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: Bill would limit power to create national monuments

Gold Butte National Monument (BLM pix)

The House Committee on Natural Resources this past week approved a bill sponsored by Utah Republican Rep. Rob Bishop to rein in the powers granted by the Antiquities Act of 1906 that allow a president to unilaterally create huge national monuments.

The bill advanced on a party line vote of 27-13, with Democrats in opposition.

The bill, H.R. 3990, the National Monument Creation and Protection Act, amends the Antiquities Act to limit the size of future monuments and specifically grants the sitting president the power to reduce the size of existing monuments — a power Democrats have argued President Trump does not have under current law.

During his administration President Obama created 26 national monuments totaling more than 500 million acres — including the 700,000-acre Basin and Range National Monument on the border of Lincoln and Nye counties and the 300,000-acre Gold Butte National Monument in Clark County.

President Trump ordered Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review recent monument designations and Zinke sent a memo to the president recommending the reduction in size of six of those, including Gold Butte. The president has not yet acted on those recommendations.

Bishop’s bill would allow the president to unilaterally reduce the size of any monument by 85,000 acres — and by more with the consent of affected counties and states.

The bill would allow a president in the future to create a new monument unilaterally, but only up to 640 acres. Anything larger than that, up to 10,000 acres, would require an environmental review. Anything between 10,000 and 85,000 acres, the apparent size cap on new monuments, would require approval of counties and state officials, as well as the governor.

“Congress never intended to give one individual the power to unilaterally dictate the manner in which all Americans may enjoy enormous swaths of our nation’s public lands,” Bishop was quoted as saying. “Designations are no longer made for scientific reasons or archaeological value but for political purposes. Unfortunately, overreach in recent administrations has brought us to this point and it is Congress’ duty to clarify the law and end the abuse.”

Like the Natural Resources Committee, Nevada’s congressional delegation is divided along party lines when it comes to national monuments. The four Democrats have all objected bitterly and volubly to reducing the size of Nevada’s monuments.

But its two Republican delegates in January introduced legislation that would prevent future designations of monuments in Nevada without the consent of Congress — the Nevada Land Sovereignty Act of 2017 (H.R. 243, S. 22).

The legislation introduced by Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Mark Amodei is terse and to the point. It basically piggybacks onto current law that reads: “No extension or establishment of national monuments in Wyoming may be undertaken except by express authorization of Congress.” Their bill would amend this by simply adding the phrase “or Nevada” after the word Wyoming.

In response to Bishop’s bill passing the committee, a Heller press aide sent out a comment, “Unilateral federal land grabs in a state like Nevada where the federal government already owns 85 percent of our land should not be permitted. Public input and local support remain critical to the decision-making process of federal land designations, and that is why I’ve introduced legislation that prevents last year’s land grab under the Obama administration from occurring without input from Congress and local officials. I’ll continue working with my colleagues to see that it is signed into law.”

Congressman Amodei said in January before Trump’s inauguration, “I continue to be amazed by the fact that some people hug unilateral, non-transparent monument designations, while at the same time, protesting vehemently over the introduction and public discussion of congressional lands bills proposals. In contrast to the last eight years of this administration’s one-sided approach on major land management decisions in Nevada, our bill simply ensures local stakeholders have a seat at the table going forward.”

Bishop’s proposal also declares that existing water and land rights are to preserved despite a monument designation.

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.

Newspaper column: Western officials fear new EPA rules could cripple mining operations

There is growing fear among officials across the West that in the waning days of the Obama administration his Environmental Protection Agency may enact regulations that could cost the hard rock mining industry billions of dollars, jeopardizing jobs and entire communities.

Earlier this year, the EPA, as is its wont, settled a lawsuit from a passel of self-styled environmental groups by agreeing to write further regulations requiring additional financial assurances — in the form of expensive surety bonds — that mining sites will be adequately cleaned up and reclaimed at the end of operations.

The court gave the EPA until Dec. 1 to write these new rules.

Lest we forget, it was the geniuses at the EPA who bungled the reclamation of the Gold King mine near Silverton, Colo., a year ago, dumping millions of gallons of toxic-metal-laced pollutants into the Animas River, turning it a bright yellow.

The Western Governors’ Association and the chairs of two key U.S. House committees have sent letters to Gina McCarthy, administrator of the EPA, asking for information about what the agency plans to do and pointing out that the states and various federal agencies already have reclamation bonding requirements in place and that any additional requirements could be duplicative and costly to the industry.

The letter from Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, stressed their concerns that the EPA is not analyzing existing federal and state reclamation requirements.

“If the Agency fails to reduce the amount of the CERCLA (Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, otherwise dubbed the Superfund Law) financial assurance obligation to account for these programs, it will result in the unnecessary and duplicative imposition of many billions of dollars of financial assurance requirements on the mining industry.”

The governors’ letter, signed by Wyoming’s Matthew Mead and Montana’s Steve Bullock, asks for an explanation as to why “existing state programs are insufficient to address the concerns …”

A spokesman for Nevada Rep. Cresent Hardy commented, “This administration has an unfortunate track record of issuing onerous regulations that are especially painful for states like Nevada that have large mining sectors. As an active member of the Natural Resources Committee, Congressman Hardy will continue to work with the chairman to hold the EPA accountable and prevent job-killing regulations from doing further damage to our state economy.”

Nevada Mining Association President Dana Bennett has sent a letter to EPA officials saying that the new regulations would have significant economic impact on all miners in the state, “but it will be Nevada’s small miners, who have limited financial and human resources, that will be hit the hardest.”

She also said the proposed rules duplicate currently effective state and federal programs.

Bennett wrote that the EPA has failed to establish a need for further federal rulemaking and has not provided those who will be affected with necessary scientific or economic analysis, noting there has been no cost-benefit analysis and that the costs “appear to vastly outweigh any potential health or environmental benefits.” (2016 Letter re CERCLA)

She also argued that current mines should be exempted from any new programs because it would be fundamentally unfair to add unanticipated regulatory costs that would “threaten the economic viability of the mines and associated jobs and community benefits.”

The National Mining Association has reported that “a growing number of organizations – from state governments to surety underwriters — are expressing concern that EPA is about to impose economically harmful and unnecessary bonding requirements on mineral mining companies.”

In mid-June the House Natural Resources Committee passed a package of 19 mining bills to address funding, technical and legal impediments to mine cleanup efforts. Of course, that will not deter the EPA.

Bishop said at the time, “If we’ve learned anything from the EPA’s Gold King mine disaster, it’s that the federal government lacks the expertise, resources and capacity to reclaim abandoned mines. … This package provides much-needed liability protections and creative solutions to develop the technical talent and funding resources to ensure cleanup is done safely and without further delay.”

According to the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation, mining accounts for a large majority of the jobs in Esmeralda, Eureka and Lander counties and a large percentage in several other rural counties. Excessive regulatory costs added to the already uncertain fortunes of mining companies in a volatile market could devastate some communities that rely on gold, silver, copper and, perhaps someday, lithium production.

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.

The Coeur Rochester silver mine in the Humboldt River Basin (USGS photo) States.

Newspaper column: Amodei expects big returns for Nevada from Congress

As the 114th Congress gets under way, Rep. Mark Amodei, whose district covers the northern half of the state, is optimistic the House can pass legislation to allow Nevada and other Western states to take control of some portion of federal lands within their borders, though he is not sure about how it will fare in the Senate.

This quest has been flaring up from time to time since the beginning of the Sagebrush Rebellion in the 1970s.

Amodei noted that much of the press for states taking more control of federal land started in Utah, and it just so happens the chair the Natural Resources Committee is from Utah, Rob Bishop, who he expects will give lands bills favorable consideration.

“It’s something I think we need to address in Nevada,” Amodei said.

Rep. Mark Amodei

He also said he was impressed with documentation produced by the Nevada Public Lands Management Task Force, under the leadership of Elko County Commissioner and rancher Demar Dahl, which said that the state could generate millions in revenue by taking over even a small portion of the land now under the control of the Bureau of Land Management.

He said he expects some form of a lands bill will clear the committees and be approved on the floor of the House.

Amodei also noted that the delegation has reintroduced a bill that would stop the president from unilaterally creating National Monuments and other designations that block mining and oil and natural gas exploration and affect ranching.

In the middle of January Obama called for Congress to declare 13 million acres of Alaska a wilderness area, but he also instructed the Interior Department to treat the land as wilderness until Congress acts, making it a de facto wilderness now.

“I think the time that we operate in is unprecedented in terms of the efforts by an executive to basically do as he damned well pleases and to heck with what the people of both parties see as the sidelines and the end zones,” the congressman said. “This guy is like, ‘I don’t recognize any boundaries.’”

Asked about Sen. Harry Reid’s bill to bar development on more than a million acres of land in Gold Butte and Coal and Garden valleys in Cresent Hardy’s district, Amodei replied, “I’ll tell you what I learned from Harry Reid and the Yerington land bill … Senator Reid said, and he’ll acknowledge it, he said we need a, quote, conservation element in that bill, unquote.” Reid demanded the creation of the Wovoka Wilderness area.

Amodei said that in the future when someone proposes a land conservation measure he will reply: “I’ll look at that and, if it turns out it is meritorious, then I’ll support it, but that won’t be good enough. I want to know now if that’s just a conservation element, what’s the economic development element in that bill or what’s the transfer of lands to the county element in that bill?”

Congressional district map

As another example of Obama doing as he damned well pleases, Amodei pointed to his executive orders declaring amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants and said Congress may join the federal lawsuit filed by 26 states, including Nevada. “I think we’ll be voting on that within the next two weeks.”

Citing Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, Amodei noted that Congress is empowered with establishing a uniform rule for naturalization. His problem is not so much with what Obama did but how he did it.

He said the House should put forward some kind of immigration reform legislation and let everyone put their votes on record.

Amodei also thinks there will be a vote on Yucca Mountain this session and suggests the state’s leaders need to engage in a conversation instead of “just screaming, no.” He said he is willing to talk about funding for I-11 from Phoenix to Las Vegas, putting resources into reprocessing research at UNLV, economic development in rural Nevada and involving the Desert Research Institute in the monitoring of the site.

“We’re not looking for ‘Hey, how much can we hold you up for.’ If you think this is bound and determined where it needs to be, and 49 other states are in on that deal,” he said, “let’s leave a favorable footprint in Nevada. Nobody wants a nuclear landfill, so what can you do to make it not a nuclear landfill in the context of economic development.”

As if on cue, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the new Republican chair of a Senate energy subcommittee, told members of the Nuclear Energy Institute this week, “There is renewed hope under our Republican majority that we can solve the 25-year-old stalemate on what to do with waste from our nuclear reactors — and Yucca Mountain can and should be part of the solution.”

Amodei also expects the House to act on sage grouse protection and blocking the Environmental Protection Agency from grabbing control of all surface water.

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 and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.