Editorial: BLM proposes firebreaks to reduce size of wildfires

The Bureau of Land Management is currently conducting a series of public hearings across the West to get input on an audacious proposal to limit the unchecked spread of rangeland wildfires.

The BLM says wildfires have increased dramatically in size and frequency in the past decade in six Western states — Nevada, Utah, California, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. During that time, 21 fires have exceed 100,000 acres. A total of 13.5 million acres have burned. Efforts to suppress wildfires by the BLM alone have cost $373 million over the past decade

“These wildfires result in increased destruction of private property, degradation and loss of rangelands, loss of recreational opportunities, and habitat loss for a variety of species, including the conversion of native habitats to invasive annual grasses,” the BLM reports. “The conversion of rangeland habitats to invasive annual grasslands further impedes rangeland health and productivity by slowing or preventing recovery of sagebrush communities.”

To counter this, the federal land agency is proposing to create up to 11,000 miles of firebreaks as a way to keep the fires from spreading into mammoth infernos, like the Martin Fire in northern Nevada this past year, which consumed nearly half a million acres of rangeland.

The draft proposal calls for fuel breaks being created along roads and rights-of-way by mowing, grazing, mechanical and chemical clearing, as well as prescribed burns. Some of the breaks could be brown strips — areas where all vegetation has been removed. Others could be green strips — areas where vegetation that is more flammable has been replaced with less flammable vegetation.

In some areas invasive cheatgrass — a perennial that grows knee high in the spring but dries out in the summer — would be replaced with native plants less susceptible to fire. Also, grazing permits could be adjusted to allow for spring time clearing of cheatgrass.

Cheatgrass and wildfires create a vicious cycle. Cheatgrass recovers more quickly than native species after a fire. Thus the more fires, the more cheatgrass. The more cheatgrass, the more fires.

John Ruhs, once the head of the BLM in Nevada and now the head of BLM operations in Idaho, was quoted in an agency press release as saying, “Fuel breaks have proven to be very effective in slowing rangeland wildfires, making them easier and safer for wildland firefighters to control. We believe that creating a system of fuel breaks will help us enhance and improve our working landscapes.”

The BLM’s principal deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management, Casey Hammond, was quoted as saying, “Wildfires devastate forests, rangeland and communities across Idaho and throughout the West, and without strategic planning they’re likely to continue in the years ahead. With this initiative and others like it, we’re working proactively to curb wildfires’ destruction and make it safer and more effective for firefighters to protect people and property.”

Environmentalists have expressed concerns that firebreaks may fragment wildlife habitats, including that of the threatened greater sage grouse, but the fragmentation should be less threatening than a wall of flames threatening the animals’ very lives and food source.

Brian Rutledge, a vice president of the National Audubon Society, notes, “The safety of a sage-grouse is utterly dependent on its cryptic coloring and cover from overhead predators. If the birds didn’t get burned up in the fire, there’s nowhere to hide eggs in cheatgrass.” Additionally, unlike soft sage leaves, cheatgrass provides little nutrition for the species.

The BLM is accepting comments on the proposal through Aug. 5.

Scoping meetings are scheduled for 5 to 7 p.m. on July 16 at the Red Lion Inn in Elko and July 17 at the Bristlecone Convention Center in Ely.

Firebreaks would be a valuable tool in the effort to cut down the size of rangeland wildfires.

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.

BLM proposes firebreaks along 11,000 miles of roads and rights-of-way.

Newspaper column: Don’t say, ‘Nay,’ to the other red meat

Wild horses near bald mountain in 2014 (Elko Daily Free Press file photo)

Frustrated with the inability of federal land managers to control wild horse overpopulation, this past week Gov. Brian Sandoval put out a press release saying he plans to pursue legal action to force the federal agencies to fund wild horse population control.

The statement said the Bureau of Land Management is already telling ranchers they will face a reduction or even elimination of some grazing permits due to the overpopulation, a major economic impact for the state.

“The BLM has underfunded the wild horse program for years and as a result, the livelihood of our local economies is now being threatened. For too long, Nevada has been forced to compensate for the federal government’s inability to manage these growing populations without the appropriate resources,” the governor said. “If the Department of the Interior refuses to adequately fund this program, the State will pursue all legal options to protect our local producers and communities.”

In response, Attorney General Adam Laxalt, whose office would be tasked to handle such litigation, sent out a statement saying, “I remain committed to defending our state, counties and local economies from actions by the federal government that endanger our future.”

The governor notes that the problem is particularly severe in southeast Elko County, where there are more than 5,000 wild horses — 350 percent more than the range can sustain. There are about 28,000 wild horses in all of Nevada and a total of 47,000 across the West.

Jim Barbee, director of the Nevada Department of Agriculture was quoted as saying, “Livestock producers could see anywhere from 25 to 100 percent grazing reductions on their allotments. Elko County could see an estimated $1.8 million loss as a result of the decision, negatively impacting jobs and the economy on a local and state level.”

Congressman Mark Amodei said he was told Washington has not funded any horse roundups in Nevada this year.

“It’s irresponsible that the BLM has known about the horse numbers, and instead of taking action to alleviate the problem, the agency waited until ranchers are about to turn out their cows to make an announcement — leaving them with no time to find alternatives,” Amodei said.

BLM officials have said they don’t have the budget to round up wild horses this year because it spends $40 million a year caring for those it already has captured.

On Monday The Associated Press reported that BLM Nevada Director John Ruhs has asked Washington for $4 million to roundup 4,000 wild horses in Elko County.

Even though the wild horse law passed in 1971 specifically states, “The Secretary (of Interior) shall cause additional excess wild free roaming horses and burros for which an adoption demand by qualified individuals does not exist to be destroyed in the most humane and cost efficient manner possible,” congressional appropriations since 2009 have stipulated no funds are to be used “for the destruction of healthy, unadopted, wild horses and burros …”

Since wild horses are an invasive species with few natural predators, perhaps Nevada should take a page from Louisiana’s playbook.

When the swamps were being overrun by non-native nutria — basically giant 20-pound rats — they came up with the idea that they could reduce the population and make a few bucks, too, by convincing Yankees that nutria is a culinary delicacy. They figured if they could convince people to eat crawfish, basically mudbugs, why not giant rats?

Nevada could use the slogan: “Don’t say, ‘Nay,’ to the other red meat.”

OK, we’re being facetious, but Congress, the federal land bureaucrats and the horse huggers need to stop treating feral horses like hooved deities.

Yes, these majestic creatures are an integral part of our Western heritage and should be protected. But by letting them breed to such excessive numbers, they are starving and fighting each other for the dwindling supply of food and water, which is hardly humane.

Nor is it conducive to environmental or economic balance. Not only does overpopulation reduce grazing allotments, but it damages the habit of truly native species such as a greater sage grouse, deer and elk.

“I think the BLM needs to do their job. …” Sen. Dean Heller said. “The issue is this, we’re either going to have wild horses in Nevada, which I don’t have a problem with wild horses as long as the herd is managed; or if they’re not going to manage it, then we’re not going to have elk, deer, antelope or for that matter cattle in our state.”

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.

UPDATE: BLM officials appeared before the Elko County Commission Thursday to discuss the wild horse overpopulation.

Nevada has 83 herd management areas and 74 are at or exceeding their AMLs (appropriate management level), BLM public information officer Greg Deimel told the Free Press after the meeting.


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.


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 …”


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

Editorial: Finally, some common sense compromise from the BLM on grazing

Cattle being turned out to the North Buffalo allotment. (Elko Daily Free Press photo by correspondent Mary Branscomb)

Sometimes you just have to call their bluff.

The Bureau of Land Management had for two years denied permission for Badger Ranch owners Dan and Eddyann Filippini to graze cattle on their North Buffalo and Copper Canyon allotments — which is intermingled with the ranch’s privately owned but unfenced land — even though spring rains had allowed the range to recover from the drought.

The 100,000-acre North Buffalo allotment is about 45 percent privately owned and 55 percent controlled by the BLM.

After having to sell cattle and feed hay to others, the Filippinis publicly announced they were turning out nearly a hundred head of cattle during the first week of June despite the BLM’s denial of permits.

“Our cows are tapped out and so are we,” Eddyann Filippini told a reporter. “Badger Ranch has made a stand and these cows are not coming home. If we keep backing down, we lose the ranch.” Two Elko County commissioners helped with the turnout.

The acting BLM State Director John Ruhs, formerly head of the Ely District, said he would not try to stop the release of cattle onto the allotment, and within days the ranchers and the BLM reached a compromise agreement allowing limited grazing under close supervision.

That’s more common sense from the BLM than has been displayed for sometime.

Asked for a comment on the settlement agreement, Nevada Sen. Dean Heller said, “This week, I had the opportunity to meet with the Filippini family. I applaud them and the BLM on their ability to come to an agreement regarding grazing on their North Buffalo allotment. The ranching community has deep roots in Nevada, and it’s always great to see collaboration to continue that rich tradition. I hope more of these types of collaborative agreements become the norm in the Silver State.”

Rep. Mark Amodei, in whose district the ranch lies, said, “BLM Nevada acting State Director John Ruhs continues to demonstrate that he is a fair and talented federal land manger with each passing day.”

John Ruhs

The Filippinis agreed to make a settlement for unauthorized grazing and the BLM waived any administrative expenses for investigating and resolving the unauthorized grazing.

Under the agreement the Filippinis will have to promptly remove cattle when grass stubble height in certain riparian areas reaches 4 inches.

Of course, self-styled conservationists screamed like a pig caught under a gate. They call the ranchers scofflaws and describe the range as parched, no matter how high the grass might be. Ken Cole, Idaho Director for Western Watersheds Project, wailed,“The BLM is enabling this kind of behavior by coddling Nevada ranchers who are surely emboldened by the lack of law enforcement within the agency and the lack of a commitment on behalf of our government to protect the public trust – the lands, waters, and wildlife that are already suffering from the drought and will now be further abused by these private cows.”

He is apparently oblivious to the fact that ungrazed range grass dries out in the summer heat and becomes fuel for wildfires that scorch his beloved wildlife, such as greater sage grouse.

We agree with Sen. Heller and Rep. Amodei and call for more compromise from the federal land agencies and less confrontation.