Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Is Logging Forest Restoration?

WildEarth Guardians helped to plan extensive forest restoration in the Jemez Mountains but now contests the plan. Despite the veil of “collaboration” and $40 million in federal funding, the U.S. Forest Service decided on precisely what it expected from the start: a logging project.

There is general agreement that business as usual will not suffice if our forests are to survive in a climate changed and drought stricken world. Southwestern forests evolved with fire and beneficial fire is indispensable to their persistence. Fire shaped these forests and logging cannot emulate that process. But the Forest Service is trying to log its way out of the predicament.

Photo by Brant Hyenga
The Forest Service is pressing this logging agenda across Arizona and New Mexico under the ruse of restoration, asserting we can make forests fireproof. But we can’t fireproof forests, nor should we.

The hitch - according to scientific consensus - is that small trees are the problem not big ones. The Forest Service claims it needs some big trees as well as small ones to create openings and offset the cost of restoration.  But exactly how many big trees? Travel over to the Zuni Mountains west of Albuquerque and you will see many large trees on the ground or stacked for removal.

Following the lead of national forests in Arizona, the Santa Fe National Forest considered a multi year “restoration” project on close to 170 square miles of public lands. The result of the “collaborative” process is that nearly 40 square miles of forest will be thinned and logged, which in turn requires 120 miles of road construction or reconstruction.

Roads in forests are bad for soils and water quality, likely worse even than extreme fires. So, why build roads and take large, fire resistant trees when hand thinning and prescribed burning is cost effective and far less risky for soil and water? The answer: to prop up a logging industry.

After more than 5 years of “collaboration,” the Forest Service selected a predetermined outcome including large tree logging.  This result delegitimizes “collaboration” and alienates the public.
Photo by Brant Hyenga

The final selected plan is akin to the “bull in the china shop” approach to restoration. More logging and road building is not what our fragile watersheds need. Together with a full fire suppression policy, that is precisely what landed us in our current quandary.

A pattern is emerging across the Southwest. The U.S. Forest Service has an agenda driven from headquarters that overrules local stakeholder consensus. Until forest management is truly driven by “collaboration” these projects will be challenged. Everyone that cherishes our national forests and all that they provide must stand up to the Forest Service and resist the logging of large, old trees under the guise of forest restoration.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

What is Wilderness? ( I of IV)

The rambling spaces of the American West have enchanted generations. Ninety years ago, we decided that it was important to protect that opportunity. The opportunity to be enchanted. The opportunity to be a little person in a big landscape. Today, an untrained eye may wander the horizon and wonder at the rambling wilderness, crisscrossed with barbed wire and game trails. A trained eye however, will settle on the far fence and know that there, beyond that fence, lies the Wilderness.

Wilderness, when defined legally, must meet certain benchmarks and thresholds. It must be larger than 5,000 acres. It must be have outstanding opportunities for solitude and primitive recreation and generally appear to be unaltered by works of man. It is suggested that a Wilderness have exceptional geologic, scientific, or ecological value. But above all else, it must obviously wild. It is a place we have chosen to protect from ourselves. Or at least try to. But there are other wildernesses too. Little ‘w’ wildernesses, places that are also wild, and primeval and unaffected, but not yet a designated Wilderness. So how do we decide what is a Wilderness and what is a wilderness? And how do we tell the difference?

The Wilderness Act, passed in in 1964, established the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS) and gave Congress the authority to designate any qualified tract of federally owned land as Wilderness. At it’s inception, the NWPS included 9.1 million acres. Since then, just over 100 million acres have been added, protecting  5% of the US land area as federally designated Wilderness. Held contiguously, this equals an area slightly larger than the state of California. In comparison, 4 Californias worth of the United States are used as cropland (408 million acres). It will come as no surprise that the largest Wilderness area is located in Alaska. The Wrangell-Saint Elias Wilderness, in the National Park of the same name, spans 9,078,875 acres. And although the majority of Wilderness is in the Western states and Alaska, 44 states have designated Wilderness areas.

Outside of the National Wilderness Preservation System are millions of acres eligible for Wilderness designation. These eligible acres are classified as Potential or Recommended Wilderness, Wilderness Study Areas, or Roadless Areas, depending on their status and managing agency. Each of these classifications is a stepping stone on the way to becoming a congressionally designated Wilderness Area. Potential Wilderness is an area that has been identified as eligible for Wilderness designation by the managing agency, while Recommended Wilderness is an area that has been identified as desirable for designation. Occasionally, lands are recommended to become Wilderness Study Areas, which are areas that are managed as Wilderness, but not officially designated as such. On lands managed by the United States Forest Service (USFS) alone, there are 58,518,000 acres of Inventoried Roadless lands eligible for Wilderness designation; an area roughly the size of Idaho. That is close to half the acreage includes in the NWPS.

What is the most surprising about the 58 million acres of USFS Roadless lands and the 12.5 million acres of BLM Wilderness Study Areas that exist today is that they exist at all. The world’s (and nation’s) first wilderness, the Gila Forest Reserve in New Mexico, was designated over 90 years ago. Since then, urban areas and mineral extraction have exploded and the politics of Wilderness designations have become increasingly complicated. But there still remains progress and there still remains possibility. The most recent Wilderness designation, the 275,840 acre Boulder-White Cloud in Idaho, took over 15 years to bring to the President’s desk. America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act of 2015 was introduced for the 10th time this May (the first was in 1997).

The need and love of wilderness is a long held cultural value that persists today. The continued interest and desire to protect wilderness is ubiquitous, with the majority of westerners supporting conservation initiatives. But where does this love and need for wilderness and wild places come from?

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Rethinking Our Roads: Less Really is More

Our National Forests have too many roads. Super-sized and under-funded, the Forest Service's road network contains over 370,000 miles of forest roads. That is enough to get you to the moon and halfway home again. The roads slice through wildlife habitat, cutting apart corridors essential to imperiled species including grizzly bears, lynx, and wolverine. Forest roads, especially unpaved ones, are a primary source of dirt that pollutes our waterways. This dirt (or sediment) kills native fish including bull trout, a species that is at risk of dying out.

Left: Forest road #1825, Mt. Hood National Forest; Upper right: fish in the South Fork of the Salmon River, Mt. Hood National Forest; Lower right: stream running through decommissioned road.

The Forest Service's road system currently has about 1/3 more miles than it needs: we would be far better off if we rewilded these roads. Tomorrow. With agency resources strained by smaller budgets and emergencies like this wildfire season, the road system is simply unaffordable. Lacking proper funding, the Forest Service is unable to properly maintain its roads. And when roads fail they often wipe out fish populations and restrict access for forest visitors like you and me.

Back in 1998 the Forest Service recognized its massive, under-funded road system might be a problem. Through rules published in 2001, the agency announced a paradigm shift away from being a road-building agency. Instead, the agency would focus on removing unneeded roads, restoring ecological processes, and minimizing the negative environmental impacts from the forest roads that are deemed essential. More than 15 years later, we might finally start to see the fruit of that sea change.

What is the travel analysis process?

By the end of September 2015, all National Forests must complete a travel analysis process. Essentially a "fall cleaning," each forest must review its road inventory and identify those roads that are unneeded. The end goal is to identify the "minimum road system" for each National Forest. This minimum road system must minimize negative environmental impacts and have an eye towards balancing the agency's finances based on realistic future budget estimates. The minimum road system will refocus the agency's priorities. It will also write the playbook for scaling back the Forest Service road network.

How can I get involved?

The Forest Service is not providing a formal comment period for the travel analysis process or travel analysis reports. Rather, the agency views the travel process as a blueprint for future site-specific travel decisions. The Forest Service therefore interprets this stage of planning as beyond the scope of agency action requiring an environmental analysis.

But that in no way means we must or should remain silent. Although the Forest Service is not formally accepting comments, many forests have informally requested public input. Anyone may, and should, submit comments or concerns to the Regional Forest Supervisor.

You can periodically review your favorite forest's website to see if its managers are soliciting input on a travel analysis planning interactive map. A simple Google search of the forest's name and the terms "travel analysis planning" should provide results. If the forest is requesting input, we recommend treating it as a formal comment period.

If you are looking for inspiration, take a look at the comments WildEarth Guardians sent to the Bitterroot National Forest. This letter urged the Bitterroot's managers to critically think about the roads they decided to keep. It also requested a more robust financial analysis. 

Limited funding was a major impetus for the travel analysis process. Yet many of the travel analyses that Guardians has reviewed so far seem to largely ignore lack of funding for road maintenance and insist on maintaining the status quo. We believe, and the agency's own internal memos agree, that forests must consider long-term funding. The status quo is not enough. The existing road system is not economically sustainable. It also is not environmentally sustainable.

Upper: Marlies Wierenga standing on deteriorating portion of National Forest Development road 25, Gifford Pinchot National Forest; Lower: Tryon Creek State Park.

End of the road

Ultimately, the Forest Service needs to identify an economically and ecologically sustainable road system for each National Forest. The travel analysis process is only the beginning. Forests will soon start to implement the travel plans through site-specific projects. This will be another opportunity to make your voice heard. 

Identifying the minimum roads we need on our public lands will not be easy. Cutting back never is. But reducing the human footprint on our National Forests will protect the natural resources and wildlife within, ensuring future generations get the chance to enjoy the wild as much as we do. Less really could mean more. It's up to us to make sure the Forest Service sees it that way, too.

Friday, September 4, 2015

$24,107 Per Minute Fighting Wildfires?

The Forest Service spent a record $243 million last week fighting wildfires. That is $24,107.14 per minute in taxpayer money. Wouldn't our money be better spent reversing climate change and preparing homes and structures for the inevitable? Forests burn, they have since time immemorial. Ecosystems in the West are mostly adapted to fire, many forests are born of fire. We can't fireproof forests, but we can fireproof communities.

The fact is, we've seen approximately a 93% decrease in the extent of fires annually in North America since pre-industrial times. Do we want to return to this level of fire? Of course not. We'd be overwhelmed with smoke and further, much of the lands that burned in those times were still undeveloped. But forests and grasslands will burn and they are likely to burn more with extensive droughts and climate change.

With so much media and political attention focused on wildfires – and in some cases public lands management with calls to greatly increase logging on national forests by reducing public input and environmental analysis – it is helpful to review this year's wildfire statistics to see what's burned and where.

According to the National Interagency Coordinator Center's 'Incident Management Situation Report from Tuesday, September 1, 2015’:

  • As of today, a total of 8,202,557 acres have burned in U.S. wildfires. In 1930 and 1931, over 50 million acres burned each year and during the 10 year (hot and dry) period from the late 1920’s to the late 1930’s an AVERAGE of 30 million acres burned every year in the U.S. 
  • This year, 63% of ALL wildfire acres burned in the U.S. burned in Alaska, much of it over remote tundra ecosystems. According to federal records, since 1959 the average temperature in Alaska has jumped 3.3 degrees and the average winter temperature has spiked 5 degrees.
  • National Forests account for ONLY 15% of all wildfire acres burned in U.S. this year.
  • 88% of all BLM (Bureau of Land Management) acres burned in wildfires this year were in Alaska, again much of tundra, not forests.
This information is not meant to discount specific experiences communities, homeowners or citizens have had with wildfires this year, but serves as important, fact-based information and context regarding what land ownerships have burned and where they are located.

According to scientists at the U.S. Forest Service, Wildland Urban Interface "home losses can be reduced by focusing efforts on homes and their immediate surroundings. At higher densities where neighboring homes may occupy the immediate surroundings, loss reductions may necessarily involve a community. If homes have a sufficiently low home ignitability, a community exposed to a severe wildfire can survive without major fire destruction. The key to reducing W-UI home fire losses is to reduce home ignitability. …. modeling, crown fire experiments, and case studies indicate that a home’s structural characteristics and its immediate surroundings determine a home’s ignition potential in a W-UI fire. …. we can conclude that home ignitions are not likely unless flames and firebrand ignitions occur within 40 meters of the structure. This finding indicates that the spatial scale determining home ignitions corresponds more to specific home and community sites than to the landscape scales of wildland fire management."

In other words, we should spend limited funds in the immediate surroundings of homes and structures, not logging forests far in the backcountry. We should also be modernizing county building ordinances as more and more communities expand into highly flammable western landscapes or "fire zones" and redirecting the financial burden back on homeowners as California has done. Homeowners in the fire zone cannot continue to expect taxpayers to foot bill.

Again, this information is especially important in the context of recent statements (and pending federal legislation) from lawmakers blaming wildfires on a lack of national forest logging or a handful of lawsuits. The fact is fuel buildup in our forests is from a century of unsustainable logging with the companies leaving the taxpayer the clean up expenses. Combined with cyclical drought and climate change, we're getting some very hot fires, though not any more fire than occurred historically.

If lawmakers are going to use another wildfire season to weaken our nation's key environmental or public lands laws by increasing logging (including calls by Rep Ryan Zinke (R-MT) for logging within Wilderness Areas) then the public should have facts and statistics available to help put the wildfires in context.

Logging does not mimic the results of natural fire and actually results in higher fire hazard due to drier conditions and logging roads that result in more human ignitions. We can't log our way out of the western wildfires, in fact we need to learn to live with them.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Protecting the Heart of the Southwest - Our Commitment to End Fracking in the Greater Chaco Region

It is almost fall in the Greater Chaco Region of Northwestern New Mexico - the perfect time to experience all the natural and cultural richness the Region has to offer. The days are still warm and the evenings are beginning to flirt with cooler temperatures, hinting at the return of winter. The extensive Ancestral Puebloan ruins that run throughout the landscape make this the ancient cultural heart of the American Southwest. Geometric shadows from ancient ruins stretch across mesas as the sun rises and sets on this quiet iconic landscape. Tragically, this landscape won’t be quiet for long.

Just beyond these shadows that seem to go on forever, a threat is looming. A new well is being drilled to tap into the Mancos Shale, just one of many wells that will extract thousands of barrels of oil. Miles of pipeline and fracking equipment are being hauled in on large trucks, and webs of new roads and pipelines are dissecting large areas of habitat occupied by lizards, bobcats, and birds. The noise from the development is deafening. The local Navajo communities are also suffering.

This July, WildEarth Guardians and our partners at the Western Environmental Law Center headed to district court to slow the pace of Mancos Shale development in the Greater Chaco Region. We asked the court to suspend drilling operations until the court ruled on our case, a step necessary to protect the natural and cultural resources of the Greater Chaco Region for generations to come. On July 13, 2015, we dueled for eight long hours with the Bureau of Land Management’s attorneys and those that represent the industry over the agency’s rubber-stamping of drilling approvals that will lead to irreversible destruction of both natural and cultural resources in the Greater Chaco Region.

On August 15, the judge denied our request to temporarily suspend Mancos Shale drilling operations. Despite the lack of environmental review or a comprehensive plan for horizontal drilling and multistage fracking in the Greater Chaco Region, the Bureau of Land Management will be allowed to continue to grant hundreds or even thousands of new permits to drill and frack the Region without understanding the environmental impacts of this drilling or a plan to prevent environmental destruction.  And while we are disappointed by the judge’s decision to protect the profits of the oil and gas companies, this decision ignites rather than rattles our determination to push onward.

On August 18, we appealed the judge’s decision allowing this destructive drilling to continue to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, asking that Court to force the district judge to reconsider his decision to allow horizontal drilling and multistage fracking to continue while our lawsuit progresses.  We will press on and prepare additional targeted legal action as the court process continues, and we remain optimistic that the Tenth Circuit will recognize that the lower court’s decision to allow drilling to continue in the Greater Chaco Region was wrong because the district court judge misapplied the law.

Your support sends Guardians into courtrooms with credibility and the commitment to keep the scales balanced, not tipped in favor of those with the heaviest pocketbook.  We believe that Guardians like you are in the majority. Your voice, along with more than 165,000 petition signers will be what is echoed between Chaco Canyon’s walls, not the splitting of rocks as a drill rig rips through the Earth, forcing thousands of gallons of toxic water through her veins.

You allow us to engage in vital legal battles and fight on the frontlines for the rights of all species and communities. Please supportour work today and enable us to stay in the fight. Together we will win this one. 

For the Wild,

Claire Noel Nickel

Photo Credits: WildEarth Guardians

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Room for Mexican Wolves to Roam

John Horning staff photo 2014
In the late spring of 2004, a pioneering young Mexican wolf and her mate staked out new territory on the western slope of New Mexico’s San Mateo Mountains. The pair, two of the less than 50 Mexican wolves in existence in the wild, preyed on the mountain range’s abundant elk and deer and started a family—the San Mateo Pack—in their new home overlooking the Aldo Leopold Wilderness to the west and the Rio Grande valley to the east.

The only problem for the newly formed San Mateo Pack is that they settled outside an invisible and arbitrary boundary that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service set determining where Mexican wolves may, and may not, live.

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The wolves bothered no one—not even the area’s few ranchers—but still federal wolf bureaucrats trapped and relocated the pair in August 2004 and again in the summer of 2005 to an area within the arbitrary boundaries the government designated as acceptable for Mexican wolves to inhabit. Sadly, one of those translocations caused the death of their young pups.

Wolf scientists knew the boundary was arbitrary and recommended over and over again that the boundary be removed and Mexican wolves be granted the room to roam they need to fully recover as a species.

This January the Service updated its Mexican wolf regulations. Finally heeding the wisdom of wolf ecologists, they removed the old boundary. Incredibly, the Service created another equally arbitrary boundary (although encompassing a larger area) that once again limits where Mexican wolves can live. As a point of reference, no other endangered large carnivore, much less one of the most endangered ones, has a boundary for where it can and cannot live.

That’s why earlier this month WildEarth Guardians, joined by the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and Friends of Animals, and represented by our own attorneys and the Western Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Service to overturn the artificial geographic limits, and many other equally arbitrary and deeply flawed aspects of the new rule governing Mexican wolf recovery in the American Southwest.

While geographic limits undermine wolf conservation the rule’s newly designated artificial cap on the Mexican wolf population really gets my blood to boil. At the 11th hour in the agencies’ multi-year planning process, and with essentially no opportunity for public input, the Service adopted a population cap of 300-325 wolves! At a time when the science is saying we need more wolves in many more places why does the Service continue to come up with half measures based on half-truths?

But the Service’s new Mexican wolf regulations get even worse.
The new rule flagrantly ignores the Endangered Species Act’s requirement that reintroduced, or “experimental” populations, that are “essential” to the species survival in the wild be designated as “essential” rather than the much less protective “non-essential” designation under the Act.

How can the only wild Mexican wolf population not be essential to the species survival in the wild? It’s outrageous!

The Service cynically claims that animals in zoos and breeding facilities somehow ensure the species’ survival even when the Endangered Species Act requires that it make the determination of “essential/non-essential” based on populations in the wild. That’s why, even though thousands of people and dozens of environmental groups asked the agency to consider the benefits of the “essential” designation when it completed its Environmental Impact Statement, it ignored those pleas.

The more protective “essential” designation would mean that some of the biggest threats to the Mexican wolf—such as coyote hunting, trapping, livestock grazing permitted by the U.S. Forest Service and activities carried out by the federal animal damage control agency—would be subject to greater scrutiny.  

Incredibly the original alpha female of the San Mateo Pack is still alive, though her first mate was killed by a government trapper and another was killed by a poacher.
She now roams the Mangas Mountains, with another mate, in the northern portion of the Gila National Forest. 

While the current, politically defined wolf recovery boundary at Interstate-40—a mere 85 miles to her north—may no longer threaten her given her age, it may well endanger her off-spring as they seek to reclaim their historic homelands just as she and her mate once did.

George Santayana, the Spanish philosopher and essayist once said: “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The San Mateo Pack’s story of tragedy, recovery, and resilience is history that we will not forget.

That’s why we’re fighting in court to overturn the artificial geographic boundary, the arbitrary population cap and the “non-essential” designation—and other flaws in the Mexican wolf recovery framework as well. We believe that the foundation for the recovery of the Mexican wolf simply needs to be stronger. With your voice, and ours, we’ll get there.

For the wild,

John Horning
Executive Director
WildEarth Guardians
San Mateo Female Mexican wolf F903 pc MWIFT

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Broke and Broken: The Federal Coal Program

John Horning staff photo 2014
In case you haven’t heard WildEarth Guardians is under attack for our pioneering work to reform our broken federal coal program and keep our publicly owned coal in the ground. What’s surprising is that the attacks are coming from both the left and the right. 

It all started a few weeks ago after we won a precedent-setting legal victory against the U.S. Department of the Interior. The Department brazenly violated one of our nation’s cornerstone environmental laws—the National Environmental Policy Act—by failing to consider the climate implications of expanding the Colowyo coal mine, which is located on public land near the western Colorado town of Craig. Making things worse, the Interior Department never even notified the public of its decision, another major no-no under federal environmental law. 

The federal judge who issued the ruling on May 8 gave the Interior Department 120 days to fix its flawed analysis. If not, the mine will be forced to shut down.
That’s when things started heating up and a few residents of Craig began getting vocal. First it was a series of nasty comments on our Facebook page and a few caustic phone calls and e-mails. Then Fox News added fuel to the flame. And then the Craig dissidents started a campaign to boycott our business supporters. 

Their first and highest target: New Belgium Brewing, which along with hundreds of other generous businesses we proudly listed on our website as a measure of our gratitude. In the face of its new critics in Craig, New Belgium made clear that it funded our watershed and river protection work, not the work of our Climate & Energy program. While most of Guardians’ business supporters seem unmoved by the pressure, others deepened their resolve and a handful of now former business supporters simply wilted in the face of pressure. 

And then two weeks ago Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, got heated in an interview on Colorado Public Radio stunningly telling a radio host that our work to keep coal in the ground “has nothing to do with climate change.” 

Clearly we’ve touched a nerve. 

Yet nobody seems willing to show any leadership. Even though the federal coal program is fueling the climate crisis and is wildly out of step with our nation’s carbon reduction goals, President Obama and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell continue to defend the program. They’re doing so even as the coal industry is broke and on the verge of a major financial collapse. 

While our lawsuit is fomenting a very public crisis in the coalfields, the bigger crisis for coal is in the financial markets where one coal mining company after another is moving closer and closer to financial rock bottom. 

For example Tri-State, the owners of the Colowyo mine, reported a $40 million loss on the mine in 2014, their fourth consecutive year in the red, and global coal giants Peabody and Arch coal saw their collective market capitalization shrink from over $2.5 billion in January to less than $800 million last month.  

As coal mining companies exhibit more and more signs of financial stress, it’s important to ask: who gets screwed when they go belly-up? I can promise you it won’t be corporate executives at Peabody or Arch or even smaller companies like Tri-State. It’s coal miners, the environment and the taxpayers that will get the shaft.
Just look at what Patriot Coal, a spin-off of Peabody Coal, did last month. They filed for bankruptcy for the second time in less than five years and the first thing they’ve tried to do is dump their pensions for retirees

Unquestionably the next big financial responsibility these coal companies will try to shed is the more than $3 billion dollars they’ve committed to the federal government to clean up the toxic mess they’ve created at mine sites. If and when they try to default on those bonds I think you know who will be left to deal with the mess—the American taxpayer. 

Given the increasingly grim reality of the federal coal program, what’s needed from our leaders is not more climate denial and empty rhetoric in defense of a dying, financially stressed coal industry. Instead, we need an entirely new vision for the coal that you and I own that prioritizes the global climate imperative of keeping it in the ground. 

And a necessary part of keeping it in the ground is creating effective economic safety nets that help communities, families and individuals transition to the new, more vibrant and sustainable economies of the future. As we move away from coal, we need a plan to ensure former coal-field workers have opportunities for meaningful work.  

If politicians and policymakers won’t lead us, then we will. 

WildEarth Guardians’ bold advocacy is driving real progress to confront the climate crisis and to hold our officials accountable to help coal communities deal with the realities of our changing times.

For the wild,
John Horning
Executive Director
WildEarth Guardians
CO Coal Mining 1 pc WG 
coal mining photo credit: wildearth guardians