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Yea or nay?

Red Lodge | Mar 05, 2013 01:25 PM

There’s renewed movement in Congress on some legislation that would affect our public lands in a big way. Bills to create wilderness areas, combat bark beetles and streamline mining and grazing will be debated, and despite having “improvement” and “protection” in their names, not all would not encourage sustainable or resilient ecosystems in the West.

Of the handful of land bills that passed in the last Congress, none protected public land or established new wilderness (for first the first time in decades). In this 113th Congress, whether or not they are controversial, the bills will compete for divided attentions and scant dollars. Public support and feedback can make a difference.

These bills would bolster conservation in the West and deserve support:

Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act (FLTFA): Since this law was first passed in 2000, it has enabled the purchase of 18,000 acres of valuable conservation land adjacent to federal parcels and the sale of roughly 26,000 acres of “low value” federal land. Before FLTFA expired in July 2011 land sales earned the Bureau of Land Management $115 million. Over 100 conservation, recreation and sportsmen’s groups have praised reauthorization of the act and it has bi-partisan support.

Kootenai National Forest
Kootenai National Forest. Courtesy of USDA.

Forest Jobs and Recreation Act of 2013: This bill, reintroduced by Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), pairs conservation and timber harvests. S. 268 establishes 677,000 acres as wilderness in Beaverhead-Deerlodge, Kootenai and Lolo national forests, and mandates the harvest of at least 10,000 acres of trees per year for the next decade as part of broader restoration projects. Tester conceived the bill, he says, to accelerate the recovery of those forest habitats and their watersheds from the bark beetle epidemic. The legislation, whose supporters include loggers, recreationists and conservationists, will also secure access for hunting, angling, camping and motorized recreation. Learn more and comment on the bill.

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Rants from the Hill: Upon the burning of our house

michaelbranch | Mar 04, 2013 01:30 PM

"Rants from the Hill" are Michael Branch's monthly musings on life in the high country of Nevada's western Great Basin desert, published the first Monday of each month.

When I say that American writers have ignited fires, I don’t mean only that they have fired our imaginations or that they have sparked changes in the way we understand the world. I mean also that many of my favorite American authors actually burned stuff down. Not on purpose, of course. In her poem “Upon the Burning of Our House,” Puritan poet Ann Bradstreet describes the harrowing experience she had in July, 1666, when she awoke to discover her home on fire. “I wakened was with thund’ring noise / And piteous shrieks of dreadful voice. / That fearful sound of ‘Fire!’ and ‘Fire!’ / Let no man know is my desire.” The power of Bradstreet’s poem is ultimately in its inquiry into whether and how the stuff—the material possessions destroyed in the fire—should be valued. She knows that her love of God must triumph over her love of the things of this world, and yet the poem is rich with genuine regret because although she is relieved not to have lost her life, she also knows that things often tether us powerfully to those we love and to who we are.

house fire

A century later, in February, 1770, Thomas Jefferson’s home at Shadwell, Virginia burned in a house fire that resulted, lamented Mister Jefferson, in the loss of “every paper I had in the world, and almost every book.” When Jefferson returned to the smoldering ashes of what had been his home, his first question was whether his books had been saved. I can only imagine what went through the mind of eighteenth-century America’s greatest bibliophile upon being informed that his library had been lost in the blaze but that his servants had managed to save a fiddle. “A fiddle? Are you f****** kidding me?

A century after Jefferson’s Shadwell fire, the misadventure of a truly incendiary American literary figure occurred in the woods near Concord, Massachusetts. In April 1844, Henry David Thoreau had, as usual, been hiking and fishing while his neighbors were living those lives of quiet desperation back in town, and now he wanted to fry his catch. Instead, he accidentally fried the neighboring woods, burning more than 300 acres of forest, threatening the town with destruction, and contributing to his already bad reputation as an irresponsible ne’er-do-well. It didn’t help that Thoreau remained unremorseful, writing in his journal that “I once set fire to the woods . . . . It was a glorious spectacle and I was the only one there to enjoy it.”

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Man's (and livestock's) best friend

Ben Long | Feb 26, 2013 11:35 AM
Filed under: Ranching , Wolves , Livestock

It's always fascinated me that domestic dogs are widely embraced as "man's best friends," while wild dogs like coyotes and wolves often elicit deep-seated animosity. So I was particularly taken by this video of livestock guard dogs by the Montana-based conservation group, People & Carnivores. The good folks at People & Carnivores work to resolve real-world conflicts between wildlife and livestock producers, making life a bit easier for both. Specially-trained guard dogs imported from Central Asia keep sheep and cattle safe while scaring off wolves, coyotes and bears. They even wear spiked collars -- yikes! I thought I knew a thing or two about dogs, but this video includes a bunch of amazing breeds I had never heard of, plus cute puppies.

Livestock Guardian Dogs from Conservation Media on Vimeo.

Video courtesy Conservation Media.

Ben Long is a writer, outdoorsman and conservationist in Kalispell, Mont. He is senior program director for Resource Media. He owns a Lab mix guard dog who protects the bird feeder from squirrels, skunks and coyotes.

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The future of wolverines

DefendersofWildlife | Feb 25, 2013 12:00 AM

By Kylie Paul, Defenders of Wildlife

After more than a decade of legal hand-wringing, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) finally proposed on Feb. 1 to protect wolverines in the lower 48 states as a threatened species. But invoking the Endangered Species Act alone is not going to save wolverines from looming threats on a warming planet.

Scientists believe there are as few as 250 to 300 wolverines across the entire lower 48. Those numbers sound alarmingly low, though wolverines naturally exist in low numbers because they have large home ranges and reproduce slowly. But this small population is facing an even greater challenge: climate change. Wolverines need deep springtime snow for denning – and scientists predict that wolverines will lose 63 percent of their suitable snowy habitat in the lower 48 by 2099. Further, if that remaining habitat becomes too fragmented, then reduced genetic diversity is likely, and the resulting tiny isolated populations will be at risk of disappearing altogether.

So what do we do? With many endangered species there is a clear path to recovery based on addressing immediate threats. For instance, with bald eagles and other birds of prey, banning harmful pesticides like DDT made recovery a reality. For other plants and animals, protecting habitat can provide enough relief to allow species to recover on their own. Not so with the wolverine. The best bet for securing a future for wolverines is to help them reclaim habitat they once occupied, especially where their historic habitat is most likely to persist into the future.

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A new vision for public lands

John Freemuth | Feb 22, 2013 04:15 PM

In 2012, the seemingly endless argument over what level of government ought to be the manager over part of the federal land estate flared up again, led by individuals in Utah and Arizona. In Arizona, in March, the state legislature passed a bill that called for federal land agencies to give up title to roughly 48,000 square miles of federal land by 2015. The bill was vetoed by Arizona governor Jan Brewer for reasons including cost and legal uncertainties, but action did not end.

Proposition 120 was placed on the November ballot for a vote by Arizonans. The proposition called for the federal government to relinquish most non-Native American public land within the state, including Grand Canyon National Park. Specifically, it stated that Arizona “declares its sovereign and exclusive authority and jurisdiction over the air, water, public lands, minerals, wildlife and other natural resources within its boundaries.”  Arguments ranged from those touting state sovereignty and promising to protect “Grand Canyon State Park," through those asserting that federal land ownership was unconstitutional. The proposition failed by a vote of 67.7% to 32.3%.

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Western States Survey says

Red Lodge | Feb 18, 2013 10:55 AM

Colorado College’s 2013 Western States Survey report is out. This year pollsters grilled 2,400 voters in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming on energy, conservation and the role of government in both, and it yielded some fascinating results.

Westerners' views of natural resources and public lands, and the roles they play in our economy and quality of life, figure prominently in the poll.

When asked if national parks, forests, monuments and wildlife areas are an essential part of their state’s economy, 91 percent of those polled agreed that they are, and 7 out of 10 strongly agreed. Three-quarters of those asked also agreed that those resources attract high quality employers and good jobs to their states.

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The state of Indian nations

Mark Trahant | Feb 14, 2013 11:03 AM

National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel began his annual report, State of Indian Nations, with a simple exclamation. “Indian Country is strong!” That statement, he added, is something he hasn’t always been able to say. He then described this as “a moment of real possibility.”

And why not? There is a long list of tribal success stories. Tribes across the country are economic engines creating thousands of jobs. The phrase, “one of the largest employers in the county,” is one that’s repeated often and with good reason. (I see this type of success out my own window, looking at the Shoshone-Bannock Hotel and Event Center on the horizon.)

What’s more, Indian Country has something that the rest of the country is missing: Young people. There are now more people older than 65 in the U.S than people between 18 and 24. However 42 percent of Indian Country is under 25 years old, as Keel noted today. This is a huge advantage, a moment of real possibility.

Except. This advantage is coming at the same time as this massive wave called austerity is hitting.

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Sally Jewell's Adventure of a Lifetime

Ben Long | Feb 11, 2013 09:25 AM

President Obama’s nominee for heading the Department of Interior, Sally Jewell, is noteworthy not for who she is, but for who she is not.

She is a mountaineer, an ultra-marathon runner, a CEO of the outdoor gear giant REI, and a former bank executive and oil company engineer. She appears to be some kind of archetypical uber-woman of the Pacific Northwest, jogging up Mt. Rainier on coffee breaks.

MT Rainier

Jewell’s resume indicates plenty of experience in both components of “ecosystem management." Those interested in “ecosystems” will look toward her years with REI and the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association; those leaning toward “management” will note her careers in the petroleum and banking industries.

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Rants from the Hill: Chicken pastorale

Michael Branch | Feb 04, 2013 05:00 AM

"Rants from the Hill" are Michael Branch's monthly musings on life in the high country of Nevada's western Great Basin desert, published the first Monday of each month.

American folk musician and hillbilly existentialist Greg Brown offers some mid-song patter referring to Pablo Neruda’s wonderful poem “On Weariness” (“Cierto Cansancio”), in which Neruda memorably wrote “I am weary of chickens: / no one knows what they’re thinking, / and they look at us with dry eyes / and consider us unimportant.” Brown first quotes these lines, and then adds that “It’s true . . . they do . . . and we are. But it’s hard to take that from a damn chicken.” I can’t help but agree that I’d rather be looking into the starry sky than into the hollow eyes of a hen when I have a profoundly ennobling epiphany about my cosmic insignificance.

And yet I too have become a keeper of chickens. I should confess that I find the recent popularity of chicken keeping a yuppie fad that I’d rather not be associated with. I’m certainly no yuppie. I’m not young, I’m as far from being urban as I could manage without moving to Alaska, and I’m only professional in the sense intended by Hunter S. Thompson, when he made the insightful observation that “When the going gets tough, the weird turn pro.” This chicken keeping, like most of my follies, is instead the fault of my young daughters, who were sure that raising chickens would be fun because “they’re so fluffy and yellow and cute.” As all fathers of daughters know, “cute” is a four-letter word—a sure sign that trouble is brewing. I explained to the girls that the fuzzy yellow stage of a chicken’s existence lasts about 45 minutes, and is followed by a protracted cohabitation with a feathered beast so vicious and scaly that keeping one is akin to having a pet baby dinosaur. “Baby dinosaur?” exclaimed Caroline, our five-year-old. “That’s cool!”

Caroline with chick
The author's younger daughter with a cute chick.

All fathers of daughters know the futility of resistance to anything deemed cute. So, in early May, we made the momentous trip to the feed store, where the girls chose four yellow fluff balls, whose best quality, I thought, was how incredibly cheap they were. But we also had to buy a big plastic tub to keep them in, and a screen to cover the tub, a bag of shavings and some chick food, and a little water bin, and also a pricey clamp-on heat lamp. The total cost of this outing was something like ten bucks for the chickens and another hundred to accessorize them, a thing-to-its-stuff ratio so disturbing that it reminded me of Barbie dolls—another cute purchase that had left a sizeable dent in my hip. But we brought the birds home and set them up in the garage out of reach of the dogs, and the girls had fun playing with them, not to mention naming them. Hannah named one “Henrietta,” which seemed inevitable, while Caroline insisted on “Eggcellent Chicken” for another. A third was named “Susan Henimore Cooper” for novelist James Fenimore Cooper’s daughter Susan, who wrote Rural Hours, the 1850 paean to the virtues of country living. Finally there was “D. B. Cooperetta,” whose name honored aerial outlaw and folk hero D. B. Cooper, who in 1971 hijacked a Boeing 727, extorted the airline for cash, and then parachuted out into the rainy darkness somewhere over the Pacific Northwest.

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A tale of two rivers

Red Lodge | Jan 31, 2013 09:00 AM

By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearinghouse

Recently I came across a spectacular video on YouTube, posted by the National Park Service (NPS), called “One Day in Yosemite.” It’s the work of 30 filmmakers who fanned out across the park on one day last June. From dawn to sundown and beyond they captured day-in-the-life details of some staff and visitors to Yosemite—a ranger on horseback spreading good will; hang gliders floating into the valley; riverside campers cooking dinner; and a moving segment of a father and son climbing Cathedral Peak. Half Dome is well-represented, including a dizzying segment of a hiker on the infamous cables and several individuals or groups in quiet contemplation of the iconic rock.

There’s a lot the video gets right, and beautifully, but one aspect not well represented are the hordes of humanity that pack themselves into Yosemite Valley in the summertime. Bumper-to-bumper exhaust-belching traffic, horns honking, people yelping, rushing around and jockeying for the best photos are all part of the scenery. Also not depicted is the hair tearing positions park staff find themselves in an attempt to fulfill their paradoxical mandate, laid out in the Organic Act of 1916: “…to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Yosemite lookout
Yosemite lookout. Courtesy of the National Park Service.

This video intersects interestingly with three additional NPS releases—their latest statistics abstract which covers visitation numbers for all park units in 2011, and two long awaited and highly anticipated management plans. In 2011, 4 million visitors poured through Yosemite’s gates. The report projects that number will continue to climb, to 4.1 million in 2012 and 4.25 in 2013. A look at historical visitation to Yosemite shows it hit 1 million visitors in 1954; 3 million in 1987 and 4 million in 1996. Since Yosemite Valley was added to the national park in 1906, a whopping 170 million people have plumbed its charms.

It’s this position the NPS currently finds itself in while attempting to craft management plans which will take the preservation and enjoyment of the park into the future. Both plans now open for public comment address the fate of the two rivers that transect Yosemite are protected by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 (WSRA)—the Merced and the Tuolumne.

The Tuolumne River planthe less controversial of the two but still contentious—would spend $65 million over the next 20 years to “protect and enhance river values by restoring ecological conditions at Tuolumne Meadows and by improving conditions that pose risks to water quality, sensitive meadows, archeological sites, scenic vistas and recreational experiences.” This would include adjustments to transportation, lodging, camping, parking, employee housing and concessions along the Tuolumne River corridor. This plan can be commented on through March 18.

The Merced River plan is the hot potato, the result of over a decade of legal wrangling. The proposal is the agency’s third swing at a workable document since 2000, when the Ninth Circuit Court agreed with two groups suing the NPS, saying it had failed to adequately address user capacities. The WSRA requires a management plan to include “specific measurable limits on use,” including land within one-quarter mile of the rivers’ banks. The court said the NPS must “deal with or discuss the maximum number of people that can be received” in a Wild and Scenic River corridor. An attempt to remedy this in a plan released in 2005 again failed. A court-mediated settlement in 2009 directed the NPS to have a Merced River plan in place by July 2013.

Merced River
Merced River and Half Dome. Courtesy of the National Park Service.

The current proposal, which would cost $235 million over the next 15 to 20 years, resulted from 40 public workshops and the input of user-capacity experts. It offers some bold suggestions. All development will be moved away from the Merced and significant restoration of land within 100 feet of the river, including meadow and riparian habitats, will be done. Improving traffic circulation would be a major focus of the preferred alternative and day parking would increase by 5 percent, an addition of 500 parking spaces. Camping inventory will also get a 28 percent boost along the river and 37 percent in Yosemite Valley. The valley’s ice skating rink would be shut down in this scenario, and commercial horseback riding, rafting and bicycle operations would be banned.

The elephant in the room is the plan’s consideration of user capacity. The Merced plan proposes to accommodate 19,900 visitors per day in East Yosemite Valley, which is roughly the daily average in that area in the high season. The NPS offers this number in response to input in which the public overwhelmingly enjoined it to provide more camping and to maintain private vehicle access.

Reaction to this vision of Yosemite’s future has been bleak. Greg Adair, co-founder of Friends of Yosemite Valley, the lead plaintiff in the 2000 lawsuit said, “They have to make their capacity [number] meaningful and not just a receding target.” And John Buckley, executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center said of both the Merced and Tuolumne plans: “Overall, our center is disappointed that the park is setting such high levels of user capacity rather than making it a priority in these plans to reduce crowding and congestion… The park's enthusiasm for maximizing visitor use apparently hasn't changed based on the preferred alternatives for these two latest plans.”

Despite all the proposed management plans promise in terms of restoration and impact mitigation for both rivers, the criticism regarding user numbers is legitimate. In 2006, the district court found that the 2005 Revised Merced River Plan failed to address user capacity in accordance with the Ninth Circuit Court’s 2003 opinion. The Ninth Circuit Court also held that since the visitor-use limits in the 2005 plan were based on current capacities, the NPS did not demonstrate how such “limits” would protect and enhance river values. This preferred alternative does not successfully address these longstanding concerns.

Lower Yosemite Falls
Lower Yosemite Falls. Courtesy of the National Park Service.

Next year Yosemite celebrates its sesquicentennial, marking 150 years since Yosemite became the first parkland set aside for the public by the federal government. When he signed the legislation in 1864, President Abraham Lincoln said the land was to be preserved “upon the express conditions that the premises shall be held for public use, resort and recreation.” That may be Yosemite’s legacy but it is hard to see how that can be its future, or the future of our other rock star parks (seven out of 10 of the most visited national parks are in the West: Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain, Olympic, Grand Teton and Zion).

The Merced Wild and Scenic River Plan is open for comment through April 18.

Heather Hansen is an environmental journalist working with the Red Lodge Clearinghouse /Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at CU Law School, to help raise awareness of natural resource issues.

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