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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Editorial: Court should force feds to start over on sage grouse assessment

Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt has filed what he is calling his final brief in the lawsuit challenging the Interior Department’s economically crippling land use restrictions under the guise of protecting greater sage grouse, perhaps signaling that the case is nearing culmination.

As with previous filings Laxalt accuses the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management, divisions of the Interior Department, of violating the law and ignoring scientific evidence when it concocted a 341-page pronouncement in September that 10 million acres of public land in 16 Western states — nearly a third of that in Nevada — would be taken out of consideration for future mining claims, as well as oil and gas drilling near breeding grounds and that there would be additional reviews on grazing permits. The plan envisions restrictions on grazing, resource development, solar and wind energy, and public access on more than 16 million acres of public land in Nevada altogether. This is being done even though the government declined to list the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.

Greater sage grouse (BLM photo)

The legal challenge in federal court is being pressed by the state, nine rural counties, two mining companies and a ranch.

“Along with a majority of Nevada counties, my Office has been pushing back against the federal government’s overreaching sage grouse land plan for almost a year,” Laxalt is quoted as saying in a press release accompanying the court filing. “As our latest brief again demonstrates, the Bureau of Land Management’s rushed, one-size-fits-all sage grouse plan not only violates multiple federal laws, but also the agency’s own regulations. The BLM blatantly disregarded the many Nevada experts and stakeholders, and failed to consider how its plan would impact Nevadans. This approach to regulation is as dismissive to our State as it is illegal, and I remain dedicated to protecting the interests of Nevada and ensuring that agencies follow the law and take the State’s concerns and interests into account.”

In the brief, the state argues that the plaintiffs have standing to bring the suit, a matter disputed by the government, because of the harm that will befall the state and county governments, as well as the private businesses. The BLM’s own Economic Impact Summary, prepared by BLM economist Josh Sidon in 2015, “estimates a loss of $31 million and 493 jobs annually for livestock, oil and gas, geothermal and wind in Nevada, stating that Nevada bore the largest impact from reduced wind energy development, with Elko and White Pine Counties hit the hardest.”

But that low balls the impact because it does not take into account the loss of revenues due to minerals being left in the ground. Laxalt argues that the BLM ignored or misrepresented in its analysis the impact of lost mining claims on 2.8 million acres in Nevada, including the loss of $32 million in investments by one mining company.

A previous brief pointed out that the land use plan jeopardizes development of a mine that could be worth $3 billion — 1.4 million ounces of gold and 21 million ounces of silver.

The current brief notes, “Defendants ignore the importance of discussing how mining claims in the SFA (sagebrush focal areas) will be impacted by the proposed withdrawal. Defendants mischaracterize the emails discussing this very issue,which criticize the agencies’ failure to disclose that half of all U.S. mining claims are located in Nevada: ‘… it is a serious omission not to include mining claim data. How can impacts to locatable minerals be adequately addressed if this data is not known?’” That last quote is from an internal BLM email discussing the failings of their own analysis.

The court should grant the relief sought by the plaintiffs to force the Interior Department to start over with a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, one that accurately reflects the economic and scientific facts instead of being crafted to fit a predetermined political agenda.

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: Feds would rather spend money than allow machines in a wilderness

Workers will use hand tools to repair trails on Mount Charleston damaged by fire three years ago. (Photo courtesy Daniel Thompson UNLV via R-J)

When it comes to preserving the pristineness of pristine wild lands, federal land managers are willing to spare no expense — since it is merely tax money, of which there is an endless supply.

U.S. Forest Service plans to begin work soon on clearing trails on 12,000-foot Mount Charleston in northern Clark County that were closed after a 28,000-acre wildfire three years ago. The fire downed trees that will have to be removed and subsequent flooding due to reduced vegetation eroded some areas.

According to a recent story in the Las Vegas newspaper, “Much of the work will take place within a federal wilderness area, so workers won’t be allowed to use mechanized equipment such as trucks, chainsaws or heavy construction machinery to access the trails or remove debris.”

A spokesman for Spring Mountains National Recreation Area was quoted as saying the two six-person crews from the Great Basin Institute and the Nevada Conservation Corps will be sent in on horseback to do the work and will not even be allowed to use explosives to clear fallen trees, even though the largest ponderosa needing to be cleared is 12 feet in diameter and there are hundreds of trees blocking the trail.

“Explosives are allowed in wilderness areas, but we’re planning to do the work with the minimum tool,” the spokesman said.

The Forest Service had to submit its plans for clearing the trails to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is in charge of protecting the endangered Mount Charleston blue butterfly.

These federal land managers appear to be worshipping the god Gaia — basically Mother Earth — and have no qualms about spending our involuntary tithes on thousands of man-hours of backbreaking manual labor if it means not disturbing their vaunted deity with sacrilegious machines and explosions. Wouldn’t a couple of days of disturbances be less intrusive than months of intrusions. Besides, these are trails for public access!

There is no projected opening date for the trails.

Doubtless the cost would be considerably less and the man-hours considerably fewer if the workers could use bobcats, backhoes, bulldozers, chainsaws and explosives, but those are forbidden in their pristine wilderness area, they think.

Yes, the Wilderness Act of 1964 says, “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human

habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions … with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable …”

No vehicles, no roads, no outhouses, no park benches, no trash cans, no power tools, no bicycles, no cutting firewood. It is accessible to only the most able-bodied.

But according to the Congressional Research Service, there are exceptions. The Wilderness Act and many subsequent wilderness statutes allow motorized access for management and emergencies, as well as for maintenance of infrastructure.

But the Forest Service has a habit of ignoring the letter of the law and is willing to even create hardships in the name of blocking efficient but “unnatural” backhoes, bobcats and bulldozers from its pristine lands.

A couple of years ago the Forest Service demanded that the residents of Tombstone, Ariz. — who get their drinking water and fire protection water supply from a spring in a wilderness area — to fix the fire damaged pipeline with nothing but hand tools, not so much as a wheelbarrow was allowed. It defied common sense and common decency.

A group calling themselves the Jarbidge Shovel Brigade — after the Nevada crew that opened a road in the Jarbidge Mountains years ago in defiance of federal orders to leave the road closed — were toiling away on repairing the pipeline, but even that was temporarily halted when someone spotted a rare spotted owl.

Wouldn’t want to disturb a bird’s nap in order to provide a whole town with drinking water and fire protection.

Do you ever get the feeling that federal land managers view people as an infestation instead of as an integral part of the environment?

A version of this column appears this week 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: Bill would give more land control to the states

Ely resident Jay Crazier took this photo of a fire south of Wendover in 2014. (High Desert Advocate)

When Nevada was admitted into the Union in 1864 its Constitution contained a Disclaimer Clause, saying the state does forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within said territory, and that the same shall be and remain at the sole and entire disposition of the United States.”

It was intended to give the federal government a clear and unambiguous deed to the land so it could be sold, but to this day the federal government still controls 85 percent of the land inside Nevada’s boundaries and almost 50 percent of the land in the West.

In 1996 the voters of Nevada repealed the Disclaimer Clause, but nearly 20 years later little has been done to give the state greater say over that land.

A year ago, Rep. Mark Amodei, whose district includes the northern rural portion of Nevada, introduced a bill called Honor the Nevada Enabling Act of 1864 Act, which called on Congress to hand over 7.2 million acres to Nevada in a first phase. It failed.

But various efforts to at least nibble around the edges of land control are continuing.

Just this past week the House Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Federal Lands heard testimony on a bill from Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador called the Self-Sufficient Community Lands Act (H.R. 2316). Amodei is a co-sponsor of the bill and, though not yet a co-sponsor, Rep. Cresent Hardy, whose district covers the southern half of rural Nevada, is supporting the measure.

The bill would set up 200,000-acre demonstration areas on Forest Service land in any state in which the governor asks for it. State and local officials would then be responsible for managing the land, including allowing timber harvesting and using the revenue to support local needs under the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000.

In testimony about the bill, Rep. Don Young of Alaska said he was upset with the Forest Service because it has stopped cutting timber and become little more than park rangers, resulting in massive forest fires. “The government does not manage the land properly, and that’s a fact,” he said, adding, “Now they’re asking for money to fight fires when we should be managing the timber.”

Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon testified that three of the largest forest fires in the nation occurred a the same time in his district this past year.

We are seeing massive maintenance back logs at all of our federal land management agencies. This mismanagement has led to a decline in forest health that results in larger and more catastrophic wildfires negatively impacting Western communities,” Rep. Hardy said recently about federal land control. When the federal government struggles to effectively manage its resources, it’s time to consider new and balanced approaches that involve local stakeholders and give states with responsible management laws an opportunity to prove that the best stewards of the land are usually those who live closest to it.”

A memo providing background about the rationale for the bill noted the Forest Service alone manages 193 million acres — about 8 percent of the United States. Over the past decade there has been an average of more than 73,000 fires burning an average of nearly 7 million acres per year. The biggest fires start on federal land and often spread to private lands.

The subcommittee was also told that declining timber harvests are devastating rural communities. Timber harvests have declined 80 percent over the past 30 years to the point the current harvest removes only 10 percent of annual growth. Since 1990, more than 400 timber mills have closed and more than 35,000 workers have lost their jobs nationwide.

This bill would take a small bite out of a huge problem. We encourage Amodei, Hardy and the rest of our Washington delegation to pursue this and other bills that can provide economic benefit and jobs, as well as reducing wildfires.

A version of this editorial appeared this past week in many 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. It ran as a column in the Elko Daily Free Press.

Newspaper column: How to stop a charging bureaucrat? Take away his credit card

If you can’t get a bill passed in Congress telling a federal agency to stop doing something, just slip some language into the appropriate appropriations bill denying funding for doing it.

That’s what happened with wild horses. Though the law expressly says the secretary of Interior must destroy excess wild horses, for the past several years Congress’ appropriations measures for the department have just as expressly denied funding to do so.

Congressman Mark Amodei, who represents Nevada’s 2nd Congressional District covering most of northern Nevada, is following that game plan when it comes to heading off the economically crippling designation of greater sage grouse as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act, as reported in this week’s newspaper column, available online at The Ely Times, the Elko Daily Free Press and the Mesquite Local News.

He was successful in including language in the 2015 fiscal year Interior, Environment and Related Agencies appropriations bill, delaying any such listing for one year. Not only does it stop the listing of greater sage grouse, but also the bi-state sage grouse that live along the northern border of Nevada and California, as well as Columbia Basin grouse and Gunnison sage grouse.

Mark Amodei (AP photo)

“More time is needed to convince the Department of the Interior, which controls the vast majority of the sage hen habitat, to undertake the necessary work to conserve the resource and prevent the ESA listing,” said Amodei.

Not that the federal agencies have much solid proof that any of those grouse populations are truly threatened with extinction anytime soon.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service posted on the Federal Register a proposal to reopen the comment period on its decision to list the bi-state grouse, because their data was getting serious challenges from authoritative sources.

Back in October 2013 Fish and Wildlife reported there were only 5,000 bi-state grouse left.

In its Federal Register posting, FWS said it had found substantial disagreement regarding the interpretation of the best available data on the birds. “Some commenters stated that our science was flawed and that there are more sage-grouse in the Bi-State area today as opposed to the past, whereas other commenters (including peer reviewers) believe there is a declining trend and continuing threats. It is evident in the comment letters received that analysis or interpretation of data vary between state, agency, public, and peer reviewers,” the FWS concedes.

Before listing either the bi-state or the greater sage grouse, someone needs to do some sound scientific studies and realistically look at what truly is a threat to these birds — including the lack of wildfire prevention efforts on federally controlled land.

Read the entire column at Ely, Elko or Mesquite.

Feds target the rest of Nevada for sage grouse protection

Sage grouse

The other shoe dropped on Nevada today.

A week ago the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to designate as threatened — under the terms of the Endangered Species Act — the bi-state greater sage grouse found along the northern California-Nevada border, supposedly a distinct population segment of about 5,000 remaining birds.

Today the Bureau of Land Management posted on the Federal Register its land use plan alternatives to protect sage grouse in 16 counties in Nevada — it appears to exclude only Clark County — and northeastern California. There are separate notices covering sage grouse habitat in other Western states. Links to the planning strategy are available here.

The public now has 90 days to comment.

There are six alternatives:

— Alternative A: No action — continues current management direction under existing planning documents. This includes all 11 field offices involved in the planning effort, plus the Humboldt and Toiyabe National Forests.

— Alternative B: Focuses on priority habitat areas that have the highest conservation value to maintaining or increasing sage grouse. Could limit rights-of-way and fluid mineral leasing.

— Alternative C: Reduces or eliminates many of the uses on public lands, including livestock grazing.

— Alternative D: Is a sub-regional alternative that allows local adjustments to protections and allow some ongoing land uses.

— Alternative E: Is the Nevada governor’s alternative and looks at state-proposed conservation strategies.

— Alternative F: Would reduce mineral development and rights-of-way and other uses.

These alternatives cover more than 13 million acres.

This could lead to restrictions on mining, grazing, farming, fences, oil and gas exploration, roads, power lines, wind turbines and solar panels, various forms of recreation and more — costing jobs and economic development.

Supreme Court refuses to hear Hage ‘takings’ case

The Supreme Court this week denied certiorari in the case of Estate of Hage v. U.S.

The Hage family, which owns the Pine Creek Ranch near Tonopah, has been waging a court battle with the federal agencies for 22 years.

Wayne Hage, left, his son Wayne N. Hage, and young Hage niece, Kristin, in 1999 during branding at Pine Creek Ranch near Tonopah, Nev. (Photo by Ramona Hage)

At one point in the many iterations of the Hage litigation a federal court awarded the Hages $2.9 million for the taking of their water rights under the Fifth Amendment and $1.4 million in statutory compensation for improvements made in connection with the revoked grazing permit. With interest the total award amounted to $14.2 million. And that was four years ago.

An appellate court vacated the award, saying the case was not yet “ripe” because the Hages had failed to continue filing for grazing permits, even though it would have been a futile gesture.

This past month a Nevada federal judge ordered Hage to apply for a permit and for the federal agencies to grant it. He also enjoined the government from issuing trespass or impound notices to Hage.

What that does to the ripeness of the takings case is unclear to me., but the Liberty and Property Rights Coalition quoted Wayne N. Hage, the heir of E. Wayne and Jean Hage, as saying:

“We of course are disappointed the Court failed to settle a dispute so central to the road and water way infrastructure of the West.  However, the question before the Supreme Court involved only a very small part of the eight published decisions issued by Judge Loren Smith and its impact on our ranching operation is minimal. …

 “All of Judge Smith’s property findings and most of the original $4.2 million judgment remain intact with 8 percent interest accruing.  Also important to ranchers is that the Federal Circuit found that we must be guaranteed access to our vested stock water rights.”