Sunday, August 27, 2006

Sunday Toolkit: How to obtain a Forest Service EIS

Last week I discussed how to read an EIS. Every administrative agency, when it writes an EIS, first prepares a draft, and solicits comments on that draft from the public. They will announce these publications on the daily federal register page. (A link is to the right of this Website, under "What I read."

But what if you don't want to read the Federal Register every day? Most agencies also publish periodical lists that give the public some warning about what environmental documents are in the works, and how to get ahold of them when they are available.

The Forest Service publishes what it calls a "Schedule of Proposed Actions," or "SOPA," and makes it available on the web. Most Forests will send you a them in hard copy as well. They are published every January, April, July, and October. They are available for each Forest here.

From the SOPA, you need only identify what projects interest you and request to get a copy of any public mailings.

And now from the having the cake and eating it too department . . .

Sometimes the divide behind what the Forest Service says and what the Forest Service does can get pretty wide. Apparently folks there think the Rural Schools Act debacle, in which the agency altruistically proposed to sell off 300,000 acres of its own land to developers, has faded enough from public memory that it can start proclaiming the virtues of open space in rural areas. Which is it, Forest Service?

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Bush administration rules to evade Endangered Species Act declared illegal

The Endangered Species Act requires federal agencies to "consult" with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service whenever an action may jeopardize an endangered species. This consultation process means that federal wildlife officials get to have a stab at any action that could kill endangered species.

The current administration has dealt with this provision in two ways. First, it has defunded the Fish and Wildlife Service to within an inch of its life. Second, it has repeatedly written rules that attempt to write the Fish and Wildlife Service out of the process, letting other agencies make the decisions on their own.

Today a judge struck down one of those rules, regarding pesticides. Let's hope more of these decisions follow. A good start would be the regulations that permit the U.S. Forest Service to leave the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service out of the loop on many of its projects.

The judge's decision is here (pdf); a useful fact sheet is also available from the fine organization, Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Judge: Sequoia National Monument not for logging

A federal judge has put a halt to Forest Service plans that would permit commercial logging in the Giant Sequoia National Monument. The plan called for about 1,500 logging trucks' worth of timber to be logged every year from the area. The trees to be logged would be up to thirty inches in diameter.

The Forest Service wished to log the area to protect it from fire; the plaintiffs, who included (among others) the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the State of California, sought gentler management and pointed to the successful wildland fire policy of adjacent Sequoia National Park, where logging is not permitted.

The judge wrote in his opinion that "the Forest Service's interest in harvesting timber has trampled the applicable environmental laws," and stated that "the Monument Plan is decidedly incomprehensible."

News story is here; Sierra Club Website on the lawsuit is here.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Support dam removal at a public meeting . . . and get a call from the FBI

The New York Times reports today about a well-known public lands writer and activist, Jim Bensman, who attended a public meeting held by the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps wanted to get public comment on what to do with a dam and system of locks on the Mississippi. At the meeting the Corps showed a PowerPoint presentation that suggested one option would be to remove the dam entirely. The slide showed a dam being blown up, which is, after all, how you get rid of the things.

Later in the meeting Bensman voiced approval for the removal option, and the local paper quoted him as wanting the dam to be "blown up." For his opinions he received a visit from the F.B.I. and an addition to his file.

The F.B.I. says the Corps requested his investigation.

The story is here (St. Louis Dispatch) and here (NY Times, registration required).

Monday, August 21, 2006

Hunters, Anglers, and the Department of the Interior

Over the years there have been many efforts to bring the so-called "hunter-angler community" into the debates over public lands. Hunters and anglers have been so sought out in part because they are typically conservative, and they are seen as a way to get at their Republican representatives.

Unfortunately, much of the effort has been patronizing on the part of environmentalists, and many seem not to understand the vast majority of anglers fish in reservoirs and the vast majority of hunters hunt from roads. These are not advocates for wild rivers and wild landscapes.

And it seems that the administration has been courting hunters and anglers as well. In March of last year Secretary of the Interior Gayle Norton set up a committee of citizens to advise the Department on its activities. The federal register notice is here (pdf). Presumably she hoped the hunter's organization would help give Interior cover in its oil and gas giveaways on public lands.

But there are some signs the hunters and anglers are finally turning on her. This week her citizen hunters met in Missoula, Montana and set up four committees, two of which seem promising to those of us who care about public lands. According to an article in today's Missoulian, the committees are to study invasive species, restoration of wetlands, and how to "incorporate the conservation of wildlife and other natural resources into energy development."

And there are some signs, at least, that hunters are finally getting fed up with this administration's insane oil and gas giveaways on public lands. See, for example, this report from AP about hunters' outrage and sadness over the unbelievable oil and gas development on Colorado's Roan Plateau.

If you are interested in more about the pro-wilderness hunter-angler community, check out Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

Unfortunately though, this excellent piece by Ted Williams, one of the most astute writers on the west America has ever had, probably tells the truer story. Here is how he ends this potent essay:

I asked Geer why sportsmen keep working against their own
interests--letting groups like the NRA and the Ruffed Grouse
Society speak for them on roadless protection, voting in a
president and legislators who cheerfully sacrifice fish and
wildlife for the convenience of their campaign contributors.
He couldn't answer the question, but I liked his response:
"I've had this theory ever since I was director in Utah. You
could tell hunters and anglers that 'tomorrow we're going to
round you up and shoot you,' and they'd piss and moan about
it all night long, and next morning they'd be lined up waiting
to get shot."

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Sunday Toolkit: How to read an EIS

You can say a lot of nasty things about Richard Nixon, but he signed the National Environmental Policy Act, which most public lands practitioners call our nation's "bedrock environmental law."

The main thing to remember about the "NEPA" is that it is a law about process, not about outcomes. It is a law that dictates how the federal government will analyze its actions and involve the public in its decision-making, not about what the government can ultimately do. That's why it is not called, as many insist on calling it, the "National Environmental Protection Act." It isn't about protection, it's about procedure. Even so, it wields a powerful punch, because it forces the government to show the rationale behind its actions. Since this rationale cannot be arbitrary or capricious (thanks to the thousand-pound, heavy-hitting gorilla in the background, the Administrative Procedures Act), the NEPA is a fundamental piece of open-government.

NEPA applies to all federal agencies, and, generally, requires agencies to prepare an environmental impact statement ("EIS") for all major federal actions that may have a significant effect on the environment. You can read the NEPA statute here. Give it a look--it's short and it's written in a layperson's terms.

NEPA not only requires the federal government to create an EIS, but it also requires that EIS to be written in a particular format. This is one of the more ingenious elements of this far-sighted law: it forces a certain degree of comprehensibility on government writers. Once you understand the format, comprehending the EIS (or the draft EIS, which is released for public comment) will be much less of a struggle.

The first chapter will be the "Purpose and Need." This section outlines why the government agency feels it needs to undertake the action and what it thinks it will accomplish by doing so.

The second chapter is the "Alternatives" chapter. In this section the agency outlines the various ideas it has for meeting the purpose and need. The agency is required to analyze a "No Action" alternative as well, to determine what would happen if they did nothing. In the draft EIS there will be a "preferred alternative," in the final there will be a "selected alternative."

The third chapter is the "Affected Environment" chapter. In this section, the agency describes the history and the current condition of the area that is the subject of the proposed action.

The fourth chapter displays the "Environmental Effects." This is a very important chapter and is often worth reading first. In this chapter the agency outlines what it predicts the effects of each alternative will be on various resources.

Finally comes the Appendix, which will have copies of letters by other federal agencies and (often) members of the public, along with the agency's response. It is very important to read this section.

Check the "Today's federal register" link on the right hand side of this Website for a listing of the day's EISs and Draft EISs that are available for comment from every federal agency. You can request copies for free from the appropriate agency, and generally there is a 90-day comment period for you to send in your comments on a draft EIS.

Commenting on a draft EIS is a little work, but anyone can do it and it sure beats writing your congressperson.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Fires, death, and money

Four fire fighters died last week in a helicopter crash on the Payette National Forest in Idaho. There were no large fires in the area, but they were being shuttled around via helicopter anyway.

Fire fighting is big business, and it's a huge portion of the Forest Service's budget. A lot of money comes to town once a fire gets big enough.

A friend tells me of Forest Service fire fighters who made up to $50,000 a year, and spent the five month off-season in a beach cabin in Thailand collecting unemployment.

The base pay for a fire fighter is between about ten and thirteen dollars an hour, but this can be collected 24 hours a day during the periods they are on call, which can be for weeks at a time. Hazard pay is double, and overtime accrues on top of that. As my friend tells me, "that is why the incentive to start a fire is so high."

It's also a huge bureaucracy. Counterpunch this week has an excellent piece by Felice Pace on the insane, expensive, dangerous, and ineffective militarized approach to wildland firefighting, here.

Louise Wagenknecht's classic article in High Country News, "The Year it Rained Money," remains the high point of honest writing about wildland fire fighting.

I suspect, however, the public will never tire of the approved, saccharine, master-narrative: Devastating fire wreaks death and destruction, brave young men and women from all over the country work tirelessly to save rural homes, local girl-scouts deliver cookies and toiletries to grubby fire fighters, townsfolk post banners in their windows thanking the fire fighters, weather eventually cooperates, fire is out, congratulations all around.

Then, four years later, inevitably come the articles expressing surprise and amazement at the new life in the burn area.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Aerial spraying of herbicides planned in Idaho national forest

The Caribou-Targhee National Forest in southeastern Idaho is planning to conduct aerial spraying of herbicides to control invasive weeds. The application would cover about 31,000 acres in the Bear River Range.

The Forest Service loves a big solution like this because it justifies a new, robust bureaucracy and expensive equipment purchases, which then requires a continuation of the bureaucracy and a continuation of the funding to support it. There isn't much to do on the Montpelier Ranger District in southeastern Idaho, and it's hard to make a name for yourself and advance in the agency without spearheading some kind of glamorous, military-style campaign like this. Whoever pulls it off can expect to be noticed and, perhaps, advance.

Unfortunately, when it comes to much less glamorous preventive methods to keep invasive species from emerging in the first place, the agency usually doesn't have much to offer in the way of imagination, interest, or funding.

If you would like to receive copies of the environmental impact statement when it is prepared, or if you would like to let the Forest Service know about your opinion of aerial herbicide application on public lands, you can write to:

Montpelier Ranger District
Attn. Dennis Duehren
322 North 4th St.
Montpelier, Idaho 83254
You an also visit the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides Website for more information on the merits of spraying poisons in the air over our public lands.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Don't Ask Marilyn

It appears that the Parade Magazine columnist Marilyn Vos Savant is in need of a research assistant. A reader wrote in this week with this simple question:

"How many trees must meet an untimely death to publish a single issue of an average Sunday newspaper?"

. . . And got this 100 percent wrong non-answer:

"None: You’ll be pleased to hear that the trees used for paper production do not come from public woodlands. Instead, they are purposely planted and grown on managed timberlands. So trees used for paper and wood products—such as homes—are farmed in much the same way as fruits and vegetables. Read as much as you like!"

Of course "public woodlands" are logged--often mercilessly--for commercial wood products. One commentor offered Marilyn a copy of Clearcut: The Tragedy of Industrial Forestry in case she has future research needs about logging in our national forests.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

NASA: global warming is about water, not hot summers

Given our government's stubborn, ignorant approach to global warming, it is difficult to explain why NASA keeps putting out such great material on the subject.

Their latest entry is this article, in which the scientists announce that "it's not too difficult to push the climate to a warm state" and predict that, should it occur, the mid-latitudes will probably be "a lot dryer." They emphasize that water's availability and distribution will be the challenges and hallmarks of global warming.

For an even less cheerful read, check out the highlighted article on boreal forests on the same page. It closes with the morbid observation that the "turning point" for those forests may be close at hand.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Good news for the north rim of the Grand Canyon

There is some good news for the north rim area of the Grand Canyon today. In 2003 the Kaibab National Forest announced plans to log enormous old-growth ponderosa pine trees just a few miles from the National Park. Environmental groups sued to protect the area.

The district court found for the Forest Service, but today the Ninth Circuit vacated the lower court's decision as part of a settlement agreement.

No trees have been logged and no roads have been built, and the timber sale is officially dead.

The case is Center for Biological Diversity, et al v. Williams; the Sierra Club was also on the case, and a Sierra Club attorney, Aaron Isherwood, represented the plaintiffs. Congratulations to all for working to protect this incredible and important forest.

For a very depressing satellite view of the North Kaibab Ranger District, where this timber sale would have occurred, go here. The rectangular clearcuts you see were actually done to "improve" habitat for the northern goshawk, a predatory bird that only nests in old growth forests! Navigate south and you get to the National Park. You'll know you are there because the clearcuts end in a straight line -- that's the Park boundary.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Air Force withdraws funding of controversial study to limit scope of Freedom of Information Act

The U.S. Air Force has reversed an earlier decision to pay a San Antonio law school one million dollars to study ways to limit the Freedom of Information Act. USA Today reported the story in early July (here) and the decision was quickly criticized by the Detroit Free Press. Now the Air Force reports that the study was not so much research as it was a policy recommendation, and has withdrawn funding for the study.

Unfortunately, the project has already been blessed by Congress, and there is some chance it will continue. The Federation of American Scientists blog has a full story here.

Because it compels the federal government to disclose its actions, some regard the Freedom of Information Act to be our most important environmental law concerning federal lands. Like no other law, the FOIA keeps our land-management agencies honest.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

NOAA: 2006 has hottest Jan-July period in recorded history

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced last week that the period from January through July of this year was the hottest since records began being kept in 1895. You can get the NOAA news release here.

The month of July was the second hottest on record, averaging 77.2 degrees F; the average is 74.3F.

Just this three-degree rise increased American power consumption by 22 percent over what would have been used in an average year, according to NOAA.

As temperatures rise, both plant and animal species will move northward or up in elevation. In western America, we are fortunate to have a large publicly-owned landscape that will be able to accommodate at least some of the change we will experience. Let's hope we have the sense to maintain these lands as a functioning whole (along with adequate corridors in adjacent private lands) while there is still some time to do so.

For this corner of the world, public lands might end up being our ark.

Still time to weigh in on predator control in wilderness areas

The U.S. Forest Service proposes to begin shooting wolves, coyotes, foxes, bobcats, and mountain lions from helicopters. The Forest Service also wants the freedom to bury sodium-cyanide traps in wilderness areas, targeting the same animals. If you believe that Forest Service wilderness areas should be free of such things, send a note to the Forest Service telling them so. Even a short note opposing the new plan will help make a difference in stopping this awful plan. Include your name and a mailing address. Email your comments to PDM@fs.fed.us.

You can get more information about the Forest Service's new plans on the Center for Biological Diversity's website here.