The latest and greatest NEPA requirements

Image: Scout Environmental

For any NEPA nerds out there, the last few years have seen an unprecedented tug-of-war over the law’s requirements.  In 2020, the Trump Administration put its stamp on the CEQ regulations implementing NEPA, the first substantial editing of its procedural requirements since 1978.  Upon taking office, the Biden Administration began to undo many of the changes.  On October 7, 2021, CEQ finalized the first phase of its changes to the 2020 Regulations, in which the agency made a handful of targeted revisions.  On June 3, 2023, President Biden signed into law the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 (FRA), which made a number of changes in the law itself, summarized here as follows:

  • Codify that environmental impact statements should include discussion of reasonably foreseeable effects of a proposed action, reasonably foreseeable effects that cannot be avoided, and a reasonable range of alternatives to the proposed action. (Sec. 102(2)(C); 42 U.S.C. § 4332(2)(C)).
  • Clarify requirements for determining whether to prepare an environmental document and the appropriate level of NEPA review. (Sec. 106; 42 U.S.C. § 4336).
  • Clarify the roles and responsibilities of lead agencies and cooperating agencies, including designation of such agencies. (Sec. 107(a); 42 U.S.C. § 4336a(a)).
  • Promote development of a single environmental document. (Sec. 107(b); 42 U.S.C. § 4336a(b)).
  • Set page limits and deadlines for environmental impact statements and environmental assessments. (Sec. 107(e) and (g); 42 U.S.C. § 4336a(e) and (g)).
  • Direct agencies to develop procedures for how, under Federal agency supervision, project sponsors may prepare environmental assessments and environmental impact statements. (Sec. 107(f); 42 U.S.C. § 4336a(f)).
  • Provide time lengths and circumstances for when agencies can rely on programmatic environmental documents without additional review. (Sec. 108; 42 U.S.C. § 4336b).
  • Establish a process for Federal agencies to use another agency’s categorical exclusions. (Sec. 109; 42 U.S.C. § 4336c).
  • Require CEQ to conduct a study of online and digital technologies to help provide for efficient reviews and improve public accessibility and transparency. (Sec. 110; 42 U.S.C. § 4336d).
  • Define terms used in NEPA, including cooperating agency, environmental document, lead agency, major Federal action, participating Federal agency, programmatic environmental document, and special expertise. (Sec. 111; 42 U.S.C. § 4336e).

On July 31, 2023, CEQ published proposed Phase 2 Revisions to the agency’s NEPA implementing regulations.   On May 1, 2024, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) published its final Bipartisan Permitting Reform Implementation Rule (Final Rule).  These will be the NEPA requirements for the foreseeable future (that would be until January, 2025 anyway).  The Federal Register Notice with the final regulations may be found here.

Nossaman is providing a series of reviews of various aspects of the changes that have been made.  They provided this initial overview of what they think is noteworthy (their perspective seems usually be that of a private party):

  • Changes in the definition of “major federal action”;
  • Changes to the way federal agencies approach NEPA’s threshold question of whether the effects of a major federal action are “significant”;
  • Codifying environmental justice and climate change as among the effects that must be examined during the NEPA process;
  • Updated requirements relating to public engagement;
  • Codification of CEQ’s 2023 greenhouse gas guidance;
  • Additional flexibility for federal agencies to establish new categorical exclusions;
  • Codification of CEQ’s longstanding practice of relying on mitigated findings of no significant impact (FONSI);
  • Providing clarity on the requirements for mitigation to form the basis of a mitigated FONSI;
  • Removal of language added by the 2020 Regulations that sought to limit the ability of third parties to challenge NEPA determinations; and
  • Adoption of provisions intended to speed the NEPA review process.

The second installment, discussing the first two bullets, is found here (others will follow).  One of the topics it addresses is the criteria for “significance” that would require an EIS.  The new regulation mostly affirms past practices, but it explicitly recognizes a situation that may arise for “restoration” proposals on public lands.  In determining significance:

Agencies may also consider the extent to which an effect is adverse at some points in time and beneficial in others (for example, in assessing the significance of a habitat restoration action’s effect on a species, an agency may consider both any short-term harm to the species during implementation of the action and any benefit to the same species once the action is complete).  However, agencies shall not offset an action’s adverse effects with other beneficial effects to determine significance …

The Preamble warns:

In some circumstances, an effect may be significant due to the harm during one period of time regardless of the benefit at another.  For example, if implementation of a habitat restoration action may extirpate a species from the area, then an agency could not reasonably rely on long-term habitat improvements resulting from the action to determine that the overall effect to the species is not significant.

(I would like to say this is just an extreme example to make the point that if short term effects may be significant, you can’t discount them based on long-term benefits to avoid preparing an EIS.  However, they follow this with a comparison to mitigation, where it IS possible to offset adverse effects with beneficial mitigation to the point that they are no longer significant.)

Forest Legacy 2024 Funded Projects… and Using the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool

The Wasatch Back Forest Conservation Project received funding in 2024 through the Forest Legacy Program, conserving 8,588 acres just 25 miles from Salt Lake City, UT. (Photo by the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands)

Folks have sent me some articles about the Chief’s testimony last week on the budget. From what I’ve heard and the stories, Congressfolk don’t seem as interested as retirees (including Dave Mertz and I, as well as others)  in the Keystone Agreements and exactly where the funding is going, producing annual reports with details and so on.  We were told “you can FOIA it” and my usual sources of info have dried up.

I’ve pointed out that we have nice reports on GAOA funding and where it goes, and Forest Legacy Funding via LWCF (Land and Water Conservation Fund). So my hypothesis is that it’s important to be transparent so that Congress continues to provide funding. The Keystone Agreements are conceivably one and done, so maybe that is why there’s so little perceived need for reporting or accountability? Or maybe the funding is going towards more capacity-building or planning so it’s harder to describe any outcomes or outputs. Or maybe it’s all there somewhere on a website and I missed it.

Anyway, back to Forest Legacy. Their site shows the specifics of each project, how many acres, partners and why each particular chunk of land is important.

The press release refers to “conserving” 168K acres of forestland. I still wonder whether conservation is defined differently between USDA and Interior. If not, then “conservation leases” could include (sustainable) timber harvest.

USDA’s Forest Service is providing more than $154 million through its Forest Legacy Program for 26 projects to conserve working forests that support rural economies in 17 states. This conservation work is made possible by more than $84 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund and nearly $70 million from President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act – the largest climate investment in history and part of the Investing in America agenda.

Through the Forest Legacy Program, States work with local communities to identify private forestlands and develop proposals to conserve these lands as forests for their values as places for recreation, as wildlife habitat, and as sustainable sources of wood and other forest products. The Forest Service then selects the top proposals for funding through an entirely voluntary competitive process and provides grant funding to States. Some of this land will stay in private ownership and will be permanently protected and conserved as forests, while States will purchase other parcels to be managed as public land.

The Forest Legacy Program is also part of President Biden’s Justice40 Initiative, which sets the goal that 40% of the overall benefits of certain federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities that are marginalized by underinvestment and overburdened by pollution. Communities around the nation depend on forests, and the effort to conserve private forestlands will benefit Tribal Nations and other disadvantaged communities. Nearly 50% of these investments will go to conserving forests near disadvantaged communities identified by the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool.

But the Screening Tool doesn’t just address disadvantaged folk and pollution- so the policy and the tool don’t seem to match.

You’ll remember that I posted before here and here about the Screening Tool and its questionable protocols and data sources.

A 30-meter resolution model projecting the wildfire exposure for any specific location in the contiguous U.S., today and with future climate change. The risk of wildfire is calculated from inputs associated with fire fuels, weather, human influence, and fire movement. The risk does not consider property value.
Used in: Climate change category
Responsible party: First Street Foundation
Source: Climate Risk Data Access from 2022
Available for: All contiguous U.S. states and the District of Columbia

Both flood and fire risk take into account projected climate change- I couldn’t figure out which SSP is mapped in the CEQ EJ map. I found this update interesting from last year interesting..

The model update includes the migration from Representative Concentration Pathways (RCP) to Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSP), which allows for more precise assessments based on different climate scenarios. The Foundation is also expanding the flood and wind modeling to include multiple pathways, such as SSP 2-4.5 and SSP 5-8.5. Additional SSP pathways for wildfire and extreme heat scenarios are being developed for future releases this year.

I wonder whether new information about new mitigation, fuel treatment projects, etc. would show up in updates of the tool? I wonder whether it is updated? I think it’s a great idea to map the disadvantaged, but some of the criteria (not to speak of the ways the numbers are calculated) seem questionable. Given that poor people are less likely to be able to respond to any disasters, why not focus on that? And if the examples in the Forest Legacy are any indications, folks on the ground are quite capable of describing how their projects partner with Native Americans or help the poor.

As it turns out, the project scoring guide for FY 24 did not mention the maps

Benefits of projects for underserved communities and environmental justice initiatives should be highlighted where applicable. For example, benefits can be discussed within economic
benefits, water, cultural, public access, or climate resilience. Benefits for underserved communities can also be discussed in the Strategic section. Underserved communities: “underserved communities” refers to populations sharing a particular characteristic, as well as geographic communities, that have been historically underserved, marginalized, and adversely affected by persistent poverty or inequality (pursuant to Executive Order 13985, Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government). Namely, these are Black, Latino, and Indigenous and Native American persons, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and other persons of color; members of religious minorities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and
queer (LGBTQ+) persons; persons with disabilities; persons who live in rural areas; and persons otherwise adversely affected by persistent poverty or inequality

From the “good government” perspective, I wonder whether a narrative addressed to those concerns may actually have better information than an un-updated map with unknown data quality. The best science and all that. It also sounds like looking it up on the EJ maps was an afterthought, and it turned out that the more local information actually led to “nearly 50%” being on the map.

But all agencies are apparently supposed to use this tool, according to the Q&A

The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and the Climate Policy Office (CPO) released the Justice40 Interim Implementation Guidance on July 20, 2021. It directed agencies to develop interim definitions of disadvantaged communities. Agencies used their interim definitions during the tool’s beta phase. Agencies will now transition to using version 1.0 of the tool to geographically identify disadvantaged communities.

So I think most people are trying to do good things, and we disagree about how best to go about it. But using ungroundtruthed data and then telling agencies that they must use it instead of what they know in the real world seems problematic to me. There seems to be a tendency to centralize decisions based on broadscale “data” (the Satellite Gaze) and privileging that over local information. Often there is no transparent effort to ground-truth these maps. That would involve intentionally requesting feedback, posting the feedback, and discussing how that feedback was used to improve the models or data collection methodologies behind the map.

Choosing those sources of data and those manipulations can also centralize political power and decision-making, either in the name of efficiency or the name of “science.” What is the best data- for a given purpose, though, is ultimately a political decision. And just because data is available doesn’t mean that it’s good or relevant.

Finally, let’s circle back to the Keystone Agreements. Must they follow the Justice40 Initiative? How will we know if they do if the project data isn’t available?

How Overseas Visitors Can Help Steward Our National Parks: PERC Report

This report is from PERC from last December. I just visited a few National Parks, which reminded me to post it.

Dozens of the world’s most high-profile national park systems charge overseas visitors more than locals. Adopting a surcharge for visitors from abroad at U.S. national parks could significantly increase revenue, providing parks with more funding to address maintenance and improve visitor experience.

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A Higher Level of Stewardship

In dozens of countries, park visitors from abroad pay more than locals for entry.6 A higher charge levied on foreign visitors reflects their general ability and willingness to pay more. After all, the price of admission at a national park is generally a fraction of overall trip costs for visitors, especially those from abroad.7 Asking international tourists who do not support U.S. national parks through taxes to pay a little more to see them is not only reasonable, it would also provide additional resources to improve the stewardship of our “crown jewels.”

Moreover, formal evidence suggests that demand to visit U.S. national parks—in particular the highest-profile destinations—is not sensitive to admission prices, particularly for overseas visitors. One study published in 2014 found that the price of gasoline affects national park visitation more than entry fees do.8 Another study, from 2017, estimated that raising the vehicle entry fee at Yellowstone National Park by more than double—from $30 to $70—would decrease visitation from foreign visitors by a mere 0.07 percent.9 A negligible dip would be logical given that the average overseas visitor was already spending an estimated total of $4,484 on their trip. In that context, increasing fees by a mere $40 would barely register in a traveler’s budget.

The current fee system for national parks in the United States lacks nuance, with most visitors paying a flat weekly fee that permits access for all passengers in a private vehicle.10 As part of this relatively blunt system, standard overseas visitors pay the same price as U.S. citizens and residents. Or put another way, locals enjoy no discount when visiting their home-nation parks. Often, Americans pay even more than foreign visitors to support national parks because, in addition to paying entry fees, most U.S. residents pay income taxes, which also partially support parks. Approximately $20 per U.S. taxpayer goes toward the National Park Service budget—each and every year, regardless of whether those Americans visit a national park.11 Asking overseas tourists who are not a part of the tax base to pay a little bit more to see remarkable sites in need of stewardship seems not only logical but prudent.

As many U.S. parks are facing record visitation and struggling through funding shortfalls, the idea of charging international visitors more than domestic ones has gained traction. The National Park System Advisory Board has suggested that differential pricing based on residency could be a way to increase park revenue, noting the success of that strategy in other nations.12 Additionally, the late Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) pushed in 2019 to legislatively implement a surcharge for overseas visitors to help fund national parks by raising tourist travel and visa fees by $16 and $25, respectively.13

It seems like a pretty common-sense idea to me, what do you think?

George Wuerthner on the “Indian Iron Curtain”: His View of Tribal Environmental Miscreance and the Great Media Silence

George Wuerthner did an impressive roundup of examples of Tribes wanting to produce useful things for the rest of us on their land. Many thanks to Patrick McKay for finding this! It’s fairly long and worthy reading in its entirety, but I did summarize and excerpt the parts I thought of particular interest to TSW folks.

Wuerthner  joins us in lamenting some of the choices made in media about what they cover- and what they don’t:

What I call an Indian Iron Curtain exists among the media and conservation organizations. Like the old Soviet Union Iron Curtain, which attempted to promote Communism and censored anything contradicting the notion that Communism was anything but a perfect social and political system. The Indian Iron Curtain exists to promote tribal people as somehow exemplary conservationists.

At the same time, any information that might temper that conclusion is ignored or suppressed. Of course, just as in the larger society, there are diverse opinions among tribal groups. They are no more monothetic than American society as a whole.

Like the fable about the emperor who wore no clothes, people are afraid, especially with the advent of the social justice movement, to suggest that tribal people are like other humans and are capable of good and bad conservation positions.

Anyone who questions the dominant paradigm that tribal people are somehow “naturally” environmenalists (which is a racist assertion in its own right)  is immediately branded as a racist, a colonialist, an imperialist, or, in some cases, a White male, which means you have no credibility since you are the ultimate beneficiary of “white privilege.”

Yet there is plenty of evidence—evidence that is too often ignored or overlooked–that tribal entities are perfectly capable of environmentally destructive policies.

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What I think is most interesting about George’s view is his view  that people who produce natural resources (used by everyone around the world) are only driven by the desire for money.

I must state that I am not judging these tribal decisions to exploit wild nature. I cannot say with any assurances that if presented with the opportunity to reap a fortune from oil and natural gas drilling, logging old-growth timber or mining a significant gold or copper deposit I would reject the financial prospects. Nevertheless, I would expect conservation organizations to criticize my choices.

There is a fundamentally different view from mine. Mine is that as long as people make useful things from natural resources, to eat, build housing, heat their homes and cook their food, transport things and provide electricity (just for a few examples), it is right for people who have the resources to share them with others who need them.  I think “sharing useful things with those who don’t have them” is a positive human view of the same phenomenon.

If using the resource, say, is morally wrong, then the folks who believe that should stop using them first, before they ask others to stop producing them.  National security-wise, it is bad juju to decide to stop producing things people need domestically.

Anyway, I think Wuerthner definitely has a point about what some conservation groups (and Colorado politicians) don’t mention, and media outlets don’t look into. Like when BLM had its webinar about the oil and gas regs, and the Tribal folks said they wanted “all of the above” and union folks were concerned.  I guess it either didn’t fit the narrative, or there were no media folks there.

Here are the topics:

Fossil fuel development Alaska

Badger-Two Medicine (I’m posting all this one because it’s related to NFs)

The last oil lease in the Badger-Two Medicine area of the Helena- Lewis and Clark National Forest in Montana was recently canceled. In numerous newspaper stories and among conservation groups, this was celebrated with many references to the Badger-Two Medicine as “sacred” land to the Blackfeet Indians, whose reservation borders the area. However, it is essential to note that the tribe does not own the national forest lands. Why that is important is critical to consider.

Badger Two Medicine Area on the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest, Montana. Photo George Wuerthner

What is never mentioned is that for decades, conservationists have tried to protect the Badger-Two Medicine as federal wilderness, which, given the strict limits on any development, would seemingly protect the “sacred” status of the area from any exploitation. Most recently, after the tribe agreed to a watered-down agreement to protect the Badger-Two Medicine by federal legislation introduced by Senator John Tester, the tribal representatives arrived in Washington to testify against the proposal, much to the chagrin of Senator Tester.

No environmental organizations reported on this reversal in tribal support for protecting the “sacred” Badger-Two Medicine.

Oil drill rig on the Blackfeet Reservation, Montana. Photo Tony Bynum

The Blackfeet have continuously opposed wilderness designation for the Badger Two Medicine. Meanwhile, the Blackfeet have promoted oil development on their reservation and the lands they control are leased for oil development. If the Blackfeet considered land “sacred,” wouldn’t they at least place some of the reservation off-limits to oil development.

However, at least some tribal members are not opposed to oil development per se, but rather who gets the financial benefit. Half of onshore oil and gas revenues from federal public lands goes to the federal treasury, while the other have is shared with the states where development occurred). Tribal members are willing to admit that while they oppose oil development on the national forest, some hope to get the Badger-Two Medicine transferred to tribal control so THEY can lease it for oil development.

Indian Reservations with Oil and Gas Wells

Navajo Coal

Other Tribal Coal

Mining

The media and many conservation groups repeatedly report when tribes oppose a mining operation or proposal but fail to note when they hold a positive perspective on mining.

Unbeknownst to most conservationists, most high-value mineral deposits are owned by Native people or the state of Alaska due to the selection under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Thus, in Alaska, much of the support for mining operations comes from Native corporations (the equivalence of tribes elsewhere in the US) and their representatives.

Various Alaska Mines

Thatcher Pass Lithium Mine

Navajo Lithium Mine

The Logging Section

As we know, Wuerthner seems to believe that Tribal wildfire concerns are basically about logging.

There is even legislation that would allow tribes to share in timber revenues from federal timber sales, an incentive that is designed to garner tribal support for more logging.

I think the point of the legislation is to give Tribes the same advantages as States. More of a justice thing and less of a bribe. In Alaska.

There is currently new legislation to transfer 115,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest to five tribal corporations (In Alaska, courts have ruled that Native corporations are “tribes”).

I know there are Elliot Forest interests here at TSW so:

TRIBAL OPPOSITION TO ELLIOT STATE FOREST PROTECTION

Recently, efforts to protect the Elliott State Forest in Oregon’s Coast Range were stymied by opposition from the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians (CTCLUSI), who demanded more logging of the area. The tribes have expressed “significant concerns regarding the limitations and constraints placed on the management of the overall forest and the acreage dedicated to reserves in the research design.”

An insider to the Elliott process confirmed that the Tribes have been expressing their opposition to limits on logging in the Elliott reserves for roughly a year.

Even though conservation groups have been working for years to protect the remaining old growth of the Elliott State Forest, I am unaware of any of these groups  who has publicly expressed any disappointment or criticism of the tribal position for more  logging.

BLM Oregon Land Transfer

Blackfeet and Quinalt have clearcuts

TPL Gave Land to Penobscot

Izembek Road (we’ve covered this before, Biden Admin supports ENGOs over Native Alaskan village)

The Sauk Suiattle Tribe opposes the reintroduction of grizzlies into the North Cascades. They see bears as an obstacle to their “treaty rights” in that it will make it more dangerous to gather berries, fishing, and hunting. Arguably, the grizzly bears were on the land before the Sauk Suiattle Tribe.

Well, there’s lots more.. wolves, fish, Camp Hale National Monument.

TRIBAL CONDEMNATION OF PARKS AND WILDERNESS

What I see as an even graver threat to conservation efforts is the on-going denigration of the entire concept of parks and preserves from the WOKE left, social science academics, and their tribal allies. It deserves an entire book, but basically, there is a growing condemnation of parks, wilderness, and other preserves as cultural genocide, colonialism, imperialism, and other such negative terminology that pose a long-term threat to efforts to protect wild Nature. Much of this opposition is based on flawed logic, a limited understanding of conservation biology and ecology, and a revisionist history.

For example, the Muccosukee  tribe in Florida is opposed to wilderness designation for the Big Cypress Preserve because they assert it will limit their ability to hunt, fish, and gather plants. “We’re opposing very, very hard right now because we don’t believe this is the right thing for the Big Cypress,” said Curtis Osceola, chief of staff for the Miccosukee Tribe. “The fear from the tribe is that a compromise is being made to put these lands into wilderness at the expense of the rights of the tribe, the rights of the public.”

It seems to me that there has been an environmental and conservation movement with a set of goals determined by folks within the movement.  Some I agree with, some I don’t.  Some seem unrealistic, and some have had social repercussions on working class people. Some just didn’t work as per stated intention (spotted owl).  Now our view of people whose views count is much broader – folks such as Native Americans and Alaskans are coming into focus-and we have younger people with different backgrounds and concerns- and the environmental movement itself.. their interests, their positions, may have to change.

AWR Litigates Project Initiated and Supported by Kalispels on Colville National Forest

Interesting (free) article in the Capital Press.

A Montana environmental group sued the U.S. Forest Service on Tuesday to stop logging initiated by the Kalispel Tribe of Indians, who are concerned wildfires will start in overstocked federal forests and burn onto tribal lands in northeast Washington.

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The Tribal Forest Protection Act allows tribes to propose projects on federal land to protect adjacent tribal land. The Kalispel tribe asked the Forest Service in 2018 to reduce fire risks in the national forest.

“We believe an ‘All Lands-All Hands’ approach, involving all parties is a bold and necessary step to improve the current ecosystem conditions,” according to a tribal statement.

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The alliance asserts the Forest Service should have done an environmental impact statement, rather than the shorter environmental assessment.

The assessment gave short-shrift to carbon emissions from logging and their potential contribution to climate change, the lawsuit claims.

The lawsuit also alleges the assessment didn’t thoroughly investigate how timber harvests, prescribed burns and road-building would impact wildlife such as lynx, grizzly bears, wolverines and wolves.

More wolves may be poached if new or improved roads open access to wolf territories, according to the lawsuit.

The Alliance for the Wild Rockies has prominent supporters, according to its website, including former President Jimmy Carter; Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.; music legend Carole King; and singer Gloria Estefan.

For some reason the reporter missed Reps. Grijalva and Maloney.

Now I think it’s highly likely that none of the supporters know the details of this project. I wonder if they know they are operating against apparent Tribal wishes and threats to their land and homes?

If we go to Rep. Grijalva’s website, he says..

As the first Americans, the Indigenous people of this region have culture and traditions embedded to the land. I am working to ensure that their rights as sovereign nations are not only respected, but emboldened, through policy-making at the federal level. We have an atrocious history of injustice towards the Indigenous people of this land that goes against the very values of our country and that we must constantly work to rectify. I will continue to be a strong voice for tribal rights in Congress whether it be fighting to protect sacred land from being sold to the highest bidder, working toward better health and economic opportunities for Native communities, or urging Congress to codify the tribal consultation process.

According to InfluenceWatch (and they could be wrong, and knowledgeable folks can correct me) Earthjustice is a vendor of AWR.

Here’s what Earthjustice says:

Earthjustice has a long history of partnering with Tribes, Native groups, and Indigenous communities to ensure their natural and cultural resources are protected for future generations. Today, as Native peoples lead from the frontlines of many pivotal environmental fights, our Tribal Partnerships Program is proud to continue that tradition.

Was it so long ago that the Colville Tribes sued the feds:

The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government on Wednesday, alleging federal agencies failed to fulfill their legally required duties before, during and after the 2015 wildfires that burned more than 240,000 acres and turned parts of the reservation into a “moonscape.”

So I wonder whether these supporters of AWR, or the funders (who are not included in the 990), pay attention to this aspect of what AWR is doing? Or if they know, do they support it? Because at least with Mr. Grijalva it doen’t sounds like “respected and emboldened” “rights as sovereign nations” to me.

 

 

 

“Indirect containment” for San Juan wildfire

We’ve had some good discussion recently (which searches couldn’t find) of how to count acres burned by wildfires towards burning targets, and how to comply with project planning requirements (i.e. NEPA and ESA) for such actions.  An implication I got was that a national forest could count a lot of acres if it just let a wildfire burn, and there wouldn’t be any process requirements.

Well, this sounds like the opposite of that, and like what I think should be the proper way of doing this – a wildfire started in an area that had been “prepped” for a prescribed burn.  Assuming that “prepped” includes the usual public  participation and effects analysis.

Fire managers plan to expand the footprint of a 10-acre lightning-caused wildfire burning northeast of Dolores on the Haycamp Mesa next week, and could burn upward of 4,500 acres.

Last month, the Dolores Ranger District announced plans to burn 4,577 acres across Haycamp Mesa Units 5, 6 and 9. Fire managers plan to use existing roads as fire lines within which they would contain the blaze.

The Spruce Creek Fire started Tuesday afternoon along the northern perimeter of Unit 5.

“It’s all prepped and ready to go, conditions are ideal,” said Pat Seekins, prescribed fire and fuels program manager for the San Juan National Forest. “It’s low-intensity surface fire, it’s doing exactly what we need it to do.”

If the weather continues to cooperate, fire managers hope to burn between 4,000 and 5,000 acres. Seekins said crews have prepared around 5,600 acres to burn.

“With prescribed fire this spring, we’ve accomplished just shy of 4,000 acres, which is good – we’ve had a good spring,” Seekins said. “But we’re taking this opportunity to expand those acres.”

It’s not clear exactly how active they would be to “expand” those acres.  Interestingly,

Last year, fire managers used three natural blazes that began inside units already prepped for treatment to return fire to the landscape in the San Juan National Forest. With the help of firefighters, those three wildfires ultimately treated 4,000 acres of forest.

Is the San Juan just lucky, or well-prepared, or does this happen a lot?

Endangered Species Day

The third Friday in May is Endangered Species Day, where we should “celebrate saving species.”

We could certainly talk about past successes at saving and recovering some species, but here is a story that suggests the inadequacy of ESA for the task of mitigating or reducing the effects of human climate disruption on many (maybe all) species.  This species has apparently become extinct in the Mule Mountains of southern Arizona – on BLM land under federal land management.

Over the last 3 million years — a million years longer than humans have been around — the Yarrow’s spiny lizards in the Mules adapted to live in cool mountain climates called sky islands.  Because the desert floor below is too hot, the lizards were essentially marooned at higher elevations, as if on an island, and cut off from other Yarrow’s populations in southern Arizona and northern Mexico.

In 2014, the team could not find any lizards below 5,700 feet. Up to that elevation the temperature in the mountains had gotten too hot. In 2021-22, they returned to the Mules to count lizards in the same spot. They were gone.  At that point, the lizards could only be found living much higher, at 7,100 feet, a cooler elevation.

In a scientific paper, Wiens and his colleagues calculated the rate at which the lizards were dying, concluding that it is among the fastest rates ever recorded.

But because the highest peak in the Mules is 7,700 feet, the Yarrow’s spiny lizards were quickly running out of elevations with cooler air. Based on its calculated rate of decline, and with nowhere else to go, Wiens projected the lizards would go extinct here by 2025 — a phenomenon that scientists call riding the “elevator to extinction.”

In March of this year, a survey trip into the mountains with CBS News proved his hypothesis correct, one year ahead of schedule. Wiens could no longer find any lizards, though it will take several more trips before rendering a conclusion.

This species was apparently never listed under ESA, or even petitioned.  The BLM could have petitioned to list the lizard.  You might think that a federal agency responsible for species on its lands would want all the tools available to provide for the species survival, but I think petitions to list a species by federal agencies are unheard of.

We know that species may be listed under ESA because of the effects of climate change (e.g. polar bears).  The ESA would then force federal agencies to modify their actions that would adversely affect listed species.  In this example, changing BLM management practices might have been necessary, but not sufficient, to save the species.

If the species had been listed, at least in theory, other actions that are causing the loss of habitat could have been modified or eliminated which could have benefitted federal lands ecosystems.  A Congressional Research Service Report from 2019 found that unlikely:

Judicial review has helped to ensure that the Services consider projected climate change effects on species in their ESA decisions. However, the courts have not required the Services to curb activities that may contribute to climate change to protect threatened or endangered species.

Stakeholders disagree on whether the ESA should play a role in addressing climate change, with some arguing that the ESA is not equipped to mitigate climate change effects. Other stakeholders believe that the Services can and should wield the ESA to protect further species threatened by climate change by curbing activities contributing to climate change. From the Services’ viewpoint, the best available scientific and commercial data have been insufficient to determine whether greenhouse gas emissions from a proposed activity cause detrimental effects on a species or its habitat. In light of the judicial deference afforded to the Services, the courts have not expanded the ESA as a tool to protect listed species by regulating activities that contribute to climate change.

Despite some success challenging BiOps, neither the courts nor the Services have found that climate change effects from a proposed federal action jeopardize the species or adversely modify its habitat.

Even though that is what happened here.  Federal actions authorizing greenhouse gas emissions have contributed to a baseline for this species that trended toward and resulted in extinction.  This same trend is occurring for many other species in less obvious ways.  Nothing to celebrate here.

But the CRS authors offer this (faint) note of hope:

From the Services’ viewpoint, the best available scientific and commercial data have been insufficient to determine that GHG emissions from a proposed activity cause detrimental effects on the species or its habitat. However, as climate modeling and technology advance, the Services may be able to predict the causes and effects from climate change on species with greater scientific certainty and data.

(Note:  This report was written at the end of the Trump Administration and discusses its changes in the ESA regulations, which have since been changed by the Biden Administration.  Also, I have not tried to update what’s been happening in the courts.)

 

Could ‘Science Courts’ Help Build Public Trust?

This essay in Undark describes a “a citizens’ jury” designed “to ask whether the U.K. government should allow scientists to edit the DNA of human embryos in order to treat serious genetic conditions. Convening a jury was a non-traditional approach to involving the public in decision-making on a complicated scientific topic that could affect public policy.” Such a “science court” might help the public understand forest health/resilience treatments and could perhaps increase the forestry community’s social license to actively manage national forests.

 

 

How are Climate and Finance Interrelated and How Should They Be: Research Institutions and Insurance Markets

I’ll propose Friedman’s law: The further people are from a location where a problem occurs, the less likely they are to understand it, and to view the problem through the lens of their own values, needs and philosophies- which may further their own goals, but not actually solve the initial problem.

I’ve also noticed a general tendency for forest policy to become more overrun by people and disciplines from outside our traditional communities.  I try to welcome these new folks with grace.  They bring interesting and novel ideas, energy, enthusiasm and sometimes lots of political pull and funding to get things done.  I’m concerned, though,  that our world of trees and people is becoming more abstract, controlled non-locally, and financialized (since, say, Hayfork doesn’t have a big presence in the financial sector, the latter two tend to go together).  Just yesterday I was on a phone call with some folks who thought that current investments in federal lands were not going to be “enough” and we need to have “durable financial mechanisms” to support federal land management, possibly including using federal lands for offsets.   Like I said, they might be right.  But I think we should be able to engage with local people, elected officials and practitioners and before the policy ideas become hardened.  That is,  groups go to their buds in Congress, who happen to be partisan, so when local people respond negatively (especially those who are of the Other Party), political lines are drawn and defended when they don’t need to be.  Perhaps we need more mechanisms to encourage discussions between these different communities.. local people and and practitioners, traditional forest users, interest groups and scientists,  and the new philanthropy, political and academic folks, earlier in discussions of policy options.

Anyway, today I have two stories that focus on financialization and climate, and how that affects, in turn,  research priorities and insurance rates.

Forest Science is Too Focused on Climate and Climate Finance; Nature Editorial

What’s interesting about this Nature open source editorial is how it internationalizes our own field of forest policy.

It has a pretty weird headline, though, “forestry social science is failing the needs of people who need it most”: way to blame the victim, Nature!  No, big scientific institutions are more interested in climate modeling than in solving today’s problems.  They allow scientists to prioritize, design, and fund and publish research without feedback from people.  But a full scale redesign of research governance is not what Nature has in mind..

The review is far from the first to highlight that research that should aim to benefit all stakeholders instead focuses on areas that are priorities for the governments of high-income countries. This is an important and timely reminder. It should not be difficult for the researchers involved in the world’s largest scientific networks — the IPCC for climate and IPBES for biodiversity — to create a shared agenda for the study of forests that extends beyond climate change and climate finance. And, given the need for such action, funders should respond positively to such a proposal.

Earth’s forests have the potential to benefit people everywhere. Researchers, policymakers and funders must ensure that everyone’s needs are taken into account.

There are actually plenty of forest social scientists around, though they are chronically underfunded, at least in the US.  There’s a difference between the people at IPCC and IPBES “aiming” to benefit all stakeholders and developing an agenda with stakeholders.  But perhaps the questions and solutions would then be local,  and not international.  Anyway, it’s fascinating to think about how over time the ideas of “climate” and “biodiversity” have changed the locus of inquiry (to international), changed who counts as experts and which disciplines, what questions are asked and what data is used (satellites) and so on.  Meanwhile, I hope social scientists are studying the non-powerline sources of wildfire ignitions  with the idea of understanding and reducing them.  So much more valuable than studies like “impacts of climate change in 2070 on beer production.”

Who’s Running and Supporting the Climate Insurance Scam?

Some of us simple people wonder what all the recent wildfire-but-not-really insurance drama is about.  Yes, climate change can increase risks.  But is there any reason to think that these increases won’t be gradual such that past pay-out history will gradually change, and insurers can still use history to set rates? Not to speak of the fact that for wildfires, the USG and philanthropists are spending zillions on the technology of detection and response, which will conceivably have some kind of effect.

And in my hood, hail is bigger than other risks to home and auto owners, and so far there isn’t a climate signal to hail.  So the stories don’t seem to add up.  I’ve found in my experience, that when claims are made that don’t seem to parse out logically, that there is usually politics of some kind involved, and too many efforts to understand might make you unpopular in certain quarters.

Anyway, there’s a professor named Jessica Weinkle who works at the coastal end of the climate/insurance drama biz, and she often has insights that are applicable to wildfire insurance, the bogus maps,  and all that.  The financial part of her analysis in this Breakthrough Substack article is over my head, but somehow I am not trusting of the financial industry.  Perhaps all the vitriol directed at the oil and gas industry is a magician’s trick to divert us from looking at what the financial folks are up to.  Like most folks, I use oil and gas products daily, and they are important for, among other things, fire suppression; but derivatives could go away tomorrow and I wouldn’t miss them.

Here’s an excerpt:

Last fall, Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who is chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, and Ron Wyden (D-OR), who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, announced an investigation into the ways in which insurance companies are managing “mounting risks from climate change.”

The senators foresaw climate change leading to a systemic financial crisis as rising insurance costs put heavy pressure on the mortgage market. “A widescale decline in coastal and wildland-urban interface (WUI) community property values would present a systemic risk to the U.S. economy,” they noted, “similar to what occurred in the 2007-2008 mortgage meltdown.”

The senators’ evidence for this looming catastrophe?

Insurers’ own climate change risk models.

Whitehouse and Wyden’s insurance investigations come after a series of hearings last summer that kicked off with a familiar character: Carney, along with Robert Litterman, a former asset manager and member of government advisory groups on climate related financial risk. Both argued that climate change is causing increasing frequency and intensity of weather extremes and losses creating risks to financial stability. Both argued for managing emission to control losses. For his part, Litterman, referenced his work as chairman for the development of a report of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission on managing climate risk. The report, of course, made ample use of Bloomberg funded modeling projects.

In a later interview about the investigation, Whitehouse zeroed in on climate risk and financial risk. “There’s a core underlying reason for the insurance problems that Florida’s experiencing right now and for the risks it faces,” Whitehouse said. “And that is the persistent failure to deal with the problem of climate change.”

This is wrong. The underlying problem is the failure of policymakers to inspire a critical debate about urban development and risk mitigation—and about the misguided investor risk perceptions that may be inflating insurance costs.

Food for thought.