Editorial: An ounce of wildfire prevention worth a pound of cure

A house burns in Napa County, Calif., in October. (Getty Images)

Wildfires have become an increasingly costly and devastating problem in the West over the past decades as federal land managers have increasingly restricted logging and road building and maintenance.

The average number of acres burned each year in the past decade has topped 6 million, compared to 3 million a year in the 1970s. As of the end of October of this year there already had been nearly 53,000 fires that burned more than 8.8 million acres. In 2015, 9.7 million acres burned by the end of October.

The cost just for fighting wildfires this year is approaching a record breaking $3 billion, and that doesn’t take into account the economic costs of burned homes, agriculture and infrastructure. The wine country fires in mid-October in northern California are estimated to have resulted in $85 billion in economic losses.

The cost of fighting fires for the Forest Service has grown over the recent years from 15 percent of the agency’s annual budget to 55 percent.

Currently there are efforts on two fronts to change land management practices and spending from the costly and dangerous battling of fires to actually preventing them from occurring.

Earlier this year, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, who is over the Bureau of Land Management, and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, who heads the Forest Service, directed all federal land agencies to adopt more aggressive efforts to prevent wildfire through robust fuels reduction and other prevention techniques.

“This administration will take a serious turn from the past and will proactively work to prevent forest fires through aggressive and scientific fuels reduction management to save lives, homes, and wildlife habitat. It is well settled that the steady accumulation and thickening of vegetation in areas that have historically burned at frequent intervals exacerbates fuel conditions and often leads to larger and higher-intensity fires,” said Secretary Zinke in a press release. “These fires are more damaging, more costly, and threaten the safety and security of both the public and firefighters. In recent fire reviews, I have heard this described as ‘a new normal.’ It is unacceptable that we should be satisfied with the status quo. We must be innovative and where new authorities are needed, we will work with our colleagues in Congress to craft management solutions that will benefit our public lands for generations to come.”

On that Congressional front, this past week the House passed and sent to the Senate the Resilient Federal Forests Act, sponsored by Rep. Bruce Westerman, an Arkansas Republican and licensed forester, that would shorten the environmental review process for forest thinning, curb frivolous litigation by self-styled environmentalists and allow federal land managers to contract with private lumber mills to remove dead and dying trees and use the proceeds of the timber sale to better manage the lands.

The bill passed 232-188, largely along party lines, with less than a dozen Democratic votes. Nevada Republican Rep. Mark Amodei voted in favor of the bill, while Nevada Democrats Dina Titus, Jacky Rosen and Ruben Kihuen opposed it.

“This is a bill based on a simple idea — that we must do more to expand active management in federal forests,” Republican Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, was quoted as saying. “With this bill, we tackle not only the symptoms of the crisis but also its root causes. We provide the resources for our firefighters, but also tools for our land managers to improve conditions on the ground and proactively mitigate the threat of wildfire.”

Rep. Amodei spoke on the floor of the House in 2015 in support of a similar bill that passed the House but died in the Senate, noting the need for fire prevention because once high desert forests in Nevada burn it takes a hundred years for them to grow back. He also noted that the fires devastate endangered and threatened species and their habitat.

Oddly enough, one of the main arguments against the bill by the environmentalists is that logging threatens endangered and threatened species. More so than raging wildfire?

We applaud the efforts by Secretaries Zinke and Perdue to spend our money more wisely and encourage the Senate to pass the the Resilient Federal Forests Act.

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

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A jury of their peers? Hardly

A federal jury is set to begin hearing opening statements Tuesday in the trial of four defendants in the Bunkerville standoff.

There are six women and six men on the jury and there are four alternates, three men and a woman.

The judge said the trial is expected to take four months. A number of potential jurors were dismissed because they could not take four months out of their lives to devote to the trial. How many people can or are willing to? Is it a jury of their peers?

On trial are rancher Cliven Bundy, 71, sons Ammon Bundy, 42, and Ryan Bundy, 45, and a self-styled militia member Ryan Payne, 34, who showed up to protest the confiscation of Bundy’s cattle by the BLM. They are charged with conspiracy, extortion and various firearm charges. They have all been jailed for going on two years.

How can 16 people be found who can devote a third of a year of their lives to sitting in a jury box listening to tedious and repetitious testimony who are resentative of the population as a whole? It is not possible. The jurors are by definition outliers.

The jurors were asked 110 questions about their opinions on guns, protests, ranching, familiarity with the case, etc. Who but a hermit hasn’t heard of the case? Who doesn’t have opinions on guns, protests and ranching?

Peers? Hardly.

Federal courthouse in Las Vegas (AP pix)

According to The Oregonian, the jurors include:

— An Oregon native who moved to Nevada about four and a half years ago. She said she used to spend time in the Portland, Bend and Sunriver areas before moving to Nevada, where she enjoys the weather.

— A man who works at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino and was there when the Oct. 1 shooting occurred and was escorted out of the casino at the time. He’s lived in Nevada for 25 years and said he likes the entertainment and slow place.

— A Texas native who said he’s lived in Nevada for nine years.

— A Nevada native who has spent 35 of his 45 years in the state. He said he liked Las Vegas for its 24-hour lifestyle.

— A woman who has lived in Nevada for 25 years, and during questioning, said she felt protests have become more violent in recent years.

— A Nevada native who recalled that her high school graduation was held at the Las Vegas convention center.

— A Minnesota native who said she has lived here about 30 years and likes the weather.

— A Nevada native who cited some “mild reservations” about repercussions to her family from serving on a jury in this case.

— A New Mexico native who said she enjoys the city parks and dog parks in the Las Vegas area.

Among the alternates is:

— A man who was questioned often about having seen some campaign literature that mentioned Cliven Bundy. The man said his step-uncle tried to show him the flier and believed Cliven Bundy was innocent. But the man said he wasn’t interested in looking at it. He also said he didn’t know much about the case. He raised his hand when Ryan Bundy asked if jurors understood what a “redress of grievance” is and he voiced his opinion that he doesn’t think an average person should have a “weapon of terror.”

— A man who said he understands there’s a constitutional right to bear arms, but that over time, amendments are adopted that reflect changes in the environment or society.

Editorial: Rip the veil of secrecy from the Bundy case

Bunkerville standoff (Reuters pix)

Justice must not only be done, but it must be seen to be done.

The wheels of justice continue to grind in the federal criminal case against Cliven Bundy, four of his sons and a dozen co-defendants over the April 2014 armed standoff with federal agents trying to confiscate Bundy’s cattle at his Bunkerville ranch. All of the defendants have been jailed for more than a year.

The standoff occurred after armed Bureau of Land Management agents attempted to roundup Bundy’s cattle after he had refused for 20 years to pay grazing fees in the Gold Butte area. The BLM said he owed $1 million in fees and penalties.

Faced with armed protesters the BLM agents eventually released the cattle and left to avoid potential bloodshed.

Much of the evidence in the high-profile case remains cloaked in secrecy due to a blanket court protective order that requires just about everything filed in the case must be filed under seal.

But the press — specifically the Las Vegas daily newspaper, this newspaper and The Associated Press — continue to fight for openness. Just this past week attorney Maggie McLetchie filed a writ with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals asking that the veil of secrecy be lifted, because it “is anathema to the First Amendment” and longstanding court precedent from the 9th Circuit itself.

McLetchie argues, among other things, that much of the rationale for keeping material secret is merely to protect government agents from legitimate criticism of their conduct. She also says the protective order is  based on “speculation and scaremongering” supported almost entirely by a series of years-old online social media posts.

Since the arrests of most of the defendants back in February 2016, things have not gone swimmingly for the government.

Two of Bundy’s sons, who had been arrested on separate but similar charges of illegally occupying an Oregon wildlife refuge to protest the jailing of father and son ranchers under a terrrorism law for letting fires get out of control and burn a few acres of federal public land, were acquitted of those charges this past fall by a jury, along with their co-defendants.

In April, the first of three scheduled trials for the Bunkerville defendants — charged with obstruction of justice, conspiracy, extortion, assault and impeding federal officers — ended in a mistrial. The jury found only two of six people on trial guilty of some charges but deadlocked on the others. The jurors agreed to convict on only 10 of the 60 charges brought. None of the conspiracy charges stuck.

In January, the Interior Department’s Inspector General released a 16-page investigative report outlining misconduct and ethical violations by the BLM agent who supervised the Bundy cattle roundup. The report never named the agent but said he abused his powers by obtaining preferential treatment for family and friends at the 2015 Burning Man event on BLM land, misused BLM personnel and equipment, improperly intervened in hiring a BLM agent and attempted to influence an employee’s testimony during the Inspector General’s investigation of him.

News accounts identify the agent as Dan Love.

McLetchie noted that the misconduct allegations add fuel to the “general public’s concern that the government mishandled the investigation in this case.”

Her writ quotes from a 9th Circuit ruling from 1983 in which The Associated Press sought information about a criminal case. The court stated there “can be little dispute that the press and public have historically had a common law right of access to most pretrial documents. … Moreover, pretrial documents, such as those dealing with the question whether [a defendant] should be incarcerated prior to trial and those containing allegations by [a defendant] of government misconduct, are often important to a full understanding of the way in which ‘the judicial process and the government as a whole are functioning.’”

Seems on point for the Bundy case.

The defendants from the first Bundy trial are to be retried in late June on the same day Cliven Bundy, his sons and others were scheduled for trial. The court has yet to say what the schedule will be for the long-jailed remaining defendants.

The court needs to shine more light on this case so the public can see whether justice is being done.

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

 

Editorial: Will collaboration on sage grouse finally happen?

Nevada has every reason to feel like a slighted wallflower. We keep getting invited to the big sage grouse dance, but never get asked to dance.

Gov. Brian Sandoval and Attorney Adam Laxalt and others have complained bitterly that state and local input on how to protect the sage grouse population and still conduct economically productive endeavors on the land the birds occupy have been roundly and almost universally ignored by the federal land agencies.

A lawsuit filed by Laxalt on behalf of the state, several counties, a couple of mining firms and the owners of a ranch against the Interior Department, the Bureau of Land Management and others used a variant of the word “ignore” 22 times to describe how state and local objections to land use plans were received. In fact a motion filed by the state in that suit points out that after dismissing local input three top Interior Department officials met privately, after the public comment period was closed, with environmental groups to obtain their “buy-in” on a land use plan.

Sage grouse workshop session.

Sage grouse workshop session.

So, pardon us if we scoff at the cheery BLM press release from this past week under the headline: “Collaboration the key to Sage Grouse success.”

The press release announced the creation of Nevada-based working groups comprised of federal and state agencies and key stakeholders “to identify regulatory flexibility and improve communication and outreach between themselves and the public.”

The working groups resulted from a two-and-a-half day workshop in Reno in early December.

“A key part of the workshop was the emphasis on establishing and improving relationships between the agencies and stakeholders, “ said John Ruhs, state director for the BLM in Nevada. “We also spent time getting to know people as individuals as opposed to just identifying them by their interest or agency.”

He was further quoted as saying, “In the case of the amendments for the Greater sage grouse plans in Nevada, a collaborative network of local, state and federal partners is essential for protecting the sagebrush ecosystem while ensuring multiple uses.”

Though Ruhs has a reputation for being a straight shooter — he brokered a deal that allowed Battle Mountain district ranchers to temporarily continue grazing after permits had been denied — he does answer to the federal land bosses in Washington, from whence just two weeks ago came a proposal to ban mining on 10 million acres in the West — a quarter of that in Nevada alone and most of that in Elko County — to protect sage grouse.

Sandoval fired off a retort saying, “Today’s announcement does nothing to protect the greater sage-grouse, but does cripple the mining and exploration industry. It is an unfortunate end to our collaborative efforts with this administration. I am hopeful the new administration will consider the limited ecological benefits of this withdrawal.”

Now senior Nevada U.S. Sen. Dean Heller called the ban an 11th-hour attack on the West by a lame duck president.

“Federal land grabs are never popular in Nevada and the latest one by the BLM is no different. A mining ban does little to help sage grouse and will devastate northern Nevada’s future economic competitiveness,” Heller said in a press release. “I will partner with the next administration to reverse this decision and to ensure the BLM focuses on the real threats to sage grouse, like wildfires, instead of locking up Nevadans’ public lands. Those are the types of efforts, rather than these harmful mining bans, that will benefit our environment while also allowing our economy to grow,” Nevadans can only hope that with the changes coming in Washington these working groups might actually be listened to.

National BLM Director Neil Kornze — a former aide to Nevada Sen. Harry “Lock Up the Land and Throw Away the Key” Reid — has announced he is stepping down on Jan. 20, the day Donald Trump is inaugurated president.

Trump, meanwhile, has nominated Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, who grew up in a logging town, to head the Interior Department.

That BLM press release announcing the working groups quotes JJ Goicoechea, chairman of the Nevada Sagebrush Ecosystem Council, as saying, “While this process was just the beginning, there was a collective recognition of key issues to address and an overall feeling that if we don’t collaboratively work toward solutions, we will fail individually.”

Perhaps, with a different band in Washington playing a different tune, Nevada will finally get to dance.

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

Newspaper column: Trump appointees may hold key to Nevada’s economic future

Trump interviewed by Field & Stream

Trump interviewed by Field & Stream

What does a Donald Trump presidency forebode for Nevada?

It is hard to say, because Trump has never kept a firm grip on any political position for more than a few hours, seemingly changing stances depending on with whom he has spoken most recently.

On the topic of who should control the public lands in Nevada — where currently 87 percent of the state’s land mass is controlled by the various federal land agencies — President-elect Trump has straddled the fence so much he must have saddle sores.

In January during an interview with Field & Stream magazine in Las Vegas, candidate Trump was asked about the prospect of the federal government transferring some of those lands to the states if he were to be elected president.

Trump unequivocally replied, “I don’t like the idea because I want to keep the lands great, and you don’t know what the state is going to do. I mean, are they going to sell if they get into a little bit of trouble?

And I don’t think it’s something that should be sold. We have to be great stewards of this land. This is magnificent land. And we have to be great stewards of this land.”

Merely a week later in an op-ed piece printed in the Reno Gazette-Journal Trump did a 180-degree turn: “The BLM controls over 85 percent of the land in Nevada. In the rural areas, those who for decades have had access to public lands for ranching, mining, logging and energy development are forced to deal with arbitrary and capricious rules that are influenced by special interests that profit from the D.C. rule-making and who fill the campaign coffers of Washington politicians. Far removed from the beautiful wide open spaces of Nevada, bureaucrats bend to the influence that is closest to them. Honest, hardworking citizens who seek freedom and economic independence must beg for deference from a federal government that is more intent on power and control than it is in serving the citizens of the nation.”

He went on to bemoan the fact local governments have to beg the Washington bureaucracy for land for schools, roads, parks and other public uses and pay a premium price for it. During the Republican convention this past summer the party platform included a call for the federal government to divest itself of a certain portion of public lands.

“Congress shall immediately pass universal legislation providing for a timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to states …” the platform reads. “The residents of state and local communities know best how to protect the land where they work and live.”

But at the same time an aide to Trump told the Huffington Post that Trump did not oppose the platform plank, but did not really embrace it, saying, Trump “lives in Manhattan and he views the West as this giant federal wonderful ownership property.” The aide said Trump would prefer a middle ground, such as a federal-state management partnership.

In August, according to High Country News, Elko County Commissioner and Nevada Land Management Task Force Chairman Demar Dahl met privately with Trump at a fundraiser at Lake Tahoe and broached the subject of public lands being transferred to the states.

“He said, ‘I’m with you,’” recalls Dahl, an avowed advocate of granting Nevada greater control over public land. He spoke recently before a House subcommittee in favor of a bill that would do so.

Given Trump’s apparent fluidity on this matter, one might be advised to look to who Trump appoints to various cabinet posts in the coming weeks for hints for how Nevada and the West may fare. One good sign for Nevadans who would like to see federal land put to productive use is that Trump reportedly is seriously considering two oil company executives to be secretaries of Interior and/or Energy.

He also has the self-styled environmentalists in a tither over the possibility that he might appoint a so-called climate denier to head the Environmental Protection Agency, which has been pressing forward with its jobs strangling Clean Power Plan to restrict air emissions and its Waters of the U.S. proposal that would usurp control of every mud puddle west of the Rockies. The views of Trump’s appointees may be more important than the rhetoric out of the future president.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

 

Editorial: One person’s bias is another’s fact-based judgment

Walker Lake (BLM photo)

Walker Lake (BLM photo)

Fair treatment looks like bias to those who are accustomed to being shown obsequious deference.

Once again federal lawyers who have been handed a rejection of their legal arguments by a federal judge are claiming that their case was not weak but that the judge is biased.

After having their case summarily thrown out in the 92-year-old lawsuit, U.S. v. Walker River Irrigation District, federal lawyers are asking that the judge in the case be recused, alleging he is biased against the federal government, according to an account in the Mineral County Independent-News. (motion-to-recuse)

The case involves a question of which party has the rights to certain waters in the Walker River basin. U.S. District Judge Robert Jones sided with the irrigation district.

In January, federal lawyers managed to get the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to toss Judge Jones off the 25-year-old land and water rights case involving the Hage ranching family of Nevada by using a bias claim.

A longtime Nevada practitioner before the 9th Circuit said, “The Circuit’s action in Hage was highly unusual. The 9th Circuit often reverses district courts, and occasionally reassigns cases, but it is rare for them to make a finding of actual bias.”

Rare but perhaps not rare enough.

Apparently a judge’s hard-earned, keen-eyed experience constitutes bias to the appellate court. All Judge Jones did was accuse government officials of entering into “a literal, intentional conspiracy to deprive the Hages not only of their permits but also of their vested water rights. This behavior shocks the conscience …”

He ruled that the government had interfered in the case by urging others to apply for Hage’s grazing permits, by applying themselves for Hage’s water rights and by issuing trespass notices against witnesses soon after they had testified. All in a day’s work for a federal bureaucrat in the eyes of the appellate court?

In the Walker River case the feds found evidence of bias in the fact that Judge Jones had stated, “I believe in constitutional rights. I believe in protecting the rights of the Native Americans and in property rights that have been recognized over time, I believe in that and that’s my agenda.”

Then, according to federal lawyers, there is this damning comment from the judge, “[E]ven though the government in many cases didn’t have the right to insist upon a permit … nevertheless, the government in many cases has insisted upon it. … I don’t like and never have liked the BLM’s or Forest Service’s arrogant presumption that they could assess to people for … trespass, their own travel costs, office costs, sitting in their big chair already paid for by the American taxpayer.”

How dare he show prejudice against bureaucrats hell bent on running rough shod over the rights of the serfs! Who does he think he is, a federal judge?

The prosecutors also took issue with how the judge ruled against them, saying, “In ruling on the motions to dismiss, Judge Jones determined, sua sponte, that all of the water right claims of the United States were barred by res judicata or, in the alternative, laches. Yet, no motion to dismiss was based on either res judicata or laches and the United States never had the opportunity to substantively address the legal and factual merits of any such claims.”

Sua sponte is legalese for acting on his own accord, while res judicata means the matter has already been settled by the courts and laches means time has run out — after only 92 years?

In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has said that it is a “long-recognized inherent power of Federal District Courts, acting on their own initiative, to dismiss cases that have remained dormant because of the inaction or dilatoriness of the parties …”

Knowing the track record of the uber-liberal 9th Circuit, we suspect Judge Jones will get the boot again and this case will drag on for another century or so, but, if justice is ever to be served, things need to change.

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

Some people want to love feral horses to death

This wild mare and foal were among a group of mustangs removed from a range in Nevada last year because they were starving. (BLM photo)

This wild mare and foal were among a group of mustangs removed from a range in Nevada last year because they were starving. (BLM photo)

This is driving the horse huggers bat guano crazy.

This past Friday at a meeting in Elko the National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board voted to recommend to Bureau of Land Management that it actually follow the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 “by offering all suitable animals in long and short term holding deemed unadoptable for sale without limitation or humane euthanasia. Those animals deemed unsuitable for sale should then be destroyed in the most humane manner possible,” according to the Elko Daily Free Press account.

The recommendation was approved by all the board members except one after the board toured the range land in the area and saw first hand the degradation of the land caused by an overpopulation of feral horses.

The newspaper quoted board member Dr. Robert Cope as saying that after the field trip “it became so obvious there’s an incredible crisis situation out there affecting the resource” and “something has got to be done.”

The current problem is that Congress has for years prohibited using federal funds to follow the law and euthanize unadoptable wild horses and burros or even allowing them to be sold for processing into commercial products.

The Humane Society put out a press release saying: “The decision of the BLM advisory board to recommend the destruction of the 45,000 wild horses currently in holding facilities is a complete abdication of responsibility for their care. The agency would not be in this situation but for their long-term mis-management. Alternatives to this proposal have been ignored for over 20 years. The HSUS stands ready to implement these alternatives at any time.”
There are an estimated 70,000 wild horses and burros on the open range, 40,000 more than the range can handle, and that number can grow by 9,000 a year without intervention.
Coincidentally, on the same day the advisory board recommended euthanizing excess horses, the BLM canceled an experimental program to test sterilization techniques, because it was being sued by some self-styled animal rights groups.
The Congressional Western Caucus responded with a press release saying, “Responsible sterilization could help stem the exploding wild horse populations on federal lands in the West. Yet the BLM dropped the project under the threat of litigation by a special interest group. BLM Director Neil Kornze has said his agency is ‘overwhelmed’ by the growing herds, and described the situation as dire. The wild horse and burro population is nearly triple what the rangelands can support. As a result, the lands are being obliterated and the horses are dying of thirst and starvation.”
That’s what the advisory board found. The Elko paper reports today that the BLM is having to haul water to horses in the Ely district.
But some people want to love the horses to death.