Two weeks in the West
"No one will look upon her tenure as the golden age of the Park Service." — Jeff Ruch of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, on the recent resignation of Park Service Chief Fran Mainella. Mainella's tenure was contentious — the agency was widely criticized for a 2005 management policy that emphasized recreation over conservation, and for not implementing the Clinton-era phase-out of snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton.
Court to public-lands plaintiffs: Sit down and shut up. The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on July 24 that third parties cannot legally challenge the sale of public lands to mining companies, a decision that could silence public dissent about similar sales from New Mexico to Montana. The plaintiffs had argued that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management broke the law in 2004 when it sold 155 acres on Mount Emmons, which overlooks the Colorado resort town of Crested Butte, to the Phelps Dodge Corporation for $875 (HCN, 6/21/04: Mining Law Claims Mountain). The 1872 Mining Law allows such "patenting" of land if buyers show they can turn a profit through mining it; Phelps Dodge, the plaintiffs said, had failed to provide such proof. But the appeals court upheld an earlier ruling that only people with competing property claims can challenge a patent.
Drill rigs really don’t fit in the wilderness. On Aug. 1, U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball ruled that the BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act when it leased 16 Utah parcels, including some near Desolation Canyon on the Green River, to oil and gas companies without adequately evaluating their suitability for wilderness. The BLM has leased more than 100 parcels in Utah with wilderness characteristics since a 2003 out-of-court settlement between then-Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton and then-Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt allowed the agency to do so. Once drilled, those lands can never be designated as wilderness (HCN, 4/28/03: Wilderness takes a massive hit).
Vegas is still waiting for the mushroom cloud. The Defense Department announced in August that it would again delay "Divine Strake," the proposed detonation of 700 tons of non-nuclear explosives at the Nevada Test Site (HCN, 5/29/06: Bomb test stirs up fear in Nevada desert). Downwinders joined with Utah and Nevada politicians in protesting the test, partly because of its potential to launch contaminated dust 10,000 feet into the air. The Defense Department says it may find another site for the blast, which will take place in 2007 at the earliest.
Real ranchers deserve easements, too. Congress this month fixed flaws in the system of conservation easements, the favored tool for preserving open land. On Aug. 2, the Senate expanded tax benefits that encourage modest-income working ranchers to donate easements to land trusts; currently, the tax breaks work best for high-income landowners, such as corporate executives who ranch as a sideline. The reforms also set general standards for land appraisals, and tighten the penalties for fraudulent appraisals. But they do nothing to make the terms of easement deals more public, or to fix other problems in the system (HCN, 5/30/05: Write-off on the Range).
The Salton Sea: coming to your garden. Efforts to save the Salton Sea — the watery sump kept alive by farm runoff in California’s Imperial Valley — have become mired in a bureaucratic miasma (HCN, 9/16/02: The royal squeeze). In late July, however, the Salton Sea provided a not-so-subtle reminder that it still exists, though perhaps just barely: 3 million tilapia died when algae blooms consumed all of the oxygen in the lake and asphyxiated the fish. The die-off was the biggest since 1999, when at least 10 million tilapia went belly-up. A California company is now collecting the dead fish to process into liquid fertilizer.
Drill the desert, spare the mountains. So it goes in the Northern Rockies, where Wyoming’s Jack Morrow Hills are now targeted for more oil and gas development, thanks to a recent BLM decision allowing energy companies to expand operations there despite the presence of rare desert elk, sage grouse and dunes (HCN, 8/18/03: The Red Desert braces for a gas boom). Meanwhile, the stars are lining up to protect part of the 500,000 acres of federal land along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front. In recent weeks, two energy companies said they are willing to sell or donate their leases to conservationists, and Montana’s senators are pushing legislation to allow buyouts.