No Need to Open Public Lands to Drilling
In the United States, we consume 100 quadrillion BTUs of energy annually, an amount that has stayed flat since 2000. Meanwhile, the amount of energy used to produce one dollar of gross domestic product has dropped by half since 1950. In other words, conservation and improved efficiency have proven to be our nation’s most effective energy policy for the last half-century.
But I wouldn’t have known it from listening to President Obama’s State of the Union speech in January. The President bragged that “over the last three years, we’ve opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration, and tonight, I’m directing my administration to open more than 75 percent of our potential offshore oil and gas resources.” The President called for “an all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy.” In his only nod to energy conservation, Obama called for incentives for businesses “to upgrade their buildings.” I doubt that corporations need more energy conservation tax breaks. And if we’re talking about subsidizing conservation, how about starting with up-grading existing homes’ insulation and windows?
This supply-side approach to energy is wrong for our economy and our environment. When businesses use less energy, productivity goes up and companies become more competitive. When existing homes are made more energy efficient, their owners pay less for heating and cooling, leaving more to invest in kids’ college educations and paying down household debt.
The wrong-headedness of a supply-side approach is no more apparent than on our national forests. Opening up national forests to the one-time mining of oil, gas and coal threatens forest ecosystems. Oil and gas development means roads carved into fragile forests. The threat to water quality from hydrofracking is worse than clearcutting. While logging erodes sediment into creeks, hydrofracking threatens toxic contamination of our rivers and streams.
Our National Forests were founded to protect water quality. That should be the Forest Service’s first priority. Just like the forests themselves, the oil and gas found deep underground, a mile or more, belongs to all of us. The Forest Service needs to put the purposes for which National Forests were created above their exploitation for oil and gas. We need to build on our conservation successes, continue to improve energy efficiency and develop renewable, non-polluting sources of energy.
Planning for Improved Owl Habitat, Maybe
This winter, officials on the Willamette National Forest in Oregon brought together a diverse array of stakeholders to discuss a proposal for commercial thinning in northern spotted owl habitat. Almost five hundred acres of the proposed area encompasses stands greater than 80 years old, the age at which thinning in owl habitat is prohibited.
The project area is covered by a multitude of regulatory and planning designations, including Late Successional Reserve (LSR) areas and critical habitat designation for the northern spotted owl. The Northwest Forest Plan regulates the 80-year age restriction for thinning in LSRs, prohibiting it in stands greater than that.
The agency hopes that the project will ultimately improve the owl habitat, but in order for it to proceed, the Forest Service will need to obtain an exemption by demonstrating that the long-term benefits to the owls outweigh the short-term impacts. The Forest Service sought input from stakeholders before the start of the official environmental review process with the intent of reducing conflict around the controversial proposal.
The Toll Joe Planning Area is located on steep, often unstable slopes along the scenic and winding Highway 20 corridor. These south facing, dry mountainsides at high elevation in the Cascade Mountain Range provide slow growing conditions for the Douglas-fir dominated forest. A stand replacing fire, lit by runaway orphans attempting to elude capture, burnt much of the area in 1911. Approximately half of the area was replanted, while the remaining area naturally regenerated.
Despite their age, the hundred-year-old forests display characteristics of younger habitat for northern spotted owls. They lack vertical and horizontal stand complexity, and have minimal large snags and downed wood, a high density of trees per acre, and trees that are small for the age class. But surveys indicate that the stands may provide foraging habitat for owls in the area as there is evidence suggesting the presence of prey species like the red tree vole. As a whole, the stands are considered to be only several years away from regulatory designation as spotted owl dispersal habitat, areas used by owls for movement from one territory to another.
But the Toll Joe project represents the opportunity to encourage accelerated maturation in these forest stands. With northern spotted owl populations decreasing by 3 to 5 percent annually and the pervasive spread of the barred owl, an aggressive competitor, into traditional spotted owl territory, increasing the quantity and quality of owl habitat becomes ever more necessary.
In the Toll Joe area, the Forest Service is weighing whether the development of old-growth characteristics in the oldest stands can be accelerated through variable density thinning. Thinning removes only some trees in a forest stand and can increase the rate of growth of the remaining trees. Decreasing stand density may allow the remaining trees to access more nutrients and light, resulting in accelerated growth. Variable density thinning seeks to mimic the complex structure of a natural stand by leaving more trees in some areas and less in others, and can include areas that receive no thinning.
Confounding the management needs of the area is the presence of the highway. The highway corridor offers the greatest risk of human caused fire ignition—several years ago, a vehicle accident ignited a blaze, and officials worry that a wayward spark or tossed cigarette could threaten the entire area.
The onus is on the Forest Service to show that any management activity will provide for improved spotted owl habitat in the long run. But, with negative impacts expected in the short term, such as diminished habitat for owl prey species, and the Fish and Wildlife Service’s desire to have no direct or indirect impact to spotted owls in LSRs and critical habitat units, gaining approval for the project in the over 80 year old LSR stands will be difficult.
Preparing for Disaster
Natural events such as floods, fires, and hurricanes can drastically alter an ecosystem, but preparing for them poses a significant challenge to land management agencies. All that is certain when it comes to natural disasters is the possibility of their occurrence in a given area.
In response to this conundrum, the Forest Service and Council for Environmental Quality have been changing the ways in which the agency manages national forests. Adaptive management is emerging with growing frequency as a model for resource management at the various levels of Forest Service planning. The latest revision of the National Forest Management Act planning rule, the framework guiding the planning for every national forest, attempts to use adaptive management concepts, while the Northwest Forest Plan provides for adaptive management areas where different management strategies can be tested to determine the appropriate methods for managing forests to provide for the needs of the northern spotted owl.
Adaptive management is a framework defined by an iterative learning process. In the Forest Service, this model is employed through the formulation of a resource management plan whereby the implemented action is monitored and an evaluation of the outcome informs subsequent management actions and planning.
The Forest Service has signaled its interest in increasing the use of adaptive management plans. The National Forests and Grasslands in Texas have developed several adaptive management plans and are currently seeking to apply an adaptive management framework to respond to major wind events on the forests. In the last decade, tornados and hurricanes have led to large-scale alterations and damage to recreation sites, critical habitat and infrastructure. But the Forest Service has said that the traditional environmental evaluation process has not provided the necessary flexibility to respond to major wind events in a timely manner.
Adaptive management proposals like this concern some conservationists who worry that analyzing general actions before a major event will not adequately account for the true environmental impacts of an action, and will simultaneously remove the public from the environmental evaluation process.
Counties in Peril
The fate of over a million acres of temperate old-growth forest hangs in the balance as Congress struggles to solve a set of interlocking challenges. These forests, some with centuries-old trees, lie in the lower elevations of the coastal and Cascade ranges of western Oregon from Portland south to the California border. Once a part of a 19th century railroad land grant, which Congress reclaimed in the 1930s after massive land fraud, these O&C lands were logged aggressively after World War II. For more than 50 years, 18 Oregon counties received half of the timber sale revenue that came from this logging. Logging reforms beginning in the late 1980s reduced O&C harvest levels from 1 billion board feet annually to one-fifth that amount.
In 2000, logging’s sharp decline and its effect on county government revenue spurred Congress to pass the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act (SRS), which made up the difference between historic and current timber revenue. Although Congress twice previously extended the SRS payments, the law has now expired once again. Oregon’s congressional delegation is united behind renewing the SRS payments.
But the path to doing so is not smooth. Paying Oregon counties means cutting other programs in the federal budget. Or the county payments could be had by closing an existing tax loophole, no doubt to the detriment of some other vested and powerful interest.
Each time Congress has re-authorized the Secure Rural Schools program, the payment amounts to Oregon’s counties have gone down. In response, three Oregon House members—two Democrats and one Republican—have tried to hammer out a deal that would replace the SRS payments over the long-term. The bill, which has not been made public at publication, proposes a Solomon-like splitting of the O&C lands into two halves. One half, made up of all the remaining old-growth forests and undeveloped wilderness lands, would be protected. The other half, consisting of second-growth tree plantations, would be managed for timber production.
Navigating this compromise through Congress will be no easy matter. The House Natural Resources Committee Republican majority thinks the deal is too green; that it doesn’t commit enough land to logging. The Senate majority is skeptical about the proposal’s governance provisions, which would keep the timber half in federal ownership, but have these tree plantations managed by a board of trustees.
While this debate unfolds, some counties have already announced that sheriff’s patrols will be terminated and libraries closed. County budget cuts of 25 to 50 percent are being forecast, causing some counties to consider outsourcing traditional government services to the non-profit sector.
A win-win solution that protects irreplaceable old-growth forests, provides county revenues and promotes jobs managing second-growth forests is still possible. But the process is going to make sausages look like health food.
The potential for clean, sustainable energy from biomass has spawned a whole new forest industry. Biomass plants are springing up around the country, with the promise of “green” energy produced through the burning of either dedicated biofuels or woody debris.
It’s an idea that has gained traction in recent years. In heavily forested areas, the federal government provides funds to thin over-choked forests, and the “waste” from these forests—small trees, underbrush, forest-floor duff—is burned in nearby plants to produce energy. The Forest Service’s Woody Biomass Utilization Team touts the benefits of small, rural biomass plants, claiming improved forest health, reduced dependence on fossil fuels and job creation in rural communities.
But burning biomass releases carbon, just the same as burning fossil fuel does. Left on its own, forest detritus, living and dead, absorbs, stores or slowly releases carbon, while feeding it into incinerators accelerates the carbon release. In areas where forest fuel is lacking, or where fuel supplies are no longer plentiful (one-time thinning does not produce long-term materials) other fuel must be found to continue generating energy in these plants.
One solution is to plant acreage with biomass crops. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has provide more than a billion dollars in funds for biomass programs around the country. Some of those funds will be used to plant giant miscanthus, a potential invasive species, as a dedicated energy crop.
Giant miscanthus is like grass on steroids—it grows up to 15 feet tall in very dense thickets, crowding out native grasses. The proposal for the pilot plantings calls for sterile seed to be used, to counter the plant’s invasive qualities, but the grass also spreads by sending out rhizomes, so it is unlikely that it can be contained. Despite these concerns, the projects are moving forward possibly paving the way for aggressive invaders to take root on public lands.
Follow the Money
How much should the federal government spend on natural resources and environmental protection? Congress, as it struggles to make deficit reductions, will be asking this question in the months ahead.
Most federal agency budgets increase as our population grows. Social security and Medicare grow with each baby boomer who ages into the system. Food stamp costs increase, whether poverty rates go up or down, because we have more people. The air traffic control system grows with each airport expansion and increase in service. Interstate highway maintenance costs go up as lanes and miles are added and rarely decommissioned. Federal police and security costs rise as there are more people to monitor. Since the early 1980s, defense spending has shot steadily up, whether we are at war or peace.
The nation’s budget numbers reflect these trends. Between 1979, when I became a forester, and 2008, federal spending on defense has increased 78 percent. Spending on science and space exploration has risen 85 percent. Medicare has gone up 475 percent. Income security outlays have climbed 139 percent and interest on the nation’s debt by 136 percent. These are real dollar increases, net of inflation.
But natural resource and environmental spending, which includes funding for the Forest Service and other land management agencies, is down by 25 percent since 1979. In dollar terms, the 1970s were truly the environmental era, with a level of financial commitment that our government has not come close to revisiting since.
The Obama administration equates “energy security” with protecting the environment. Energy spending, which declined by three-quarters from 1979 to 2008, has more than tripled since Obama took office. The lion’s share of that and future increases in energy spending will go to developing new supplies of natural gas, oil and renewable energy, with sharply declining amounts spent on conserving the energy we have. At best, natural resource agencies should expect flat budgets, with declines more likely than not.
A History of Logging Versus Habitat
In western Oregon, the fallout from an early 20th century land grant scandal continues to reverberate, affecting the recovery of endangered wildlife and threatening rural counties with bankruptcy. The story begins in 1860 when a cash-strapped federal government granted alternate square miles of land to the Oregon and California Railroad Company to pay for construction of a rail line from Portland to the California border. The grant required the O&C Company to sell the land to settlers at no more than $2.50 an acre. Early on, however, the company realized the land was worth much more to speculators and timber interests.
In 1904, the Portland Oregonian uncovered a massive land fraud that led to more than 1,000 indictments. In 1916, after a U.S. Supreme Court decision favorable to the railroad, which had completed the line (albeit in violation of the grant’s terms), Congress bought back more than 2 million acres of land at the original $2.50 rate. For the next twenty years, the General Land Office tried to sell the lands and timber, but with few takers and little success.
In 1937, Congress threw in the towel. In the O&C Act, Congress required that the re-vested lands be maintained in public ownership and managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management for sustained yield timber production, protection of watersheds, creation of public recreational facilities and the financial support of local county governments. The O&C Act was the nation’s first multiple-use statute.
For the next fifty years, timber harvesting dominated the BLM’s O&C agenda. BLM logged assiduously, at twice the rate of the neighboring national forests. Clearcutting dominated the O&C landscape; by the late 20th century, half the O&C lands had been cut over. Logging revenues provided a substantial income stream for rural western Oregon counties, resulting in property tax rates that continue to be about half the amounts paid in the rest of Oregon.
In the late 1980s, the O&C timber train collided with popular support for saving old-growth forests. In a series of decisions parallel to those against the U.S. Forest Service, courts found the BLM had violated environmental laws that protected threatened species like the northern spotted owl. O&C logging came to a screeching halt. In 1994, the Northwest Forest Plan replaced BLM’s timber-focused plans. Statewide, logging was reduced to two-thirds of its former level. Oregon’s delegation convinced Congress to lessen the counties’ financial stress with a series of stopgap funding measures set to expire this year. Oregon’s growing and diversifying economy also helped to ease the pain of reduced revenue.
An uneasy armistice prevailed until the 2008 recession, from which Oregon—especially the public sector—has yet to recover. Today, a confluence of economic and political circumstances have again placed the O&C lands at ground zero in natural resource politics. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has promised to restore economic activity to the O&C lands. Concurrently, Salazar’s Fish and Wildlife Service is under court order to reissue a spotted owl recovery plan not tainted by the political meddling that undid its Bush administration predecessor. Several cash-strapped counties face possible bankruptcy if Congress does not renew the supposedly temporary funding it has provided since 1990—a renewal that looks increasingly uncertain as Congress takes a budget knife to everything except military spending.
Some Oregon counties have proposed to revisit the early 20th century, calling on Congress to sell half of the O&C lands to finance county services. Although that proposal has gained no political traction, the predominately democratic Oregon delegation agrees that the status quo is untenable. Legislators are searching for a solution that assures protection of existing old-growth forests and guarantees higher levels of sustainable logging on O&C lands, although not necessarily in that order of priority.
In a rare display of bipartisanship, the current Congress is working on a slate of wilderness bills that, if passed, would protect more than 1.5 million acres of new wilderness in half a dozen states.
As unlikely as it would have seemed last fall, 2011 is providing a window for wilderness preservation. The sluggish housing market means decreased timber sales, and a fractious Congress, weary of wrangling over issues from health care to the federal budget, recognizes that feel-good, inexpensive legislation might offer a panacea to its constituents.
Still, many of the bills include trade-offs that would preserve some land and release other areas for resource extraction, including drilling and logging. The most egregious of these, Montana Senator John Tester’s “Forest Jobs and Recreation Act,” would designate 700,000 acres for preservation, but allow logging on 100,000. Critics claim that this bill was crafted behind closed doors, with little public input.
Overall, though, the current bills look promising. Wilderness is a diminishing resource and protection is behind the curve, so this opportunity to preserve more wild land is timely. The Omnibus Public Lands bill that was signed in 2009 protected 2.1 million acres, almost equal to the entire amount protected during the Bush administration. But many of the current bills, including Oregon’s Devil’s Staircase Wilderness, were left on the table at the end of the last congressional session.
A complete list of wilderness bills supported by FSEEE is on the last page of this mailing. If your representatives are among the sponsors, please join us in supporting them.
Retardant Review Underway
The U.S. Forest Service has published a draft environmental impact statement that suggests several modest changes in its use of chemical aerial fire retardant. The draft is in response to a court order that resulted from FSEEE’s second legal challenge to the manner in which the Forest Service uses fire retardant. In his decision, Missoula-based federal district court judge Donald Molloy faulted the Forest Service for concluding that retardant has no significant environmental impacts. He directed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and National Marine Fisheries Services to fully assess the effects that toxic retardant has on threatened and endangered species.
Aerial fire retardant is rarely used east of the Mississippi River, although wildland fires are common in the East, including fires in wild, remote landscapes such as Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area. West of the Mississippi, retardant use is concentrated in California, with about half the nation’s total retardant gallons dumped in a state that has only twelve percent of the nation’s wildland fires.
In 2008, Texas, which in square miles is 68 percent larger than California, had three times as many wildfires and more acres burned, yet used only 1/33 the amount of aerial fire retardant. This difference cannot be attributed to the number of homes near forests: the wildland-urban interface in Texas exceeds California’s by 19 percent.
Rather, California has 22 air tanker bases versus one part-time facility in Texas. (The Forest Service occasionally bases airtankers at the Abilene regional airport.) In other words, wildland firefighters in California use significantly more fire retardant than firefighters in Texas because they can. Why does California have a plethora of retardant bases? Because it’s a state with lots of federal land managed by federal agencies that have access to congressional appropriations with little oversight or need to justify their expenditures. Texas, on the other hand, has little federal land and sees no justification for spending state funds on chemical aerial retardant.
Missing from the draft are any data or studies demonstrating that retardant use decreases homes lost to wildfires or meets any other fire management goal. “Fire retardant is faith-based firefighting,” says a Forest Service fire scientist. Research has shown that homes are lost in wildland fires due to the inherent flammability of the house and the vegetation within 200 feet of the home. Retardant use does not generally affect these factors. Nor does it slow down the high wind-driven fires that cause most home losses.
More Roadless Loopholes
This spring, the U.S. Forest Service released the latest roadless area management plan and environmental impact statement for 4.2 million acres of roadless areas in Colorado.
The newly published Colorado rule represents the state’s second attempt to formulate its own roadless management plan, a plan that is subject to final approval by the Forest Service. The first management plan published in 2008 ran afoul of public opinion by proposing excessive allowances for road construction and timber harvest. The new proposal creates about 500,000 acres for the highest level of roadless area protection (less than 13 percent of Colorado’s roadless acres). Exemptions and loopholes will allow various types of temporary or permanent development on the remaining 3.2 million acres. These exemptions include road building for coal, oil and gas mining; temporary road construction within half a mile of communities; and thinning within 1.5 miles of populated areas, regardless of their roadless status.
photos: Map of U.S. National Forests, U.S Forest Service; Spotted Owls, James Johnston
A Perfect Storm Brewing in Washington
November’s congressional election brought to power in the House the most anti-environment committee chairmen seen since the days of Richard Pombo and Helen Chenoweth. Eastern Washington representative “Doc” Hastings now heads the Natural Resources Committee with jurisdiction over the federal land agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service. Hastings lost no time in promising that his committee would investigate President Obama’s public lands initiatives, which shouldn’t take him too long.
And therein lies the makings of a perfect storm. When last the House Republicans set environmental legislative policy we had strong public lands advocates in the Executive Branch to neutralize their influence. Al Gore took the lead on setting the White House environmental agenda and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt pushed for ambitious national monument protections. President Clinton set the tone early on with his Forest Summit, which resulted in the Northwest Forest Plan and significant protection for old-growth forests.
Will today’s White House show the backbone of its predecessor in defending our public lands legacy? There’s scant reason to think so. As a Colorado senator, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar opposed increasing fuel efficiency standards and supported tax breaks for oil companies. His Fish and Wildlife Service has recently endorsed amendments to the Endangered Species Act that would remove protected status for wolves and grizzly bears. This politically expedient move assures that the biological needs of these keystone species play no role in those important decisions.
The Forest Service’s political masters also include Harris Sherman, who as undersecretary of agriculture overseeing the Forest Service, has come under criticism for his close ties to the Colorado ski industry and his preoccupation with bark beetles—a natural ecological phenomenon that no amount of stimulus spending will cure. The Forest Service has bristled under Sherman’s micromanagement, which has ordered agency scientists and public affairs officers not to speak to the press.
The center of the upcoming storm may well be Oregon Senator Ron Wyden who chairs the key subcommittee that oversees public lands. Wyden seeks to create more jobs on National Forests and ensure the renewal of the Secure Rural Schools legislation that financially compensates states for nontaxable federal lands. With House Republicans in control of the purse strings, Wyden will be asked to give up several pounds of flesh to get Secure Rural Schools funding.
Medusahead Threatens Sagebrush Habitat
A team of genetic engineers couldn’t have devised a more ecologically lethal and effective invasive weed than the aptly named medusahead rye (Taeniatherum caput-medusae). This annual grass has infested millions of acres of public land throughout the western states. Originally native to the Mediterranean region, this tufted annual’s growth characteristics make it a vicious competitor with native sagebrush habitat species.
Medusahead does much of its growth during the winter when native plants are dormant. It has a high silica content, making it unpalatable to wildlife and livestock. The silica makes each year’s dead stalks slow to decompose, which builds up a layer of mulch that prevents other plants from taking root. This dry mulch layer burns hot and fast if ignited, creating ecological conditions well suited to medusahead domination.
Medusahead first arrived in this country near Roseburg, Oregon, in the 1880s. Left to its own devices, this heavy-seeded plant spreads at a pace sufficiently docile to control easily. But medusahead doesn’t count on its own mobility. Instead, its tufted-hair seeds, from which it gets its name, readily attach themselves to livestock and vehicles. With the help of these unwitting four-
footed and motorized vectors, medusahead threatens to eliminate millions of acres of native grassland and sagebrush habitat throughout the American West.
Medusahead is now one of the bigger threats to survival in the wild of the sage grouse—the spotted owl of the American range. With more than 10 million acres of sage grouse habitat dominated by medusahead, this threatened bird faces an uphill battle to survive. Once sagebrush has been eliminated by medusahead, it is virtually impossible to reverse the process, bring back the sagebrush and restore these dry and fragile ecosystems to native habitat.
The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management manage most of the land infested by medusahead. So what are they doing about it? Not much, it turns out. By way of control, these agencies spray herbicides to try and stamp out small, new infestations of several acres in size. But neither agency effectively prevents medusahead’s spread.
The best solution to slow its spread is to recognize how medusahead got to where it is in the first place.
Research shows that the plant’s seeds are too heavy to be spread by the wind. Unassisted, medusahead’s weighty seeds allow it to expand only about one foot a year. Slowing its rapid spread means preventing the seeds from being transported to uninfested areas by livestock and vehicles.
There is a federal law designed precisely to control the transportation of noxious weeds, the Plant Protection Act of 2000. This law is intended to protect agriculture and the natural environment from pest invasions. But the agency that administers the law, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s APHIS (Animal Plant Health Inspection Service), has shown no interest in exercising its authority to stop or slow established weeds. APHIS focuses solely on stopping new weeds from crossing our national borders from foreign countries; once a noxious weed becomes established, APHIS washes its hands of the problem.
The Plant Protection Act lets anyone petition APHIS to add a plant to the federal list of noxious weeds. Once put on the list, no one is allowed to transport the plant, including its seeds, without a permit issued by APHIS. In March, FSEEE petitioned APHIS to add medusahead to the noxious weed list and adopt regulations to prevent its transportation by livestock and vehicles. This first-ever petition to list a ubiquitous noxious weed could herald a new era. Preventing new infestations is always more effective than post hoc control once a weed has become established.
Threats to Endangered Species Act
With the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, Congress decided that some things in this world are worth saving even when there is no immediate economic advantage. It recognized the intrinsic importance of species preservation and did something rather unusual—it directed that biology trump politics when deciding whether a species warrants the law’s protection.
Lawmakers understood that species preservation should not be a political decision made on a species-by-species basis (although later the Act was amended to allow precisely that under very limited circumstances). The strength and beauty of the Endangered Species Act, and similar protective regulations, is the positioning of scientific analysis at the center of species protection, recovery and ultimate delisting.
Since passage of the Act, private industry and anti-conservation lawmakers have fought against the strong protections provided to species. The U.S. Forest Service has been notorious for its attempt to circumvent both the Act and related biodiversity protections, like those found in the National Forest Management Act, which requires the agency to provide for a diversity of plant and animal life on all National Forests.
It is worrisome that species protections are now under greater attack, not only by the usual opponents, but also by those who have been staunch defenders of biodiversity and species protection in the past. The Obama administration recently announced that it would be seeking legislative removal of the gray wolf and the Yellowstone grizzly bear from the endangered species list, effectively circumventing the biologically based delisting process.
The administration wants politicians to make these decisions, not biologists or wildlife managers. And opening the Act up to legislative review threatens to gut its most vital regulatory components and the necessary emphasis on the use of scientific analysis in the decision-making process.
Simultaneously, the administration has undertaken a complete revision of the NFMA planning rules. Recently published draft rules show the current biodiversity protections in peril. Rather than charging the Forest Service with maintaining the viability of all vertebrate species, the new rules will only maintain protection for a limited number of already imperiled species.
The new NFMA planning rules would also eliminate the use of management indicator species. These are plant and animal species the agency is currently required to identify to use as indicators of ecosystem health and function. Monitoring indicator species allows the Forest Service to understand and evaluate the impacts of their actions on National Forest lands and to correct or cease those activities that have detrimental effects on ecosystems.
Endangered and threatened species will need strong advocates in the coming year to ensure that the legal and regulatory structure meant to protect them remains in place. But if the recent emphasis on rolling back species protections is any indication, it’s going to be a long and difficult battle.
Federal Forests on the Line, Again
The question of how to compensate counties that have large swaths of non-taxable federal land has been a hot political issue for several decades.
Historically, counties with federal land holdings received 25 percent of the revenue generated on those lands. These payments were made in lieu of taxes that counties would have received had the land been in private ownership. The funds, which largely came from timber harvesting, were significant when logging was at its peak. But revenues fell in the 1980s, and by the mid-1990s, they dropped to about 90 percent of their peak levels, leaving rural counties struggling to support roads, schools, libraries and public safety services. In 2000, the federal government stepped in and passed the Secure Rural Schools and Self-Determination Act, which provided annual, though diminishing, payments to counties for six years.
The Act was extended an additional five years, but will expire at the end of 2011, once again leaving counties across the west scrambling for a share of the federal tax pie. Western politicians are vowing to keep the federal funds flowing or reopen these lands to logging. With much of the land containing old-growth forests, pro-logging businesses are salivating at the thought of harvesting timber currently protected for wildlife and clean water.
In 2007, FSEEE suggested that the 2.4 million acres of O&C railroad land in Oregon, which was once in private ownership as a result of a land grant, be divided into two trusts. A “timber” trust, consisting of logged-over land now containing second growth, would focus on timber management while an “environmental” trust would protect the remaining old-growth forests. Creating sustainable harvesting on the timber trust lands could effectively restore much-needed rural funds, and the environmental trust lands would continue to provide wildlife habitat, watershed protection and recreation.
The Association of O&C Counties has suggested a similar split, except they propose to sell the 1.2 million acres that have been heavily managed to private owners for a one-time lump sum.
The need for more creative solutions is at hand. Selling federal lands to pay the bills may provide a temporary boost to county coffers, but won’t offer any long-term, sustainable solutions. As Congress grapples with a diminished budget, continued payments to counties from tax receipts and federal borrowing are unlikely. In the upcoming battle, FSEEE will be advocating for a solution that preserves both healthy forests and rural economies. FN
See Forest Magazine archived issue In the Red for a comprehensive review of county payments.
Congressional Bills to Watch NOW!
S 220: Oregon Eastside Forests Restoration, Old Growth Protection, and Jobs Act of 2011. Reintroduced in the new Congress after it failed to gain traction in 2010, this bill will legislatively mandate specific management practices on 8.3 million acres across six National Forests in Eastern Oregon, including specifications of the minimum acres to be treated and encouraging the harvest of trees up to 21 inches diameter (at breast height) for timber.
HR 242: A bill to exempt California’s 18 National Forests from the Travel Management Rule governing off-highway vehicle use on National Forest lands. The bill will open millions of acres to uninhibited cross-country motorized travel.
HR 509: A bill to amend the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA) to remove the gray wolf from protective status on the endangered species list. HR 510 would prohibit gray wolves from ESA protections in the states of Idaho and Montana.
photos: top: Old growth, BLM; Bottom: Medusahead invasion, Steve Dewey, Utah State University, bugwood.org
Pursuing Wilderness in the Concrete Jungle
In September, I spent a week in our nation’s capitol just before Congress recessed in the face of an incoming Atlantic tropical storm and voter disaffection. After meetings with key House and Senate staff, Devil’s Staircase wilderness legislation is now poised to become law. Its fate in this Congress, however, depends upon a lame-duck session after November’s election. Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley gave a rousing endorsement of Devil’s Staircase at the 50th anniversary celebration honoring the establishment of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, held on the top floor of the Hart senate office building. Jeff is not only committed to protect Devil’s Staircase as wilderness, he is resolved to see the fabled staircase waterfalls itself—a daunting cross-country wilderness trek that only a few (notably including Oregon congressman Peter DeFazio) have ever made.
I also met with the head of the Forest Service’s fire retardant environmental impact statement team. The Forest Service has about 14 months to complete its analysis, ordered by a federal court judge in FSEEE v. U.S. Forest Service. I urged the team leader to work openly with FSEEE, promising that we would help ensure that retardant is used where it is a safe and effective firefighting tactic. At meetings with the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service staff who must comply with the court-ordered fire retardant consultation under the Endangered Species Act, I reminded the biologists that their first priority is to protect threatened and endangered species.
The House Government Affairs and Oversight Committee staff briefed me on their conference call with the Office of Special Counsel, as they sought OSC’s explanation for why it has proposed to drop its investigation of whistleblower retaliation against former Tongass wildlife biologist Glen Ith. Both House and Senate staff are watching this case carefully to ensure that OSC holds whistleblower retaliators within the Forest Service accountable.
Ask the Question: Is Retardant Effective
The Fourmile Canyon Fire that burned outside of Boulder in September 2010 was the most destructive wildfire in Colorado’s history. A hundred and seventy homes were lost, and before the last embers had died out, the finger pointing over the management of the fire began. Private airtanker contractors were quick to criticize fire managers for not calling into service 747-sized aircraft to fight the blaze. “To see incidents like we’re having in Colorado, where we definitely feel we can have a big impact, is a little frustrating,” said Evergreen Aviation tanker program manager Jim Baynes, in a Denver Post story.
But do airtankers and the chemical retardant they drop on fires actually make a difference? Not only is the jury out on that question, the U.S. Forest Service hasn’t even asked it. Although laboratory research confirms that ammonia phosphate retardant slows the spread of fire through pine needles and leaf litter, there is no evidence that chemical retardant changes the outcome of large forest fires under real-life conditions.
Chemical retardant was formulated in the 1950s as a tool to slow the spread of small fires in remote, inaccessible land in the mountainous west. Today, retardant use is still largely confined to states west of the Mississippi, with half of all chemical retardant dropped in California. But its use has expanded well beyond the purpose of providing the extra hours needed for firefighting crews to hike into remote wilderness areas and build fire lines.
Much of the retardant now dropped on western fires is used to battle large fires, especially where homes arethreatened. Although there is no research that addresses whether retardant use reduces home losses, there is substantial research that explains why some homes burn and others don’t. This evidence indirectly undercuts claims that aerial retardant saves homes.
The research, much of it conducted by Missoula-based Forest Service scientist Jack Cohen, shows that homes burn based upon the flammability of the construction materials and the vegetation within 100 feet of the house. Fire retardant does not protect flammable homes from wind-born embers and burning branches. A large, wind-driven fire often overwhelms whatever firefighting force can be brought to bear, leaving flammable homes vulnerable.
As a result of a court order FSEEE obtained in July, the Forest Service is now preparing an environmental impact statement on aerial fire retardant. The agency’s first step is to ask its research scientists if fire retardant has been shown to be effective. This may be the beginning of the end of faith-based fire retardant use.
From Forest to Faucet
Twenty percent of the population in the United States get their drinking water from streams and wetlands located on national forests. In addition to filtering and purifying the water we drink, these waterways provide essential habitat for endangered fish and act as natural sponges that prevent downstream flooding.
But water quality on national forests is imperiled by recreational and commercial activities that have become acceptable uses of our forests. Many of the activities occurring on national forest lands have the potential to negatively impact water quality. Logging roads are in danger of failing during intense rains causing landslides that send tons of rock and sediment into streams. Cattle trample riparian vegetation, destroying the stability of streamside banks and depositing manure into waterways. Off-highway vehicles charge across streambeds and spin wheelies in sensitive wetlands, damaging the ability of these areas to act as sponges and filters. The Forest Service too often overlooks the havoc that these activities cause and the costs to the American public of degraded watersheds.
FSEEE has always believed in the importance of maintaining clean, healthy watersheds and has worked to protect these assets. FSEEE spearheaded the Roadless Rule to end construction of new logging roads, and we will continue to fight for the Roadless Rule as long as its opponents continue litigation against it. We have also worked to educate both the Forest Service and the public about the danger posed by the extensive national forest road network. We produced a public television documentary, Torrents of Change, that chronicled the major road failures experienced during intense winter storm events. The video has led to major changes in how steep forested areas are protected. (You can view this documentary in FSEEE’s online library at www.fseee.org.) We have advised the Forest Service on closing roads for restoration or converting them to trails to reduce the unnecessary and expensive road network. When we review a proposed project on national forest land, we advocate for the protection of these vitally important watersheds and will continue to seek out innovative ways to accomplish this goal.
Thanks to a lawsuit brought by FSEEE and others, the Obama administration is rewriting forest planning rules. These rules, first written in 1979, require key protections for wildlife and water quality under the 1976 National Forest Management Act. The most important of these rules—the wildlife “viability” requirement—is the lynchpin on which rests the protection of old-growth forests.
The Bush administration tried twice to rewrite the forest planning rules, each time focused on eliminating the protection of wildlife viability. Bush failed, first because his administration refused to write an environmental impact statement and second, because the one it finally did write was meaningless.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced that his department will now take a crack at rewriting the rules. FSEEE has recommended a simplified set of forest planning rules that retains all of the key environmental protection requirements of the existing rules, but provides more flexibility for local national forests in the process they use to revise forest plans. (Read FSEEE’s suggestions here)
The one thing we want to guard against is new, feel-good and flowery language replacing strict, accountable standards for protecting wildlife and water quality. That’s the direction the Clinton administration took, which was also rebuffed by the courts. Obama’s administration should resist the Forest Service’s instinct to write unenforceable rules that give only lip-service to protecting the environment.
Untrammeled, Yet Trampled
The Wilderness Act defines designated wilderness as “...an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence...where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man...” but the law says little about livestock. Grazing on public land is egregious, but in federal wilderness, it’s indefensible. Heavy hooves and contaminating waste have no place in areas that have been set aside for preservation and protection in its natural state, yet grazing allotments across the west allow this practice to continue.
FSEEE is working to regulate grazing on national forests to protect wilderness areas. We have been evaluating grazing management plans throughout the country and have provided formal comments on grazing plans that are up for renewal and under environmental analysis. In the Eagle Cap Wilderness in Northeastern Oregon, for instance, we questioned the Forest Service’s claim that cattle will remain out of sensitive wilderness areas without fencing, an analysis that assumed cattle would know where the invisible boundary of wilderness begins. The Forest Service also admits that degradation of core wilderness values will be likely in a portion of the Eagle Cap Wilderness. They justify this ruination by claiming that the size of the remaining, ungrazed wilderness is enough to offset these negative impacts.
We disagree with the Forest Service’s reasoning. Every acre of wilderness should contain and protect the core values enshrined in the Wilderness Act. We have found examples in many wilderness areas of the Forest Service failing to protect these most valuable lands. FSEEE will continue to bring these issues to light and work to ensure that the Forest Service truly accounts for all the consequences of livestock grazing on public lands.
On July 27, in a response to a lawsuit brought by FSEEE in 2008, U.S. federal district court Judge Donald Molloy ruled that the U.S. Forest Service had violated the National Environmental Policy Act, and that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service had violated the Endangered Species Act in regard to the Forest Service's use of toxic aerial fire retardant. In an 80-page document, the judge ruled that the Forest Service’s assessment of the effects of fire retardant is inadequate, and that the agency must prepare an Environmental Impact Statement. The retardant is used primarily in the West, with California accounting for half of the over 20 million gallons dropped from airplanes and helicopters annually. The retardant, which includes ammonia-based fertilizer, is toxic to fish and threatens rare plants. Malloy ordered the agency to comply with federal laws by the end of 2011, or else risk contempt of court charges.
The catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico serves as a reminder of the sobering risks that oil and gas drilling pose to the environment. During the Bush administration, government officials opened the floodgates to oil and gas leasing on public lands and sold many leases without assessments of the environmental and societal impacts that can result. As we have since learned, British Petroleum also skirted environmental laws: the Deepwater Horizon well was put in place without an environmental impact statement because the company claimed such a spill was impossible. Tragically, that claim has been proven false.
Along with risking our ocean ecology, the Bush administration offered lands for lease next-door to several of America’s most unique natural areas including Arches National Park and Dinosaur National Monument in Utah. Earlier this year, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar voided the most controversial sales from the Bush era and announced plans to reform the process of identifying and offering oil and gas leases on public lands.
Until the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf, the Obama administration was quietly looking the other way on some oil and gas drilling plans authorized by the Bush administration, hoping to avoid a full airing of the environmental problems that will result. Now the current administration will be forced to deal with the issue. FSEEE will be working to ensure that the Forest Service provides a full and accurate accounting of all the environmental impacts that oil and gas leasing will have on these lands and all National Forest system lands.
One example is the Forest Service’s plan to open 1.2 million acres of National Forests in Mississippi to oil and gas leasing. Except for 6,000 acres of congressionally designated wilderness, this is effectively every acre of National Forests in the state. In the past, FSEEE has investigated many of the existing oil and gas leases on these lands to determine whether the threats to the environment were considered.
Last month the Forest Service published an Environmental Assessment for all the Mississippi lands. On April 19, 2010, FSEEE sent detailed comments to the Forest Service stating that they need to identify the significant impacts that would be caused by oil and gas leasing on these 1.2 million acres.
Stay tuned for updates on oil and gas wells on public lands. Together, we can make sure that a tragedy such as the oil spill in the Gulf doesn’t happen on our public lands.
Less than 2 percent of annual visits to National Forests are made for the purpose of using off-highway vehicles (OHVs). Even though the 2005 Travel Management Rule directed the Forest Service to end cross-country OHV travel and clearly identify the roads and trails open for this activity, OHVs continue to have disproportionately large impacts on the environment and the recreational experiences of others.
In April 2010, FSEEE learned of extensive OHV damage on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. Details revealed more than a dozen areas where OHVs had carved up the ground leaving ruts of up to two feet deep in sensitive meadow habitats. We urged the District Ranger to obey the regulations that require an area be closed immediately if OHV damage occurs.
As a result, the Forest Service is installing a new gate and will be increasing patrols. FSEEE will continue to make sure the Forest Service adheres to its own management directives on the Wallowa-Whitman and elsewhere. FSEEE continues to monitor and comment on OHV use on National Forests.
Thanks to a lawsuit brought by FSEEE and others, the Obama administration is no longer saddled with its predecessor’s forest planning rules. These rules, first written in 1979, put in place key protections for wildlife and water quality required by the 1976 National Forest Management Act. The most important of these rules—the wildlife “viability” requirement—is the lynchpin on which rests the protection of old-growth forests.
The Bush administration tried twice to rewrite the forest planning rules, each time focused on eliminating the protection of wildlife viability. Bush failed, first because his administration refused to write an environmental impact statement and second because the one it wrote was meaningless.
Obama’s Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, announced that his department will now take a crack at rewriting these rules. From May 11-13, I participated in a national “roundtable” discussion of these rules convened by the Forest Service in Washington, D.C. (While in our nation’s capitol, I also visited congressional offices to ensure that protecting the Devil’s Staircase as wilderness remains high on the list of public land bills.)
FSEEE has recommended a simplified set of forest planning rules that retains all of the key environmental protection requirements of the existing rules, but provides more flexibility for local National Forests in the process they use to revise forest plans.
The one thing we want to guard against is new, feel-good and flowery language replacing strict, accountable standards for protecting wildlife and water quality. That’s the direction the Clinton administration took, which was also rebuffed by the courts. Obama’s administration should resist the Forest Service’s instinct to write unenforceable rules that give only lip-service to protecting the environment.
At the end of May, FSEEE launched a new and improved website. We’ve created a go-to spot for national forest news, including region-by-region news updates, blogs about current forest issues, links to research news and volunteer activities, back issues of Forest Magazine and news about national forests near you. Join the conversation at www.fseee.org.