as a reporter. This time, however, I felt obligated to weigh in. Why? Because I am worried about journalism’s declining credibility and society’s increasing polarization. The two trends, I believe, are intertwined.

My main conclusion is that journalism’s primary missions, informing the public and holding powerful interests accountable, have been undermined by the erosion of journalistic norms and the media’s own lack of transparency about its work. This combination adds to people’s distrust about the media and exacerbates frayed political and social differences.

One traditional journalistic standard that wasn’t always followed in the Trump-Russia coverage is the need to report facts that run counter to the prevailing narrative. In January 2018, for example, the New York Times ignored a publicly available document showing that the FBI’s lead investigator didn’t think, after ten months of inquiry into possible Trump-Russia ties, that there was much there. This omission disserved Times readers. The paper says its reporting was thorough and “in line with our editorial standards.”

My last reporting project for the Times, in 2005, was an inquiry into US propaganda efforts abroad. I interviewed a former top CIA expert on behavior and propaganda, Jerrold Post, who told me that leaving important information out of a broadcast or story lowers public trust in the messenger because consumers inevitably find the missing information somewhere else. (And Post, who died a few years ago, spoke before the arrival of social media.)

Another axiom of journalism that was sometimes neglected in the Trump-Russia coverage was the failure to seek and reflect comment from people who are the subject of serious criticism. The Times guidelines call it a “special obligation.” Yet in stories by the Times involving such disparate figures as Joseph Mifsud (the Maltese academic who supposedly started the whole FBI inquiry), Christopher Steele (the former British spy who authored the dossier), and Konstantin Kilimnik (the consultant cited by some as the best evidence of collusion between Russia and Trump), the paper’s reporters failed to include comment from the person being criticized. The Times, in a statement, says some of the subjects were approached on occasion, yet the paper’s guidelines also call for their comments to be published.

Another exhibit is a familiar target: anonymous sources. I’ve used them myself, including, sparsely, in this piece. What’s different in the Trump era, however, is both the volume of anonymous sources and the misleading way they’re often described.

One frequent and vague catchphrase—“people (or person) familiar with”—is widely used by many journalists: the Times used it over a thousand times in stories involving Trump and Russia between October 2016 and the end of his presidency, according to a Nexis search. The last executive editor I worked for, Bill Keller, frowned on its use. He told the staff repeatedly the phrase was “so vague it could even mean the reporter.” The Times, in a statement to CJR, said, “We have strong rules in place governing the use of anonymous sources.” Other outlets mentioned in this piece declined to discuss their anonymous-sourcing practices.

Another anonymous-sourcing convention that was turbocharged in the Trump era was the use of more neutral descriptors like “government official” or “intelligence official” or “American official” to mask congressional leakers. A few reporters admitted that to me, but, of course, only anonymously. Here’s how it works. First, a federal agency like the CIA or FBI secretly briefs Congress. Then Democrats or Republicans selectively leak snippets. Finally, the story comes out, using vague attribution. “It was a problem for us,” Mike Kortan, the former FBI spokesman until 2018, told me. Kortan, who also worked in Congress, added: “We would brief Congress, try and give them a full picture with the negative stuff, and then a member of Congress can cherry-pick the information and the reporter doesn’t know they’ve been cherry-picked.” The typical reader or viewer is clueless.

My final concern, and frustration, was the lack of transparency by media organizations in responding to my questions. I reached out to more than sixty journalists; only about half responded. Of those who did, more than a dozen agreed to be interviewed on the record. However, not a single major news organization made available a newsroom leader to talk about their coverage.

My reporting has been criticized by journalists, from the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, in the 1980s, to Harper’s magazine in the 1990s and the Daily Beast in the 2000s. When I’ve had the opportunity to respond, which hasn’t always been the case, I’ve tried to engage. On a few occasions, I concluded the inquiring reporter wasn’t really open to what I had to say, so l let my story speak for itself.

But during this time, when the media is under extraordinary attack and widely distrusted, a transparent, unbiased, and accountable media is more needed than ever. It’s one of a journalist’s best tools to distinguish themselves from all the misinformation, gossip, and rumor that proliferates on the Web and then gets legitimized on occasion by politicians of all stripes, including Trump.

Most Americans (60 percent) say they want unbiased news sources. Yet 86 percent think the media is biased. The consequences of this mismatch are all too obvious: 83 percent of the audience for Fox News leans Republican while 91 percent of the readers of the New York Times lean Democratic.

Jennifer Kavanagh, senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me of her concerns about news silos.

“If you are only getting your news from one source, you are getting a skewed view,” which, she said, “increases polarization” and “crowds out the room for compromise, because people base their views on these siloed news sources.” She added: “People don’t have time to deal with nuance, so they settle on a position and everything else tends to become unacceptable.”

Walter Lippmann wrote about these dangers in his 1920 book Liberty and the News. Lippmann worried then that when journalists “arrogate to themselves the right to determine by their own consciences what shall be reported and for what purpose, democracy is unworkable.”

More on trust tomorrow.

A Dip in Robinson Creek

Part of the Toiyabe National Forest’s popular Honeymoon Flat Campground lies along Robinson Creek.

 It had been a snowy winter and a wet spring. In terms of fire danger, that was good and bad. Fuels were moist, but the wet spring of 1963 had produced a bumper crop of flash fuels—mostly that inadvertent Siberian import, cheatgrass—that would cure by midsummer. Bridgeport District Ranger Bob Hoag expected a busy fire season, and Fire Control Officer Marion Hysell’s small fire organization was as ready as it could be. It was my second summer on the district—my first as fire prevention guard, and I’d been lined out with a full bag of fire prevention duties.

When the telephone sounded the Bridgeport Ranger Station’s three rings about dinner time on July 11, the fire crew figured it was the first human-caused wildfire of my three-week-old fire prevention guard career. The three-man fire crew and I were dispatched not to a fire but to a flood…sort of…at the Honeymoon Flat Campground on Robinson Creek.

The crew and I arrived to find a large Jeffrey pine had fallen into the creek and was diverting water into lower-lying campsites. That tree had to go, and we soon figured the best way to make it go was to put a chain around its trunk and winch it out of the channel. Perhaps anticipating such a need, John had driven his own vehicle, an International Harvester Scout equipped with a winch, to the scene while the rest of us responded in a Forest Service rig.

We had the winch. We had the chain. All we needed was someone stupid enough to brave the swift, icy waters and hook the chain around the tree trunk. For some reason, the guy who a year earlier had told the district ranger he could type—and wound up filling in as district clerk—told the crew he was a pretty good swimmer. Some people never learn!

I took off my boots, wrapped a safety line around my waist, attached another line to the chain, waded in upstream of the target, and let the current sweep me about a dozen yards to the offending tree. Once there, I pulled the chain to me, secured it around the trunk, and signaled the crew to pull me back. That they did and, while I shivered in a blanket next to a blazing campfire demonstrating the difficulty of drinking generous campers’ hot coffee while my teeth chattered, John revved up his winch and, along with crew muscle, finished the job.

Those campers thought the Forest Service was okay!

Adapted from the 2018 third edition of Toiyabe Patrol, the writer’s memoir of five U.S. Forest Service summers on the Toiyabe National Forest in the 1960s.

Frivolous lawsuits

For those inclined to use the phrase “frivolous lawsuits” to characterize bothersome legal complaints filed by environmental groups, here is a rebuttal.  But first, here is a legal definition of “frivolous.”

A frivolous claim, often called a bad faith claim, refers to a lawsuit, motion or appeal that is intended to harass, delay or embarrass the opposition.

A claim is frivolous when the claim lacks any arguable basis either in law or in fact (citation omitted). That means, in a frivolous claim, either: “(1) “the ‘factual contentions are clearly baseless,’ such as when allegations are the product of delusion or fantasy;” or (2) “the claim is ‘based on an indisputably meritless legal theory.'”

Here is what a Montana columnist (with an environmental background) had to say:

“Most people, and certainly most politicians, know it’s neither cheap nor easy to file a lawsuit — especially if the defendant happens to be the federal, state or local government. You better have your ducks in a row when you go before a judge because there’s no guaranteed outcome. The arguments of plaintiffs and defendants stand on their merits and legal precedent. When environmentalists or conservationists win their suits — and they do so quite often — it’s because the facts and the law prevail.
Of course it’s handy to label those lawsuits “frivolous” because they often overturn the projects or policies forwarded by agencies and politicians that place commerce and development as the highest and best use for every public resource.

However, as reported by the Washington Post, Donald J. Trump has now provided a perfect opportunity for those same politicians to see what actually happens when a frivolous lawsuit is filed. A Florida federal judge just sanctioned Trump and his lawyer, Alina Habba, for their frivolous lawsuit against Hillary Clinton over the 2016 campaign — and slapped them with a whopping $937,989.39 fine.

Judge Donald M. Middlebrooks didn’t mince his words in his 46-page judgment, calling Trump a “prolific and sophisticated litigant” who “is repeatedly using the courts to seek revenge on political adversaries.” But he didn’t stop there, writing: “He is the mastermind of strategic abuse of the judicial process, and he cannot be seen as a litigant blindly following the advice of a lawyer. He knew full well the impact of his actions. As such, I find that sanctions should be imposed upon Mr. Trump and his lead counsel, Ms. Habba.”
As Middlebrook added: “Here, we are confronted with a lawsuit that should never have been filed, which was completely frivolous, both factually and legally, and which was brought in bad faith for an improper purpose.”
Never has any Montana judge thrown out an environmental lawsuit, sanctioned, nor fined an environmental plaintiff or their attorneys for filing a frivolous suit — let alone dressing them down in such an unambiguous ruling.”

Public Lands Litigation News – through January 2023

 

New lawsuit

In December, conservation groups sued the Forest Service to block a long-disputed land swap on Mount Hood, claiming the Forest Service is giving the owner of Mt. Hood Meadows and Cooper Spur ski areas a sweetheart deal on buildable land in Government Camp without protecting the north side of the mountain from further development.

Court decision

In early January, the Idaho district court vacated, at the agency’s request, a BLM decision to allow 16,000 sheep to graze on a 270,000 acre allotment in southeastern Idaho, after the judge blocked the Twin Buttes Allotment decision.  A Freedom of Information Act request had revealed recent research that identified the area as an important sage-grouse migration corridor, which had not been disclosed by the BLM.  Western Watersheds’ news release is here.

New lawsuit

On January 18, three conservation groups sued U. S. D. A. Wildlife Services and the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service over Wildlife Services’ predator control program in Montana, arguing that its activities could threaten the long-term recovery of grizzly bears, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act.  The lawsuit challenges a 2021 decision to continue the program and its associated consultation with the FWS, along with a 2020 Trump Administration policy.  The complaint focuses on an alleged failure to consider the effects on connectivity between grizzly bear populations of its bear removal actions.

Court decision in Center for Biological Diversity v. Haaland (9th Cir.)

On January 19, the circuit court held that plaintiffs cannot sue the U.S. Interior Department for refusing to amend the 1993 Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan because the recovery plan itself was not a “final agency action” subject to judicial review under the Administrative Procedure Act.  The article includes a link to the opinion, or here it is.

New lawsuit:  Citizens Caring for the Future v. Haaland (D. N.M.)

On January 23, four plaintiff organizations challenged 32 oil and gas leases covering nearly 6,000 acres of land in New Mexico administered by the BLM’s Carlsbad Field Office.  It targets “the Biden administration’s decision to uphold the Trump-era leases,” and “the administration’s failure to address the harm from expanded oil and gas extraction to the climate and regional air quality.”  The news release includes a link to the complaint.

Court decision in Center for Biological Diversity v. U. S. Bureau of Land Management (D. Idaho)

On January 24, the district court held that BLM approvals for a 1600-acre open pit phosphate mine in southeastern Idaho failed to adequately analyze how the project might damage sage-grouse habitat and the extent of groundwater pollution with heavy metals.  The Caldwell Canyon mine would replace another depleted mine to provide ore that would be processed into the herbicide glyphosate, a key ingredient in Bayer’s Roundup weedkiller, which is itself the subject of extensive litigation.  The news release includes a link to the opinion.

New lawsuit:  Monroe County Board of Commissioners v. U. S. Forest Service (S.D. Ind.)

On January 25, the county and three environmental plaintiffs filed a second lawsuit against the Houston South Vegetation Management and Restoration Project challenging the agency’s failure to comply with the court’s order in a prior lawsuit to evaluate the effects of logging and burning on Lake Monroe’s drinking water.  The article includes a link to the complaint. That first lawsuit is now being considered in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, where both the plaintiffs and defendants appealed the original court decision.

Criminal conviction

A Montana resident pleaded guilty to mail fraud, and faces a maximum of 20 years in prison, a $250,000 fine and three years of supervised release for fraudulently certifying he was grazing his own cattle on a BLM grazing allotment.  Grazing cattle owned by a third party requires payment of higher grazing fees, and he had submitted a false document showing ownership.

New lawsuit

The South Dakota Office of School and Public Lands is suing the Elm Springs Township Board of Supervisors for vacating ownership of section lines so that the public cannot use them to reach public lands, especially for hunting.  In South Dakota, section lines are considered to be a public right-of-way for access to other parcels of land, but abuse of that system is apparently not uncommon, including a case involving the Black Hills National Forest.  (We discussed a Wyoming lawsuit on “corner crossings” here.)

New lawsuit:  Center for Biological Diversity v. Haaland (D. D.C.)

On January 26, plaintiffs sued over the 2019 decision by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife to not list the southern hognose snake under the Endangered Species Act.  The species’ historic habitat includes fire-dependent forested habitat across the south, and the primary stressors affecting the species’ biological status are habitat loss due to fire suppression, timber harvesting, sea level rise, conversion of land to agriculture, and urbanization.  The allegations include failure to properly model timber harvest.  The article includes a link to the complaint.

New lawsuit:  Center for Biological Diversity v. Haaland (D. Mont.)

On January 30, the Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project and a professor at Montana Tech who authored the popular book “Montana’s Last Best River: The Big Hole and Its People” sued the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to list the arctic grayling.  The remaining fish are found primarily in the Big Hole River, which is in a valley surrounded by the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.  They are threatened primarily by irrigation withdrawals for growing hay.  The FWS has deferred to a conservation agreement implemented by the state which has, to date, not restored summer flows sufficiently to sustain grayling.  The news release includes a link to the complaint.

 

The new year also found the Biden Administration making some important policy decisions related to past litigation.

On January 18, the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency published their final rule on “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS) in the Federal Register.  The new rule, which will become effective 60 days after publication in the Federal Register, attempts to clarify which bodies of water, wetlands and waterways are protected under the federal Clean Water Act.  The Biden administration rule will protect more wetlands and streams than the previous regulation issued under President Trump. However, the Biden administration rule is less expansive than the Obama administration’s WOTUS rule, which included isolated wetlands.  Recent litigation was discussed hereThis article discusses the case currently before the Supreme Court.

On January 25, the Secretary of Agriculture announced that the Forest Service would reinstate a rule to again prohibit road-building and timber harvest in unroaded areas of the Tongass National Forest.  Lawsuits followed the last time the rule was imposed, and in 2020 after it was removed by the Trump Administration (discussed here).  The USDA press release cited a directive from President Biden at the start of his term to review and address rules enacted under Trump that might conflict with environmental and climate aims laid out by Biden.

On January 26, the Interior Department issued a 20-year mining moratorium for over 225,000 acres of the Superior National Forest upstream from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota.  This includes an area that had been eyed for a potential copper and nickel mine by Twin Metals Minnesota, and has been the subject of litigation.  This withdrawal decision came after the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service evaluated the environmental impacts of mineral development in the region.

 

The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service has also made a couple of decisions for species found on national forests.

On October 18, 2022, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing two salamander species found on the Sequoia National Forest under the Endangered Species Act and proposed designating critical habitat on national forest lands.  The Service determined that the main threats impacting the Kern Canyon slender salamander include those posed by increasing grazing, recreation, fire, and climate change, and warrant listing the species as threatened, while the relictual slender salamander faces threats primarily caused by roads, grazing, fire, timber harvest, and hazard tree removal, and it would be listed as endangered. The Kern Plateau salamander (also found on the Inyo National Forest) was not proposed for listing.  National forest plans were cited for protecting all three species.  (The comment period closed in December.)

On January 30, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service protected the Sacramento Mountains checkerspot butterfly as an endangered species.  The butterfly is found only in high-elevation meadows on the Lincoln National Forest in southern New Mexico.  Only two small populations of the butterfly remain because most of its habitat has been degraded by grazing, development and motorized recreation.

 

Alaska Roadless Rule: II. Rationales for Decision: It’s Too Hard to Change, and Besides Protection Can Be Handled in a Forest Plan

After yesterday I found this link to the public comments  There were 106 K so perhaps it took a year to analyze them.  I don’t know how many were form comments; usually roadless brings out quite a few of those.  Which might not be helpful at discerning what the public thinks about reinstatement vs. Alternative 2.   I doubt if many of the commenters, at least for the form comments, were even aware of alternative 2.

Here’s one example:

We need to protect our wild spaces more so now than ever. The importance of the Tongas National Forest and the people who call it home can not be understated. Enough of our world is “improved” upon already. We have options other than timber, and other areas to get timber. Preserve at least some of this world as it should be.

In reality, just as with Trump’s choice of removing the Roadless Rule, I think the real reason is that key groups wanted it.  Which is fine, of course, but someone had to write a rationale for the rule text.   I think some explanations are better than others. So let’s examine them.

(1) Adopting Alternative 1 also takes appropriate consideration of consultation with sovereign Tribal Nations, which uniformly and strongly supported Alternative 1.

That is cool that the Tribes all agreed “uniformly and strongly.”

(2) Although Alternative 2 serves many of the same values as Alternative 1, Alternative 2 would introduce potentially confusing changes both to the location of designated Alaska Roadless Areas and to the management prescriptions associated with certain management categories. Alternative 2 also lacks a history of implementation consistent with the 2001 Roadless Rule and the 2016 Forest Plan, potentially complicating implementation.

Doesn’t any new regulation “introduce potentially confusing changes”.. think 2012 Planning Rule, new oil and gas or grazing regulations? or Monumentizing? Don’t they also “lack a history of implementation”?  But sticking to Roadless,  how come Coloradans and Idahoans could handle these complexities but the Department thinks Alaskans can’t?  Thumbs down on this one.

(3) The minor environmental advantages of Alternative 2 do not outweigh Alternative 1’s other advantages and those environmental benefits could be achieved under Alternative 1 through alternative planning and program mechanisms that provide greater flexibility for achieving program goals.

The Forest Service employs various planning and project-specific efforts to maintain and restore watersheds by strategically focusing investments on watershed improvement projects and conservation practices at the landscape and watershed scales. For example, watersheds have unique characteristics and can best be addressed through Forest Planning and site-specific planning.

This is an interesting argument.. “we don’t need to put this in a reg.. because protections on the other 110 K Unroaded Roadless acres can be handled during.. Forest and site-specific planning. Whoa. I thought. This argument is that watershed protection is best achieved through Forest Planning and site-specific planning.  But then why do you need a Roadless Rule at all?  This sounds like an argument for “no Rule.”  For me, that’s a double thumbs down.

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What about renewable energy?

Now, one of the things that Colorado Roadless limited was “linear construction zones” for building pipelines, powerlines, etc.  We had a fascinating time and a court case with the 2001 Rule talking about whether those are “roads” so in the CRR limited them.  I think this is a nice wrap-up of what is allowed in roadless areas with regard to energy infrastructure in the response to comments.

As they say:

The 2001 Roadless Rule has and will continue to accommodate access for qualified mining, energy, and community infrastructure needs while also conserving the multiple ecologic, social, cultural, and economic values
supported by roadless areas on the forest….

 

The Federal Power Act (FPA) grants the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) the authority to issue and administer licenses for hydropower projects. For projects located on NFS lands, section 4(e) of the FPA requires FERC to assure the project will not interfere or be inconsistent with the purpose for which the forest reservation was created or acquired. While section 4(e) of the FPA gives the Forest Service the authority to impose mandatory conditions in the FERC license to ensure the adequate protection and use of forest land and resources, these 4(e) conditions cannot usurp FERC’s role in deciding whether to license a hydropower facility. In short, if FERC decides that a road is necessary for facility development, the Forest Service cannot veto the project or road, but rather is limited to imposing reasonable terms and conditions necessary for the adequate protection and utilization of the forest. The 2001 Roadless Rule (at 36 CFR 294.12(b)(3) (2001)) provides that a road may be constructed or reconstructed in an IRA if ‘‘[a] road is needed pursuant to reserved or outstanding rights, or as provided for by statute or treaty.’’ The FPA is one such statute.
The 2001 Roadless Rule also does not prohibit the construction or maintenance of transmission lines. While new temporary or permanent roads are not permitted in IRAs, temporary linear construction zones can be authorized to facilitate the construction of transmission lines, along with other applicable exceptions set forth in the 2001 Roadless Rule. The courts have sustained that interpretation on more than one occasion. The USDA has acknowledged that the restriction on road construction, including the construction of access roads, may pose a challenge for transmission routes that cross IRAs, potentially increasing construction and maintenance costs.
However, based on analysis for previous transmission projects on the Tongass, roaded alternatives are not necessarily less expensive to construct and maintain than those relying on other means of access. Construction and
maintenance costs depend on terrain, distance to communities, and other factors. Helicopter access, temporary construction zones, and/or trails can also be used to provide access and may even be less expensive than the road construction and maintenance costs associated with permanent roads in remote areas. In addition, the rights-of-way granted in section 4407 of Public Law 109–59, as amended, also allows for specified roaded access in the forest for transmission lines and other utility systems.

 

I’m sure that there is other interesting stuff in the response to comments and other sections, so if you find something please put it in the comments below.

 

 

 

Alaska Roadless Rule: The Biden Administration Did Not Select the Environmentally Preferable Alternative: I. The Alternative Not Chosen

In the possibly least surprising news ever in our world, the Alaska Roadless Rule has been reinstated.  Because Roadless geekhood is part of my lived experience, and because we can’t really expect reporters to understand the ins and outs of Roadless, I’ll take a stab at explaining it in some detail, because I think some interesting points were missed in the news coverage I saw.

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First, a question for our legal TSW folks:

If a District Ranger said specifically what she wanted to do, in say the details of a NEPA project, and announced it in advance, that would be considered “pre-decisional” and we were told that was not a good thing to do; not sure if it’s actually illegal or just bad NEPA practice, or doesn’t build trust with the public.

However, the President said very clearly that he wanted to reinstall the Alaska Roadless Rule specifically.  So that seems pre-decisional also..unless Presidents don’t follow the same rules.  But his (in this case) ideas are carried out via the regulatory process.  So is pre-decisional only an issue for projects and not regs?

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Great Thing

First, they made a new decision from the old EIS, which is great for not making FS employees and others do more work when the ultimate outcome was known. So kudos to the Admin for that!

Why Did it Take So Long?

Looking at their project site, it looks like they did an ANPR on November 23, 2021. I couldn’t find the reading room for the ANPR comments, so I don’t know how many they had.

Now, you might say, this is 2023, why did it take so long? I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who knows the answer.  There were a set of other decisions announced at the same time, and I heard much pressure from ENGOs recently, so maybe they were saving it for an opportune time.

Anyway, here’s the link to the Final Rule.

Which Alternative was the Environmentally Preferred and Why?

What interested me was Alternative 2, which according to the summary in the text:

Alternative 2 provided limited additional timber harvest opportunities in comparison to Alternative 1 by removing protections from certain areas designated as roadless in 2001 while maximizing protection for unroaded
areas by adding other Roadless Area designations. It removed from roadless designation approximately 142,000 acres that were substantially altered by road construction or timber harvest conducted during periods when the Tongass National Forest was exempted from the 2001 Roadless Rule.
Alternative 2 also would have added 110,000 acres of unroaded lands as Alaska Roadless Areas that were not designated by the 2001 Rule, and by extension, remained undesignated in Alternative 1 (the 2020 Rule).

Now, Alternative 2 was designated the Environmentally Preferable Alternative

As described in the 2020 Alaska Roadless Rule decision, Alternative 2 has been determined to be the environmentally preferred alternative, although the environmental benefits of Alternative 2 in comparison to Alternative 1 are minor. While Alternative 2 would designate and manage slightly fewer acres (approximately 32,000 acres) as Alaska Roadless Areas relative to the acres of Inventoried Roadless in Alternative 1, it would increase conservation of roadless characteristics and values because all the acres designated and managed as Alaska Roadless Areas under Alternative 2 are undeveloped at this time. Specifically, Alternative 2 would remove the roadless designation from 142,000 acres that are designated as Inventoried Roadless Areas under Alternative 1, but have already been roaded, harvested, or substantially altered, and therefore do not currently possess the roadless characteristics and values the 2001 Roadless Rule is intended to conserve. At the same time, Alternative 2 would designate as Alaska Roadless Areas approximately 110,000 acres that are undeveloped land but that were not designated as Inventoried Roadless Areas under the 2001 Rule and, by extension, are not designated as such in Alternative 1. Alternative 2 limits timber harvest opportunities, road construction, and road reconstruction, on the most acres of undeveloped land out of all the alternatives considered.
All other action alternatives considered in the 2020 FEIS involve sizeable roadless area reductions. For this reason, Alternative 2 is the environmentally preferred alternative.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with this stuff, the 2001 Rule included lands that were logged and roaded, because of the problems with the maps at the time and the process that they used (including being in a hurry). Knowing that, they put an exception in the 2001 Rule for these areas (the term of art is “substantially altered” but you can substitute Roaded Roadless without any loss of meaning.)

If you look at §294.12, you’ll find that you can maintain classified roads in roadless areas, and also reconstruct them but only if there are environmental threats.

and for timber harvest §294.13 (b) 4: Roadless characteristics have been substantially altered in a portion of an inventoried roadless area due to the construction of a classified road and subsequent timber harvest. Both the road construction and subsequent timber harvest must have occurred after the area was designated an inventoried roadless area and prior to January 12, 2001. Timber may be cut, sold, or removed only in the substantially altered portion of the inventoried roadless area.

In simple language, the 2001 Rule allows continued maintenance of roads (and reconstruction for environmental problems) and timber harvest on “substantially altered acres.”

So back to Alternative 2. It sounds like the idea was to swap out “Roaded Roadless” for new “Unroaded Roadless ” acres.  This is what the Colorado Rule did.  Given that explanation, let’s go back to why Alternative 2 was designated environmentally preferred .  It would take the 142K acres already roaded, harvested, and substantially altered out, and designate 110K new Unroaded Unharvested acres to put under new Roadless protection.  So that is how the Department concluded:

Alternative 2 limits timber harvest opportunities, road construction, and road reconstruction, on the most acres of undeveloped land out of all the alternatives considered.

My next post will talk about the Department’s stated rationale for not selecting the environmentally preferable alternative in this case.

If you have any questions or corrections please put them in the comments. This is complicated stuff!

2023 Wood Innovations and Community Wood Grant Program

USDA Press Release

Does anyone know the  Bipartisan Infrastructure Law would be  “President Biden’s” but the IRA isn’t ?

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WASHINGTON, Jan. 31, 2023 – The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service today announced it will offer $41 million through the 2023 Wood Innovations Grant and 2023 Community Wood Grant programs to spark innovation and create new markets for wood products and renewable wood energy.

Made possible in part by President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act, these grants expand wood products use and strengthen emerging wood energy markets, supporting sustainable forest management – particularly in areas of high wildfire risk.

“With the support of the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, USDA is carrying out the Biden-Harris Administration’s mission to support rural, forest-dependent communities while fighting climate change and protecting our natural resources,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

“These grant programs provide opportunities for communities and businesses to develop innovative uses and markets for wood, a renewable and economical resource,” said Forest Service Chief Randy Moore. “Previous Wood Innovations Grants are making a difference across the country, and we are pleased to continue supporting wood use ingenuity that helps our communities and forests.”

The application deadline for both grant programs is Thursday, March 23, 2023 at 5 p.m. local time. Applications may be submitted via email to the Forest Service Regional Wood Innovations coordinator listed in the application instructions.

Not only are these grants helping support local economies by expanding the potential of wood products and wood energy, they are also helping address critical issues like climate change. By finding new uses and expanding current uses for wood products and energy made from materials removed from unhealthy, overgrown forests, we can restore forests to health, reduce wildfire risk, fight climate change and sustain local economies.

The Wood Innovations Grant Program makes funding available to expand traditional wood use projects, advance wood energy markets, and promote wood use in commercial building construction. This Request for Proposals focuses on the program’s market development goals to reduce hazardous fuels and improve forest health on national forests and other forest lands, reduce the costs of forest management, and promote economically strong and environmentally healthy communities.

Eligible project examples include:

  • Architectural and engineering designs, cost analyses, and permitting to secure financing for commercial wood construction or wood energy projects development.
  • Establishing or increasing wood products manufacturing to support forest restoration.
  • Showcasing environmental and economic benefits of wood as a sustainable commercial building material to encourage growth in the industry.
  • Establishing statewide wood use teams or wood energy teams.
  • Developing wood energy projects that use residues from wood products or woody biomass.
  • Developing commercial woody biomass and wood product industrial parks.
  • Overcoming market barriers to stimulate wood energy expansion.
  • Purchasing wood processing equipment to create markets supporting forest management.

The Community Wood Grant Program funds shovel-ready projects to install thermally led community wood energy systems or build innovative wood product facilities to support healthy forests and stimulate local economies by expanding renewable wood energy and innovative wood products manufacturing capacity.

Eligible project examples include:

  • Community wood heating, cooling, or electricity systems that replace fossil fuels.
  • Purchase and installation of manufacturing equipment at a mass timber production facility.
  • Expanding sawmills with innovative technologies, cost cutting measures and higher value production lines.
  • Equipment purchase and installation at new facilities producing forest products biofuels.

To apply for either grant, applicants must be registered with the System for Award Management (SAM). Applications should show a clear benefit to underserved or historically marginalized people, communities, and the forests they value. For-profit entities, state and local governments, Indian Tribes, school districts, non-profit organizations, higher education institutions, public utilities, and fire and conservation districts are eligible to apply.

More information is available at the Forest Service Wood Innovations website or at grants.gov.

2023 Wood Innovations Funding Opportunity: www.grants.gov/web/grants/view-opportunity.html?oppId=345548

2023 Community Wood Energy and Wood Innovation Program: www.grants.gov/web/grants/view-opportunity.html?oppId=345549

Since 2015, the Community Wood Grant and Wood Innovation Grant programs have provided more than $93 million to 381 recipients to support wood products and wood energy projects.

Wildfire Emergency Act

PR from Sen. Feinstein’s office. Good move, IMHO:

  • Establishes a prescribed fire-training center in the West. Currently, the U.S. Forest Service operates just one prescribed fire training center in Florida.

 

Washington—Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) today introduced the Wildfire Emergency Act, a bipartisan bill to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires in the West.

This bill recognizes that the threat of wildfire is an emergency for the American West. Among the bill’s provisions include allowing the U.S. Forest Service to leverage private financing to accelerate forest restoration projects, creating a program to ensure critical facilities maintain power during wildfire disruptions, expanding a weatherization grant program to help low-income households fireproof their homes and establishing a prescribed fire-training center in the West.

“Wildfires throughout Western states, particularly California, are becoming deadlier and more destructive because of climate change. We must recognize this as the new normal and do all we can to help reduce the risk of devastating wildfires,” Senator Feinstein said. “This bill approaches the problem of wildfires from multiple directions: it accelerates forest restoration programs that reduce the threat of fire, it funds programs to help communities mitigate local fire risks and it invests in technology and firefighter workforce training to better equip us to battle these fires. Every level of government and the private sector must be involved in this fight, and this bill will go a long way toward helping us prepare for a hotter, drier future.”

“Climate change is accelerating the threat posed by wildfires in California and across the American West, making these catastrophic events the norm in our state,” said Senator Padilla. “Now is the time to make meaningful investments in wildfire prevention by allowing private financing options to help local governments in their effort to keep communities safe. The Wildfire Emergency Act would bring more resources to save lives and protect communities. By improving forest management, shoring up critical energy infrastructure, and training more forest managers, we can limit the devastation caused by extreme wildfires.”

“Montanans are sick and tired of breathing in smoke as our forests continue to burn – we need to act now to mitigate the effects of yet another deadly fire season, Senator Daines said. “Our bill expedites critical forest management projects, invests in next-gen technology and research, and protects at-risk Montana communities. We must manage our forests before they manage us.

“To address the threat of catastrophic wildfires in the West an all-of-the-above approach is needed,” Senator Wyden said. “This means making essential upgrades to keep the lights on when disaster strikes and giving communities the firefighting workforce and latest technology required to get fires under control. Our bill also prioritizes mitigation work now to prevent wildfires from turning into the megafires that destroy lives and property. The climate crisis is here, and the West needs more support.”

What the Wildfire Emergency Act does:

  • Provides up to $250 million to increase the pace and scale of forest restoration and wildfire resilience projects. These funds would allow large-scale forest restoration efforts on up to 20 landscapes of at least 100,000 acres each to achieve maximum benefit.
    • The U.S. Forest Service would be granted pilot authority to bring together local stakeholders, conservationists and private financing groups to leverage additional funds to implement these projects faster. Each project could receive up to $50 million in new financing under this pilot authority.
    • The bill requires a report to Congress on the impact of this pilot authority and any barriers to making the authority permanent.
  • Establishes an energy resilience program at the Department of Energy to ensure that critical facilities remain active during wildfire disruptions. Up to $100 million is authorized to make necessary retrofits for this purpose. Backup power would prioritize renewable fuels rather than diesel generators.
  • Expands an existing Energy Department weatherization grant program to provide up to $13,000 to low-income households to make wildfire-hardening retrofits including ember-resistant roofs and gutters.
    • In many states, including California, insurance companies will automatically reduce fire insurance premiums for homeowners who harden their homes against wildfire.
  • Expedites the placement of wildfire detection equipment on the ground including sensors and cameras, as well as the use of space-based observation to identify new fires faster and help firefighters respond more effectively.
  • Authorizes funding for programs to expand the forest conservation and wildland firefighting workforce.
  • Establishes a prescribed fire-training center in the West. Currently, the U.S. Forest Service operates just one prescribed fire training center in Florida.
  • Authorizes grants to professional organizations, state agencies and academic institutions to support training the next generation of foresters and firefighters. These grants would provide for increased outreach to interested students as well as support training and internships for interested individuals.
  • Authorizes up to $50 million to support community grants of up to $50,000 for locally focused land stewardship and conservation.
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New (revived) weapon to attack the “deep state” (aka federal employees)

Image: CrowD Games

Maybe the less that’s known about this the better, since it could be intimidating, but it’s unlikely to be used for two years any way, and even when the Republicans had the power to use it before they couldn’t, but I think it’s relevant to discussions we sometimes have about the “political” nature of federal agency decisions.  This would be that on steroids.  I’ve excerpted much of this Washington Post article:

GOP revives rule allowing lawmakers to target federal agencies, staffers

The rules package House Republicans approved late Monday (January 9) includes a provision allowing lawmakers to reduce or eliminate federal agency programs and to slash the salaries of individual federal employees.

Called the Holman Rule, the measure was proposed in 1876 but was sparingly used until it was reinstated by Republicans in 2017 and then dropped by Democrats two years later. In theory, it could apply to any federal worker or agency — but for now the move is seen as mostly symbolic, as the Democratic Senate could block Republicans from using the provision.

The rule is named for a House member who proposed it nearly 150 years ago as an exception to the general practice of keeping policy decisions separate from spending decisions

One attempt … in 2018, would have reduced to $1 the pay of a federal employee in charge of an office that had been the subject of whistleblower complaints; opponents called the move an attempt to punish without due process one individual who was involved in a wide-ranging dispute.

Even if an attempt to use the rule is ultimately blocked, though, “It’s the potential use that makes it so concerning,” said Max Stier, president and CEO of the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. “If you’re a federal employee, this now becomes a risk that you have to think ‘I may get myself in hot water or have my salary dropped to zero or my job could get axed’” when making a professional decision.

“Symbols can cause harm. We need a workforce that is committed to the public good and feels safe to make that choice. That’s what’s at risk here,” he said.

Republicans have embraced the Holman Rule as part of the party’s aggressive stance toward the federal government, including President Donald Trump’s attempts to create new job classifications that would make it easier to fire government workers and his decision to move federal agencies like the Bureau of Land Management out of D.C.

During the House floor debate, Rep. Kat Cammack (R-Fla.), an ally of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), blasted federal officials as “unelected bureaucrats, the true, real swamp creatures here in D.C.,” saying they had “run roughshod over the American people without consequence.”

Democrats and union leaders, though, denounced the rule’s revival as an opening for the GOP to attack federal agencies and the people working in them for political reasons. Democrats warned that Republicans could abuse the power to lessen federal workers’ salaries or fire them outright — particularly at a time when the government is investigating former president Donald Trump.

Republican backers on Monday, though, said that reinstating the rule would provide an important check on the federal government.Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.) — a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus — said the Holman Rule would “restore the people’s House” in the face of administrative action.

“I think it’s another intimidation tool for civil servants who are simply doing their job,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) in an interview. “It is designed to provide a chill effect on the ability of civil servants to do their jobs and carry out enforcement regulations and compliance with the law.”

“The whole point of it is to use it recklessly. There’s no way to use it responsibly,” said the public policy director of the American Federation of Government Employees, Jacqueline Simon. “It goes around everything that protects the civil service from political corruption — not just federal employees but entire agencies.”