Newspaper column: Move the headquarters of federal land agencies West

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke rides a horse in the new Bears Ears National Monument in Utah a year ago. (AP pix)

Head ’em up, move ’em out.

There has been a lot of talk since the Trump administration has taken over about where to locate the national headquarters of some of the nation’s federal land agencies. One land agency, the Bureau of Land Management, controls 11 percent of the nation’s lands, but 99 percent of that land is in the West.

Fully 85 percent of the land in Nevada is controlled by those federal land agencies, the highest percentage of any state, with 66 percent of the state lying under the purview of the BLM, while the rest of the public land is controlled by agencies such as the Forest Service, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of Defense and the Bureau of Reclamation.

According to several news accounts, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a native of Montana, is open to moving the headquarters of some of the agencies under his command out of the District of Colombia and into the West, specifically the BLM, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Reclamation.

Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner has a bill pending in Congress that would require moving the BLM HQ to Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington or Wyoming.

The bill states: “Not later than 180 days after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary shall submit to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources of the Senate and the Committee on Natural Resources of the House of Representatives a strategy for relocating the headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management from Washington, DC, to a western State in a manner that will save the maximum amount of taxpayer money practicable.”

“You’re dealing with an agency that basically has no business in Washington, D.C.,” Gardner was quoted as saying by The Associated Press.

The same story quoted northern Nevada’s Republican Rep. Mark Amodei as saying, “I’m excited about the fact that they’re looking at it,” though he stopped short of endorsing the bill at this time. The AP story went on to note that Amodei said he had spoken with bureau officials in Washington who know so little about Nevada they thought the land under a highway interchange was wildlife habitat.A similar bill to Gardner’s has been introduced in the House by Colorado Republican Rep. Scott Tipton.

“Moving BLM’s headquarters West is a commonsense solution that Coloradans from across the political spectrum support,” Sen. Gardner said in a statement. “Ninety-nine percent of the nearly 250 million acres of land managed by BLM is West of the Mississippi River, and having the decision-makers present in the communities they impact will lead to better policy. Coloradans want more Colorado common sense from Washington and this proposal accomplishes that goal.”

Federal bureaucrats sheltered inside the Beltway have little appreciation of what lies in the vast open spaces of the West besides the beasts, bugs, birds and weeds that self-styled environmentalist claim need protection from devastation by ranchers, farmers, miners, lumberjacks and oil and gas explorers, who depend for their livelihoods on access to the land.

According to employee notes of a meeting between Zinke and executives of the U.S. Geological Survey this past summer in Denver that were leaked to Energy & Environment News, the Interior secretary reportedly said Denver “will probably” become headquarters to some of his land agencies by as early as 2019.

Another advantage of moving federal land bureaucrats out West is that it would require them to live in states and communities unable to assess property taxes on those federal lands in order to build schools, roads and hospitals and pay for police and fire protection.

Perhaps they would come to realize how paltry those Payment in Lieu of Taxes checks really are. Perhaps their neighbors can tell them how those PILT checks amount to only 5 percent of the $8.8 billion the Interior Department collects each year from commercial activities, such as oil and gas leases, livestock grazing and timber harvesting on federal lands that is sent to Washington.

When your own ox is being gored it gets your attention.

Head ’em up, move ’em out.

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.

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Editorial: Suit to block feral horse plan is frivolous

‘Wild’ horses being held in pens. (BLM pix)

As sure as hogs wallow in slop, one month after the Bureau of Land Management announced a plan to properly control the population of feral horses on a nearly 4 million-acre tract of land 50 miles southeast of Elko, a New York nonprofit group calling itself Friends of Animals filed a federal lawsuit. (Friends of Animals suit)

The lawsuit claims the BLM gave “no opportunity for the public to review or comment on its decision” and thus violated its own procedures and requirements of federal law. Actually, the suit merely tries to throw overheated rhetoric at a decision with which the Friends of Animals disagree.

In December the BLM outlined a 10-year plan to control the population of mustangs in the Antelope, Antelope Valley, Goshute, Maverick-Medicine, Spruce-Pequop and Triple B Herd Management Areas, plus another million acres onto which the horses have spread. The area currently has 9,500 horses, 11 times more than the low estimate for what the forage and water can support, about 900 horses.

The plan is to gather and remove some excess horses and control the remaining population with castration of some males and chemical fertility control of some females. The goal is to establish stable herds of about 60 percent male and 40 percent female.

There are already about 45,000 “wild” horses being held in storage pens across the West at a cost of $50 million a year.

The Friends suit claims an Environmental Impact Statement is required for all “major Federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.”

But the “Decision Record” signed by Elko District BLM Manager Jill Silvey clearly states that following “public review” she found the plan “will not have a significant impact to the human environment, and that the Environmental Impact Statement is not required.” This is backed up by a 361-page Environmental Assessment and a four-page Finding of No Significant Impact.

Though the federal lawsuit claims there was a lack of public overview, it states there were 4,940 comments submitted to the BLM during a public comment period.

Silvey’s decision notes, “The BLM received over 4,940 comment submissions during the public comment period; the majority of those submissions (more than 4,780 or 97%) were form letters. Form letters are generated from a singular website from a non-governmental organization, such as an animal advocacy group. Comments identified on form letters were considered along with the rest of the comments received, but as one collective letter. … Letters and e-mails were received both in support of and in opposition to the gather.”

The lawsuit wonders all over the legal rangeland, ruminating about the impact of sterilization on social behavior in herds.

It spouts such pseudo-scientific folderol as this: “A potential disadvantage of both surgical and chemical castration is loss of testosterone and consequent reduction in or complete loss of male-type behaviors necessary for maintenance of social organization, band integrity, and expression of a natural behavior repertoire.”

But the lawsuit fails to ever address the fact the feral horses are currently starving and dying of thirst due to their excess numbers, much less their impact on wildlife, ranching and recreation.

The suit demands that the court block the population control plan, and, of course, seeks for themselves “reasonable costs, litigation expenses, and attorneys’ fees.”

Meanwhile, the BLM argues, “A gather of wild horses from the area is also necessary to prevent continued degradation of rangeland resources, and the unnecessary death or suffering of individual wild horses that are being currently impacted by a lack of water and forage. The BLM is required to manage multiple uses to avoid continued degradation of the rangeland, and reduce the potential for catastrophic loss of animals.”

The courts should let the BLM try its management plan for a couple of years and hear the horse huggers’ suit later if it is not working. Doing nothing while the litigation languishes is not an option.

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.

Save money by selling off federal public grazing range

Here is an idea from 1982 whose time has come.

Writing at Forbes magazine online today, Steve Hanke, a one-time senior economist on President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers, resurrects an idea he broached 36 years ago — sell off federal grazing lands with the first right of refusal going to current grazing permit holders.

Hanke says Reagan endorsed the idea, as did then-U.S. Sen. and Reagan confidant Paul Laxalt. He quotes Laxalt as saying:

Before we proceed any further, let me tell you where I stand. I believe a need does exist to sell some of our excess public lands. However, I intend to do all in my power to protect existing public land users from being “locked out.” To this end, I endorse a proposal developed by Dr. Steve Hanke, a senior economist on the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, that deals with the protection of existing grazing rights which, I believe, can serve as a model for protecting miners as well. Basically, Dr. Hanke has proposed that ranchers currently holding grazing permits be given the right to purchase, on a first refusal basis, the public grazing permits that they currently rent from the BLM.

Hanke says the federal government should stop renting grazing land — a process by which the government loses 91 cents an acre — and sell it at a profit.

Hanke concludes:

The question now is: what would be the benefits associated with this privatization proposal?

First, the productivity of federal grazing lands would increase.

Second, federal revenues would be generated. Instead of receiving annual grazing fees, the federal government would receive an equivalent lump-sum payment.

Third, the annual federal costs (and these do not include, as they should, capital carrying charges) exceed the annual revenues generated from federal grazing lands. Therefore, privatization would eliminate negative cash flows for the federal government. This would obviously benefit all U.S. taxpayers, who must now pay taxes to support the federal government’s retention of public grazing lands.

Lastly, a state and local property tax base would be created. Western dependence on Washington, D.C. would be reduced and federalism would be enhanced.

Sounds like a winning proposition, especially for taxpayers.

BLM pix

 

Editorial: BLM moving forward with fire prevention effort

The Bureau of Land Management posted on the Federal Register a couple of weeks ago a notice that it is beginning the tedious paperwork process to finally do something to prevent the devastating wildfires that have plagued the Great Basin region in recent years.

The notice states the BLM will create two Environmental Impact Statements (EIS)— one will analyze the effects of constructing fuel breaks that clear flammable material along a swath of land to curb the spread of wildfire and another to study the effectiveness of restoring rangeland to counteract the spread of invasive species such as cheatgrass and conifers that burn too easily. The states involved include portions of Nevada, Idaho, Oregon, California, Utah and Washington.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, wildfires consumed nearly 10 million acres in 2017.

In September Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, whose responsibilities include the BLM, promised, “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.”

The EISs, which are required by federal law, mark the beginning of fulfilling that promise. Comments may be submitted in writing until Feb. 20. Those comments may be submitted via:

* Website: https://go.usa.gov/ xnQcG.

* Email: GRSG_PEIS@blm.gov.

* Fax: 208-373-3805.

* Mail: Jonathan Beck, 1387 S. Vinnell Way, Boise, ID 83709

Meetings to discuss the proposed fire prevention efforts will be scheduled throughout the region and will be announced 15 days in advance in the local media and on the BLM website.

One of the reasons for the current initiative, according to the Federal Register notice, is that wildfires tend to increase the the risk of still more wildfires — a positive feedback loop.

“In warm, dry settings, sagebrush-steppe usually takes, at a minimum, many decades to recover, even where invasive annual grasses or other invasive plant species do not become dominant,” the notice states. “Invasive species and conifer encroachment can be exacerbated as a result of wildfires in sagebrush ecosystems, resulting in an increased risk of wildfires …”

Among the concerns that will need to be addressed and evaluated during the comment period and subsequent meetings is that fuel breaks and the accompanying road improvements, by their very nature, improve access for firefighters but also for the general public, which might lead to an increase in the number of human-caused fires. Also, such breaks reduce the cover for small wildlife to avoid predators.

The Associated Press quoted Matt Germino, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, as saying fuel breaks are a bit of a paradox. “Fires, especially large fires, are so unambiguously damaging to wildlife habitat in general — that is the motivating factor for getting these fuel breaks out,” he said. “At this point, it’s really difficult to predict which animal species will benefit and which ones won’t. Sometimes you have to just act in light of the uncertainty.”

That cautionary note aside, we strongly endorse this effort by the current administration to protect not only the environment but also those who earn their living from the land by ranching, farming, logging and mining and those who use the public lands for hunting and recreation. We encourage our readers to submit comments and attend meetings to counter the likely resistance by self-styled environmentalists.

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.

Firefighters battle blaze near Wells this past summer. (Photo submitted to Elko Daily News)

Editorial: Time to reopen Ash Springs to swimmers

File photo from Lincoln County Record

The Lincoln Country Record reported that the popular swimming hole at the Ash Springs hot springs north of Alamo was shut down because of possible safety hazards.

Someone had noticed a child playing near a wall of rocks that looked as if it might collapse any moment and a local law enforcement officer brought it to the attention of the Bureau of Land Management.

Victoria Barr of the Caliente BLM office told the newspaper, “The structural instability as well as bank erosion and undercutting has caused a concern for public safety.”

The report said the repairs might move slowly due to the presence of two federally protected fish — the Pahranagat roundtail chub and the White River springfish.

“The amount of time needed for repairs is uncertain at this time, but Barr thinks it could be, ‘weeks at this point,’” the paper recounted. “She said their plan is to go through an official closure, and then start a collaborative planning process with the stakeholders and other federal agencies. ‘We anticipate public meetings,’ she said, and when those meetings get scheduled, will be able to inform the public.”

Lincoln County Commissioner Adam Katschke said, “We miss having it open, especially the businesses in Alamo and Pahranagat Valley.”

Those “weeks at this point” have turned into four and half years. That report was published in July 2013 and the ol’ swimming hole remains closed to this day, testimony to the glacial pace of the federal land agencies that control 85 percent of the land in Nevada.

The Las Vegas newspaper reported recently that a BLM official said the agency is nearly finished with a draft environmental assessment for the site, but she could not predict when it might be made available for public scrutiny. So, paperwork has been pushed, but no dirt.

Local residents are said to be anxious to see Ash Springs reopen, but are concerned about how well the BLM would manage the popular tourist site if and when it does.

The paper quoted nearby land owner Cody Whipple as saying he and others would like to see the site turned into a small resort with fees collected for upkeep and repairs. He said the BLM is not in the resort business.

A group called Friends of Pahranagat Valley has stated they would like to create some soaking pools next to a fenced natural area where swimming would be prohibited to protect native plants and fish. Their plans include changing rooms, boardwalks and trails, improved restrooms, a paved parking lot, picnic pavilions, a playground and courts for basketball and sand volleyball.

According to Sunday editorial in the Las Vegas newspaper, the man in charge of the BLM, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, commented to the paper recently about the lengthy closure of Ash Springs, “This is exactly why the federal government needs to clean up our act. I’m not in the business of locking the public out.”

Zinke said Ash Springs will again be open and chided his agency for taking so long to resolve the issue. “We need to work with local communities and be better neighbors …” he was quoted as saying. “Local voices hadn’t been heard and people rightfully get upset when they get locked out.”

Perhaps a few of Zinke’s minions who would like to continue in their cushy, well-paid government jobs should pay heed to what the boss just said.

Whatever happens, it should be sooner rather than later for the benefit of the local residents and potential tourists who would help spur local businesses.

Frankly, the BLM should consider turning over the property to the state, county or a local entity — nonprofit or for-profit.

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: What to do about wild horses? Part 2

In his newly published book, “Wild Horse Country,” writer David Philipps offers his suggestion for what to do about the overpopulation of wild horses in the West, which are overgrazing the open range: “The solution is mountain lions.”

Realizing that this will leave horse-huggers aghast and cause cattle and sheep ranchers to gasp, Philipps forges ahead, “For decades, the BLM has said the wild horse has ‘no natural predators.’ … But the same people who have long dismissed using predators to control horses as impossible have never made an attempt to understand it. They have likely been too busy rounding up and storing horses. If they took the time to look into the idea of mountain lions, they would see that research on the ground contradicts the conventional wisdom.”

Philipps came upon this audacious “solution” after visiting Dr. John Turner at his summer digs in Montgomery Pass near Boundary Peak and the California border west of Tonopah, where the researcher observed wild horses and their environs. Turner spends his winter months working in a lab researching fertility drugs such as PZP, which is being used experimentally to dart mares in an effort to keep herds in check.

The book notes that Turner first came to Montgomery Pass in 1985 intending to do research on herd dynamics that might aid fertility drug studies. Then he learned about mountain lions.

“The BLM was saying there was overpopulation and there was actually underpopulation, because the mountain lions were just going crazy. This was something totally new,” the book quotes Turner as saying. “The old timers around here knew cats were hunting horses, but no one in the scientific community really realized it was happening, or that it could happen.”

Turner told Philipps that the highly adaptive lions, which weigh from 100 to 180 pounds, had learned to lie in wait near watering spots and would spring on the backs of foals, sinking their claws into the flesh and biting the neck, severing the spine in seconds.

The researcher learned this by attaching radio collars to some lions and tracking them for five years. His team discovered that mature horses were too big for the lions but they found foal carcasses near watering holes. In some years nearly two-thirds of the foals were eaten. “You would have some lions eating a foal every other week or so,” Turner told the author.

Philipps also related that in 2005 a University of Nevada, Reno a graduate student started tracking wild horses in the Virginia Mountains. She managed to attach a radio collar to one mountain lion and follow it for 10 months, finding that 77 percent of the lion’s diet was horse flesh. Despite this, according to Philipps, the BLM expressed no interest in the findings.

Meanwhile, the Nevada Division of Wildlife is spending $200,000 this year to kill lions.

“The economic tangle of killing predators while storing horses is mind-boggling. The Bureau of Land Management warehouses thousands of horses each year,” Philipps writes. “Each of those horses costs on average $50,000 to capture, house, and feed over its lifetime. At the same time, we are spending millions to kill mountain lions in the West. It is fairly safe to say that every dollar spent taking out mountain lions in Wild Horse Country drives up the cost of storing wild horses.”

While Philipps’ solution has a certain appeal for being a natural population control method, we suggest that in an earlier chapter he reported an even better and more economically viable solution offered by a Eureka rancher. Besides, foals, calves and lambs probably taste the same.

In 2010 George Parman posted a letter on the Internet, “No, what we need to do, is to let the ranchers and the mustangers take care of the problem, just as they did in the old days, back when, along in the Fall a handful of cowboys would take their saddle horses — throw a bunch of grub and their bedrolls in the back of a pickup — and off they’d go to do a little mustanging. … The horses were automatically kept at reasonable numbers. It cost the taxpayer nothing. The best of the horses were put on the market for people to use and enjoy. The remainder of the older and less desirable animals were euthanatized via a facility that made good use of the end product. … The cattle had plenty to eat. The horses had plenty to eat. Wildlife did well.”

Both solutions make too much commonsense to ever be tried.

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: 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.