Friday, December 22, 2006

See you in the New Year

I`ll be posting again starting the first of the year. Thanks to all for reading!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Forest Service to prepare long-term forest plans under a "new vision"

If you follow news regarding the Forest Service at all, you know that the agency decided last week to abandon its decades-old practice of preparing environmental impact statements to evaluate the environmental effects of its long-range plans.

Most in the environmental community are taking this new decision without too much alarm, though most are also somewhat appalled by the arrogance of the new move.

I´m appalled, certainly, but also a good deal more alarmed than most.

Forest Service long-term plans are creations of the National Forest Management Act, which came about after many observers of the Forest Service concluded that the agency was little more than an industry middleman, hawking the forests and paying industry to build thousands upon thousands of miles of roads, many in sensitive riparian areas. We paid for those roads thirty years ago with cash, and no we are paying again to try to close them or at least keep them in some tiny semblance of repair so they don´t completly ruin fish habitat and water quality.

These long term plans had two things going for them. First, they were prepared with large environmental impact statements which, if nothing else, at least recorded the state of the damage and provided a kind of history of whatever national forest they covered. These have become useful records over the years.

More importantly, though, Forest Plans contained binding standards and guidelines, which were limits placed on industrial activity in the forest. So for example a standard might limit how close to a stream logging could occur, or how much old growth could be removed.

But in the 1990's those limits, most of which were laughably favorable to industry, began to strain the agency´s ability to "get out the cut," as it was called, and litigation under the 30-year old National Forest Management Act began to shut things down.

The agency´s response? First, to get rid of the standards and guidelines in favor of a non-binding regime. If you read the current regulations at 36 CFR 219 you will see that these are now regarded to be "aspirational" and are pointedly not a "commitment" by the agency.

Second, the Forest Service last week dispensed with the EIS. Now these plans will be written under a categorical exclusion to an EIS or EA, which is to say they will be cursory documents with little environmental review and no obligation to be thorough.

The agency PR guys pretend that nothing is really changing, and that other kinds of reviews that they call "living documents" (read: will be changed whenever they prove to be embarrassing to the agency) will accomplish the same thing. I suppose it is pretty to think so, but the reality is that nothing will be enforceable in court.

The National Forest Management Act has been completely eviscerated--every tooth is gone, and the strength has even been taken from its gums. Forest planning, once a proud process that employed many in the Forest Service, has become nothing but a grand thought experiment that all may join but none will benefit from. And what use has the Forest Service for legions of scientists if there are no more legally binding requirements to protect water quality, soil productivity, and wildlife habitat? All those folks came on post-NFMA, and as loudly as they have all complained over the years about environmentalists holding their feet to the fire, that very fire was what provided their paychecks and reason for employment in the first place.

One last thing. Many environmentalists take solace that the NEPA will still govern site-specific forest projects. Some have even said that the loss of NFMA is not that damaging, since it has always been at the individual project state that we have stopped bad projects. These people are well intentioned but they are not speaking from experience, because if they were they would realize how insane that is. Bad projects have always been stopped with NEPA, it is true, but NEPA itself is practically meaningless without a substantive act like the NFMA backing it up. NEPA just makes the Forest Service disclose what they believe the impacts are. With NFMA on the books, the Forest Service had to disclose everything vis-a-vis what NFMA required.

To give an example, if a Forest Plan standard required that ten percent of the forest be retained as old growth, that meant that whenever the Forest Service wanted to log big trees NEPA required them to tell the public whether they were cutting old growth and, more importantly, how much old growth remained. Take away the Forest Plan standard and they don´t legally have to mention old growth at all. You can sue them for not doing so, but then you will have to prove yourself, with your own experts, that they should have discussed it. Good luck with that, because you will certainly lose.

It is a new era in forest management now. The court has taken away the underpinning of NFMA and the executive branch has swept away the rest, and we are back to where we were in 1975 in terms of forest management. We are going to need a new law governing National Forests, and I shudder to think how bad things are going to have to get before we can convince congress, once again, to rein back the agency.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

My how times have changed: Daily Astorian cautions against excessive logging in watersheds

Talk about a day late and a dollar short. But it's nice to see that folks are coming around to the idea that logging a watershed to within an inch of its life isn't necessarily a good long-term plan. This article tells the story better than most.

Montana Wilderness Association agrees to trade 713,000 acres of Beaverhead National Forest for 573,000 acres of new Wilderness

The Montana Wilderness Association angered a lot of people when they announced they had made a private, closed-door deal with the timber industry to approve a plan to designate 573,000 acres of new Wilderness and "release" 713,000 acres of timberland to the industry. The Forest Service loves the deal because all it requires is their rubber stamp.

The deal has gotten more press in the past few days, and Montana papers have weighed in to support the deal.

Does anyone have a map of the areas that will be released for timber production? Is anyone aware of an analysis of the biological importance of this landscape? The MWA Website has a map of the areas to be designated as wilderness, but says very little about the land to be released, except that about one percent a year will be logged and permanent roads are to decrease over time. They also say that "fish and wildlife values would be enhanced" by the logging.

Article is here.

The West is full of myths -- Westerners seem to appreciate myths and take them more seriously than others. The myth of the cowboy, the good, strong (and white, of course), principled but tough frontiersman who brings respect and virtue to the savage wilderness is a myth that many Westerners seem to hold at the core of their being to this day, constantly bemoaning the passing of the time when a handshake was a man's word, and was inviolate.

Sometimes I wonder if there are other myths emerging today, and if one way to identify them is by how quickly the newspapers move to editorialize favorably about them. Newspapers (and the public) sure do love stories about the lumberjack and the pointy-headed city-bred environmentalists (more myth, of course) "sitting down at the table" and "crafting" (it's always "crafting," never "making") a "win-win" deal that is "good for wildlife and fish."

I don't really know a thing about the Montana agreement because I have never spent much time on the Beaverhead National Forest. It might be a great deal--perhaps the Montana Wilderness Association is giving away denuded landscapes for intact, biologically rich ecosystems. I have no idea.

But I do know that when you sweep away the mythology and get down to the details of the printed words on the page and the colored areas on the map and the plants and animals on the landscape, sometimes you can be in for a shock. And closed-door deals are far more likely to deliver that shock than the ones that have been conducted transparently, with public input.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

EPA is selling the furniture--literally.

And losing a bundle in the process. PEER reports that EPA has sold about $40,000 of their library furniture for $327.00 in order to "save money."

All this as part of their brilliant decision to close up shop in their libraries. It's part of the usual depressing story about the Bush administration deliberately destroying agencies it finds to be unfriendly to industry. In this case though he's not just razing the agency's infrastructure, he's also pouring salt over the remains.

An open letter to the conservation community: Western Watersheds Project and 87 other conservation groups call for new direction in wilderness bills.

According to the letter, just four of the wilderness bills currently before Congress would release 400,000 acres of Wilderness Study Areas and give away over 80,000 acres of public land.

Along with a lot of other frightening things.

The signatories call for an end to wilderness bills that contain vast land giveaways, establish "select groups to exercise local control over public lands," and permit water pipelines, off-road vehicle use, military manuevers and other activities that are incompatible with wilderness. You can read the "open letter" here (.pdf).

Monday, December 04, 2006

Climate scientists weigh in on Supreme Court global warming case; amicus brief available for download here.

Most readers know that the Supreme Court is hearing a case on emissions and global warming. Some are calling it the most important environmental case the Supreme Court has ever heard. A terrific amicus curiae brief submitted by climate scientists is available here (pdf).

The brief states that it is "virtually certain that greenhouse gas emissions from human activities cause global climate changes, endangering human health and welfare" and that EPA and the lower court "mischaracterized the science of climate change, making it appear more uncertain than it actually is."

Study finds bug-killed timber not fire-prone; Forest Service dismisses the findings.

According to this AP story, a study has been released from researchers at three western universities that suggests that fire concerns from bug-killed trees are "overblown."

"We are suggesting that the supposed fire risk is probably overblown," said Bill Romme, professor of fire ecology at Colorado State and the lead researcher. "It's possible the insects are doing the forest thinning that we would never be able to afford."

The Forest Service, which has never seen a problem that cannot be solved by either more logging or more livestock grazing, has dismissed the findings as "selective science" because it "appears to advocate a hands-off approach."

According to the study, "removing trees won't stop the spread of the beetles. Dead or dying trees don't mean the forest is unhealthy but "may instead reflect a natural process of forest renewal." Similar outbreaks have occurred in the past.

One thing about bug killed trees is that the needles fall to the forest floor pretty fast, and this dramatically reduces the flammability of the tree.

Thanks to a California reader for sending me the link to the story.

Note: a more thorough version of the story is from the Denver Post, and is here.

Excellent ninth circuit opinion today on mootness

One problem with litigating projects like timber sales on public lands is that often they are completed before you ever get to court. When this happens the case is said to be "moot," and it is thus not even heard. This creates a perverse incentive for the agencies and industry to hurry up and log something that is controversial enough to go to court.

A big dent was taken out of the mootness doctrine back in 2002 in a case called Neighbors of Cuddy Mountain v. U.S. Forest Service (.pdf). The holding in that case, that violations of the National Forest Management Act do not necessarily become moot after the logging has occurred, was arguably expanded today in an excellent decision in Oregon Natural Resources Council v. Bureau of Land Management. (.pdf).

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Forest Service fire suppression costs exceed $1 billion in three of six previous years

So says the Inspector General Report, available here.

BLM's Utah Director seeks to "set the record straight" about oil and gas leasing on BLM land

Selma Sierra, Utah's BLM Director, explained in the Salt Lake Tribune today that oil and gas leasing "is not primarily driven by any given administration or the policies of an administration."

She claims that the massive increase in oil and gas leasing on public lands during George W. Bush's tenure is the result of increased energy demands, not an oil-friendly administration.

Meanwhile, the BLM announced a proposal for 2,000, yes that is two thousand new wells in Wyoming.

You be the judge.

"The rocks are ours": recreational mining isn't about getting rich, it's about fresh air and exercise, 20 acres at a time

From an article today on recreational mining:

"Claims are filed with the Bureau of Land Management and cost $175 for the first year and $50 to renew. A claim must be at least 20 acres, and its holder owns the mineral rights to the property but not the land itself. The Friendly Fox claim is 160 acres.

"We can't stop you from going out there and camping on that claim, but you can't go picking up any rocks, because the rocks are ours," Wilkerson said."

Still getting it right in Idaho. . .

I came in from a cold day to find a lot of email about Idaho. My post yesterday was not correct about Governor Risch's rule, but I'm keeping it up since there were comments to it. I finally puzzled through the petition to see that my critics are right, and Cove/Mallard is not in the "general forest" category, though the forested portion of Cuddy Mountain is. Also, forested lands on the Boise, Targhee and Salmon national forests are in that category. I spent a lot of time at on the "satellite" feature looking at other roadless areas and haven't yet sorted out what the Governor is really thinking.

News articles make it all the more confusing. A timber industry spokesperson had this to say:

 Timber-industry lobbyists such as the
Coeur d'Alene-based Intermountain Forest Association
support Risch's plan. They say confusion may have
arisen because many people assumed the 2001 rule
forbade building any new roads.

In fact, it allows exceptions for road building
to protect health and safety "in cases of an imminent
threat of flood, fire, or other catastrophic event
that, without intervention, would cause the loss
of life or property."

"I don't think people actually read the Clinton rule,"
said association spokeswoman Serena Howarth. "There's
still an awful lot of forested acres in Idaho that
need some measure of restoration treatment and fuels
reduction. We think it (the plan) is a good thing
for forest health."
Spokane Spokesman Review article is here.

But Idaho conservationists seem to be supporting the plan. A Trout Unlimited spokesperson said the plan was "not too shabby" and others interviewed voiced cautious approval. Idaho Mountain Express article is here.

It is hard to see what Governor Risch is thinking. Obviously the timber industry believes that it can comfortably log in roadless areas under the original roadless rule, which as the article above notes permits roadbuilding in cases of "imminent threat of . . . fire." I think the authors of the rule probably thought that meant that flames were coming over the ridge, but the eternally optimistic industry obviously reads that to mean they can log anywhere they want, since fire will inevitably arrive everywhere if only we wait long enough.

It sure does seem like a legal fight over the meaning of the word "imminent" is where this is all heading, doesn't it?

Also, a poster to a list-serve pointed out that many of the "general forest" designations are in unforested areas where mining is likely to be the chief interest. Roads for new mines are not permitted even for "imminent" fire reasons, so it makes sense that Risch would want potential mining areas to be exempted from the Clinton roadless rule.