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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Newspaper column: Jewell feels a drop of rain and declares sky is falling

Sally Jewell speaking about the “emergence of an extreme movement to seize public lands.”

Earlier this year Interior Secretary Sally Jewell delivered what could best be described as a doom and gloom speech about the state of disappearing “natural” lands in this country, primarily the West.

She claimed there is an “emergence of an extreme movement to seize public lands — from Oregon to Puerto Rico — putting lands that belong to all Americans at risk of being sold off for a short-term gain to the highest bidder. This movement has propped up dangerous voices that reject the rule of law, put communities and hard-working public servants at risk, and fail to appreciate how deeply democratic and American our national parks and public lands are.”

Communal ownership of vacant land is democratic? I thought there was another word for that.

That extreme movement must include the Nevada Legislature and a majority of Nevada’s Washington delegation, who have put forth modest efforts to transfer to the state control a little more than 10 percent of the federal public lands in the state — which currently amounts to about 85 percent of the state, the highest percentage of any state.

That extreme movement must include the voters of Nevada, who in 1996 voted to remove from the state Constitution the so-called Disclaimer Clause, in which the residents of the Nevada Territory in 1864 agreed that the residents of the state of Nevada would forgo forever all claim to unappropriated land inside its borders.

Jewell claimed that an analysis by a non-profit group found that natural areas in the West are disappearing at the rate of a football field every two and a half minutes.

“If you add that all up, you’re looking at a pretty bleak picture,” she warned. “If we stay on this trajectory, 100 years from now, national parks and wildlife refuges will be like postage stamps of nature on a map. Isolated islands of conservation with run-down facilities that crowds of Americans visit like zoos to catch a glimpse of our nation’s remaining wildlife and undeveloped patches of land.”

In a mere century we will have paved paradise and put up a parking lot!

According to the Congressional Research Service, there are 623 million acres of land in this country controlled by various federal agencies — Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife, Park Service and Department of Defense. If one bulldozed a football field-sized tract every two and half minutes, why there would be no federal land left in a mere 2,700 years.

The Congressional Research Service noted that over a 24-year period from 1990 through 2013 total federal land acreage did decline by 3.6 percent, mostly from the sale of BLM and Defense property, while the other agencies actually grew in land mass. This occurred while the population of the United States grew by 26 percent.

Over the same 24-year period, total federal land holdings in Nevada also declined, but by only 0.6 percent. This while the population of the state grew by 133 percent. At that rate, there would be no federally controlled land in Nevada in a mere 4,325 years.

Of course, Jewell also took the opportunity of this speech to implore Congress to give her more money so she can better “manage” these rapidly disappearing holdings.

A report from the Nevada Public Land Management Task Force, which was created by the Nevada Legislature, noted that the BLM loses 91 cents an acre on the land it controls, but in the four states that have public trust land revenues amounted to $28.59 per acre. The report estimated that Nevada could net $114 million by taking over just 4 million acres of the BLM’s 48 million acres. Taking over all 48 million acres could net the state more than $1.5 billion — nearly half the annual general fund budget.

Meanwhile in Washington, a year ago Rep. Mark Amodei introduced a bill calling for transferring federal land to the state in phases. The initial phase would authorize the state to select no less than 7.2 million acres of public land for conveyance to Nevada.

More recently, Sens. Dean Heller and Harry Reid introduced a bill that would allow Pershing County, after 30 years of discussions, to consolidate checkerboard lands along the old railroad right of way with some becoming public and some private. Up to 150,000 acres would be sold for economic development while a similar acreage would be declared wilderness. It could be a model for other counties to pursue.

The bills are pending.

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.

Basin and Range National Monument seized by presidential fiat. (LA Times)

Newspaper column: To ‘negotiate’ with feds, you have to speak their language

Sandoval and Laxalt disagree on how to challenge Interior Department land use plans to protect greater sage grouse

Will the real Brian Sandoval please stand up?

This past week the Nevada governor stood virtually alone in rebuking Attorney General Adam Laxalt for joining in a lawsuit seeking to block Interior Department plans to enforce draconian land use restrictions to protect the vast habitat of the greater sage grouse across 11 Western states.

“Prematurely embroiling the state in costly litigation at this juncture threatens to compromise future collaborative efforts to implement the Nevada plan developed over the last four years …” says a statement released by Sandoval’s spokeswoman while he was out of the country. “The governor believes that joining a lawsuit now will chill ongoing discussions …”

How do you chill “discussions” that have been frozen solid?

In July in a 12-page letter to the acting head of the state Bureau of Land Management, John Ruhs, the same Brian Sandoval railed that the state had been stonewalled and ignored in efforts to draft plans for protecting sage grouse. He noted that the final 3,500-page land use plan released in May left unresolved, dismissed or ignored issues raised by the state.

Ruhs

Sandoval wrote that the plan “contains many new elements that disregard best science, Nevada’s state and local plans, and federal law. It is disappointing that this process has changed from a collaborative, proactive approach, to a now heavy-handed, federal approach that uses status-quo approaches and relies primarily on information from federal officials in Washington, D.C. …”

The acting director replied within a week with vague promises of clarifications and a couple of “respectfully declines to adopt.”

Sandoval fired off an appeal to the head of the BLM calling the state director’s response “specious in nature and nearly identical to the text used” in previous denials.

Five weeks later the head of the BLM, Neil Kornze, a former aide to Harry Reid, wrote the governor, “I … respectfully deny your appeal,” though he did “look forward to our continued coordination …”

Kornze

Now Sandoval thinks he can negotiate with the same people who have repeatedly dismissed, ignored, snubbed and denied his every entreaty?

Laxalt is speaking the Interior Department’s language. These Washington bureaucrats live by sue and settle. That’s how we got the September deadline for listing grouse as endangered or not — a settled lawsuit from self-styled conservation groups.

A funny thing happened on the way to the listing. Interior discovered the grouse are not endangered. The agency stated that “the charismatic rangeland bird does not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act,” because its population has stabilized.

Instead, without the legal nicety of listing, Interior immediately announced arbitrary land use restrictions.

The next day Elko and Eureka counties and two mining companies filed a federal lawsuit. This past week Laxalt filed an amended suit that added as plaintiffs the state, seven more counties — Churchill, Humboldt, Lander, Lincoln, Pershing, Washoe and White Pine — another mining company and a Humboldt ranch. An initial hearing is scheduled for Nov. 12.

The suit accuses Interior of violating the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, the General Mining Laws, the Taylor Grazing Act and numerous other federal laws and agreements. The mining companies and the ranch say new restrictions could put them out of business.

In a press release announcing the litigation, Laxalt noted that the federal plan bars mineral exploration and development on 3 million acres within Nevada alone and creates restrictions on grazing and public access on more than 16 million acres in the state.

The decision to sue was applauded by Sen. Dean Heller, the state’s three Republican representatives, numerous local elected officials and business leaders.

Rep. Mark Amodei declared, “When the Department of the Interior completely ignores input from Nevada’s Environmental Impact Statement, I believe no tool should be left in the shed, and one of those tools is litigation.”

Rep. Cresent Hardy agreed, “Those who live closest to the land are the best stewards of it. This has been proven particularly true in Nevada, where locally driven conservation efforts helped keep the sage grouse off of the endangered species list. But the federal government is actively choosing to ignore that reality.”

Rep. Joe Heck, who is running for the Senate seat now held by Reid, observed that Nevadans developed a plan to protect sage grouse habitat, but “that plan was rejected by bureaucrats at the Department of the Interior who have no connection to the land and won’t have to deal with the consequences of their land-use plan.”

Laxalt is speaking Interior’s language, governor.

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

Update: U.S. attorney replies to suit and basically threatens to reopen potential to list greater sage grouse as endangered.

The suit: Nevada v Dept of Interior Am Complaint

Newspaper column: Drunk with power, feds coming for our water

There may not be sufficient documentation to prove that Mark Twain ever said, “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over,” but Nevada ranchers and farmers are having to fight over water with two branches of their own federal government. It’s enough to drive one to drink, as recounted in this week’s newspaper column, available online at The Ely Times and the Elko Daily Free Press.

First, the Environmental Protection Agency rewrote the rules for the Clean Water Act in such a way that gives it authority over just about any stream, dry creek bed or backyard wading pool in the country, even though the law as originally written was meant to protect navigable interstate waterways from pollution.

As if grabbing a claim on every drop of water on the surface were not enough insult and injury, the U.S. Forest Service, a division of the Agriculture Department, has published a “Proposed Directive on Groundwater Resource Management” that would give it virtual veto power over the use of any aquifer remotely connected to any land under Forest Service jurisdiction.

The Western Governors Association has sent a letter to Agriculture Department Secretary Tom Vilsack challenging his agency’s authority to carry out this proposal and asking for answers to a number of questions. The letter, signed by Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and others, notes Congress gave states sole authority over groundwater in the Desert Land Act of 1877 and the Supreme Court upheld this exclusive authority in a 1935 court case.

Among the questions posed by the governors are: “Given the legislative and legal context, what is the legal basis for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and USFS assertion of federal authority in the context of the Proposed Directive?” and “How will USFS ensure that the Proposed Directive will not infringe upon, abrogate, or in any way interfere with states’ exclusive authority to allocate and administer rights to the use of groundwater?”

Additionally, several Western congressmen — including Nevada’s 2nd Congressional District Rep. Mark Amodei — are attempting to insert language in a 2015 appropriations bill that would protect privately held water rights from federal takings. The language was drafted by Amodei and Rep. Scott Tipton of Colorado. It passed the House in March as the Water Rights Protection Act. Putting the language in the appropriations bill increases the chances it will be signed into law.

Amodei noted that in recent years various federal land agencies have made a concerted push to acquire water rights, including cases in which land managers demanded that water users apply for their water rights under state law in the name of the agency rather than for themselves.

In another letter to Vilsack signed by Western congressional members, including Amodei and Nevada Sen. Dean Heller but no other member of the Nevada delegation, the secretary is told the proposal would impose “a chilling effect on existing and future water resource development and the uses dependent on that development not only within NFS lands but outside these lands.”

The feds already control 87 percent of Nevada land, now they are coming for the water, too. Some are putting up a fight.

Read the entire column at Ely or Elko.