Why The State Approach Could Work Better for Sage Grouse

This is an oil and gas task force meeting with Governor Hickenlooper.  Another state policy experiment with people talking to each other.
This is an oil and gas task force meeting with Governor Hickenlooper. Another Colorado policy experiment, with people who disagree talking to each other.

Today there were a couple of articles on the sage grouse and Gardner’s bill that I think are worthy of interest. There is one in the Denver Post (may they live long and prosper!) here. Also a couple in E&E News here (I think you need a subscription for this one) and here .

So national groups tell us that ecosystems will unravel or at least grouse will die out, if states are allowed to pursue their own way (even for six years). I guess they think that states can’t be trusted with environmental policy. Of course, the Clean Air Act is an example of state responsibility with federal oversight and that seems to work. Do we have a reason to believe that states are “good on air and bad on critters?”. One of the reasons I’m not afraid is that I spent about six years working on the Colorado Roadless Rule. My experiences with the Colorado Roadless Rule involved all kinds of permutations (state-led and federal-led processes; different administration (3 state and 2 federal)) and so on.

It’s a well known fact that states are incubators for policy experiments. People have ideas and can carry them out without invoking The Big Players, and Partisanizing Everything. What happens in D.C. is that a simple policy idea quickly turns into something one party tries to bash the other party with. I don’t know why it didn’t happen in Colorado. It could be because we’re purple, or because Things Have To Get Done in a state.

Here are a couple of thoughts about why states can do things better. People who work for states know, and have databases with, a great deal of information that the feds do not. For example, when it was desired to restrict roads in roadless areas for undeveloped water rights, the state had the information on water rights. These kinds of issues could be accommodated in a state-specific rulemaking but would tend to get washed out at the national level. For one thing, water law is different in different states.

When our team met with representatives of national environmental groups it seemed like it was all about abstractions, and generalities and posturing and perhaps grandstanding. They would use words like PROTECTION and INDUSTRIAL DEVELOPMENT and so on and weren’t really engaging at the scale of on the ground problems and issues. One national group said we had to “give them something” for them to support the rule. State and local environmental groups tended to want more specific changes.

As I recall, some wildlife people on the western slope wanted to cut down some trees or large brush for better habitat for some critter (a critter that wasn’t endangered) and their concerns were too small to be heard, because the goal was “words that please national groups.” Another example is that some people kept claiming “the science says” that you don’t need to cut down trees around communities (sound familiar?) and Mike King, State DNR Director, organized a meeting with elected officials from communities, fire people, and all the other interests in which each “side” selected three scientists to talk about fuel treatments. When I think about that meeting, I think 1) state people know the biophysical side of the issue and they know the people such that 2) people need to be more or less accountable for what they say. People are used to “gettin’ er’ done” in terms of policy. Grandstanding is not much tolerated in that kind of group. I think that the level of discourse at that meeting, was much higher than my experiences in D.C., where one side at a time tends to come in, and the Feds just listen and not question or disagree. Obviously I believe open discussions of scientific and other points of view should be valued and be a part of any public process.

So that is my experience. Better discourse, more knowledge, more transparency, and ultimately a better policy outcome.

Dave Freudenthal, the (Democrat) former Governor of Wyoming, made a similar point in a letter to Secretary Salazar in 2010 about oil and gas regulation:

In terms of development, I have always been a strong proponent of balance. In general, given the right information and proper motivation, we have usually found our way to a development array that meets the terms of those that understand the need for both production and protection. Frankly, we know that there will never be a meeting of the minds of those in the “drill here, drill now” crowd and the “not one blade of grass” crowd, mainly because neither side is willing to give toward the middle. Unfortunately, Washington, D.C. seems to go from pillar to post to placate what is perceived as a key constituency. I only half-heartedly joke with those in industry that, during the prior administration, their names were chiseled above the chairs outside the office of the Assistant Secretary for Lands and Minerals. With the changes announced yesterday, I fear that we are merely swapping the names above those same chairs to environmental interests, giving them a stranglehold on an already cumbersome process. Meanwhile in places like Cheyenne, Casper, Wamsutter and Cody, Wyoming, we in the middle simply want a good job, clean air, healthy watersheds and a place to hunt, fish and hike with our families.

As Governor Freudenthal said, who should be making decisions “in the middle”? A random mix of ideologues or the people who have to live there in open discussion with each other?

In my experience on the Colorado Roadless Rule, I saw better policy work actually being done when states and feds had to work together, as well as people with different perspectives, including political ones. I think the sage grouse and the people in Colorado deserve that quality of work.

5 thoughts on “Why The State Approach Could Work Better for Sage Grouse”

  1. Could happen. See the recent decision to not list the California-Nevada bi-state population of sage grouse: http://www.fws.gov/news/ShowNews.cfm?ID=DD5B828A-EFD6-2D90-B779A121E74DD059.
    The key here was the high likelihood of conservation measures being implemented, in large part because of their specificity and the money committed to them.

    “The Service is withdrawing this proposal in large part because of the success of the Bi-State Action Plan. The plan is the product of the Bi-State Area Local Working Group, comprising federal, state and local agencies and landowners from Nevada and California, which has been pursuing sage-grouse conservation since the early 2000s. Since then, the working group’s technical advisory committee has finalized plans on nearly 80 science-driven conservation projects specifically designed to reduce identified threats and protect the sagebrush-steppe habitat.

    “The working group’s executive oversight committee has raised more than $45 million in federal and state funding to ensure the projects are implemented and completed over the next 10 years. Long-term projects implemented under the Bi-State Action Plan include population monitoring, urbanization abatement measures, livestock management, wild horse management, pinyon and juniper removal, disease and predation studies and other habitat improvement and restoration projects.

    “Each of the projects is tied to a specific population management unit within the region, led and funded by a specific agency or partnership, and ranked by the immediacy of the threat to the species. The comprehensive plan and funding commitments give the Service confidence that effective conservation measures needed to address threats to the species are highly likely to be implemented.”

    The FWS announcement mentions Forest Service restoration efforts, but not the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest plan changes that are also being made (as described in the draft ROD, now in the objection process): (http://a123.g.akamai.net/7/123/11558/abc123/forestservic.download.akamai.com/11558/www/nepa/92468_FSPLT3_2420263.pdf)

    “This decision provides the overall guidance to manage the sagebrush ecosystem for
    the long-term persistence of the bi-state DPS in their habitat. It provides direction for the
    conservation of the habitat through the prohibition of select discretionary activities. It also
    provides for the enhancement and restoration of habitat by the inclusion of standards and
    guidelines that direct how future activities proposed for habitat improvement or restoration will
    be conducted.”

    The FWS acknowledges the role of forest plans in conserving sage grouse, but does not rely on them in making their decision not to list because they are not final (http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2015-04-23/pdf/2015-09417.pdf). In process they provide a pretty good outline of how forest planning may influence listing decisions.

    “The currently proposed BLM and Forest Service Land Use Plan amendments will provide more specificity and certainty with regard to the conservation of the bi-State DPS and its habitat.

    “These proposed amendments include improved management direction that provide a conservation benefit for the bi-State DPS and its habitat (USDI and USDA 2015, entire). The proposed amendments identify goals for desired habitat condition at both the site and landscape scale. These goals and the specific direction needed to achieve them (e.g., grazing allotment management plans) direct management focus and funding address specific habitat threats affecting the bi-State DPS (i.e., an increase in nonnative, invasive and native plants; wildfire and altered wildfire regime; and rangeland management) by improving habitat condition through increasing the resilience and resistance of the native sagebrush ecosystem. The proposed amendments also provide clear direction to managers faced with decisions on discretionary actions, such as infrastructure development projects, to consider the needs of sage-grouse in the decision making process. The proposed amendments restrict the development of anthropogenic features in bi-State DPS habitat and thereby the potential risk these features can exert on sage-grouse in the future.”

  2. The claim: “When it comes to the environment in our own backyard, we understand it far better than anybody in Washington D.C. Let’s put Coloradans in charge, let’s put Westerners in charge of the West.”

    The track record of ‘Westerners in charge of the West:’ “Once numbering in the millions, grouse have declined rapidly since 1985 to an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 due to agriculture, housing and industrial development.”

    TRCP’s take: “sportsmen believe the proposed legislation would actually hurt sage-grouse conservation efforts and undermine the current collaborative planning process.”

    • Ah.. TRCP..
      when they say “sportsmen” my experience is that they don’t actually take a poll of what “sportsmen” believe, that is a claim they make for what they think.. Again, I have direct experience working with at least one individual at TRCP and that person was excellent at making sweeping claims, but not so much at being able to back them up with evidence directly related to the matter at hand.

      But like every other NGO and person, they are certainly entitled to their opinion.

  3. Then there is the Salt Lake Tribune’s take (may it live long and prosper):

    “The trouble with that bill is that it would take away the threat of a listing, and that brings us back to the best use of the Endangered Species Act being no use. Whatever Fish and Wildlife’s decision may be in September, it’s clear that the state and industry folks would not have worked so diligently to save the birds if there was no fear of listing.”


    • Jon, I don’t think it’s accurate for the writer of the opinion piece to claim it “takes away the threat” if it gives the chance for the state to try for six years. The threat is still hanging there (and the hammer may fall with greater force if progress isn’t being made or the species goes backwards).

      I was pretty open on the fact that my thoughts are based on my experience working with a state and the feds and the public directly with on the ground issues.. not sure what rationale the editorial board is claiming for their views.


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