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Owls react to megafire and climate trends in central Colorado

Tay Wiles | Feb 15, 2014 05:00 AM

In the 1980s, when ecologist Brian Linkhart first started digging around in old woodpecker holes in Colorado for flammulated owls – fuzzy, black-eyed creatures weighing just one to two ounces – his research was all about the birds. He wanted to understand if and where the secretive little animals were breeding – questions he pursued purely because the owls fascinated him.

But after decades on the job, the Colorado College professor has turned his attention to what these owls can tell us about larger phenomena, like megafires and climate change.

Flammulated owl, the subject of study for Colorado College professor Brian Linkhart. Photograph by Flickr user Jerry Oldenettel.

Not many people have extensively studied “flams,” as Linkhart calls them, because they’re elusive: The birds are nocturnal and sing for only a short span of time during mating season, and even then quietly. Linkhart has studied flammulated owls longer and more deeply than anyone, which puts his research in a unique spot to evaluate how long-term trends like warming temperatures may impact the owls. It takes decades of observation for those cause-and-effect relationships to exit the speculative realm and come into relief – and that’s exactly what’s happening with Linkhart’s data.

I the early 2000s, he first started seeing Colorado flams breeding earlier in the year than they used to. “That was one of my first clues,” Linkhart says, that the owls were responding to changes in the climate. Then he began to notice fewer offspring and evidence of siblicide in broods. More recently, these changes inspired Linkhart to examine the larger trends that could be causing them.

Linkhart has found that the earlier breeding cycle has a direct correlation with warmer spring temperatures. Precipitation declines over many years in the Manitou Experimental Forest, one of his study areas in the Pike National Forest southwest of Denver, are likely a factor in the decrease in offspring. Flams usually produce two or three fledglings a year, but over the past 15, Linkhart has seen an average closer to one. With less moisture between January and June, he thinks the shrubs, flowers and vegetation that insects – the owls’ primary food source – depend on, aren’t growing as abundantly as they used to and support fewer insects. That makes for hungrier flams. Increasingly parched summers have also made a major predator, red squirrels, more aggressive. With trees producing fewer seeds for squirrels to eat, the rodents have been pillaging flam nests more often than usual, to feast on eggs.

These temperature and precipitation trends may be a result of the last half-century of climate change, though it’s difficult to prove. Either way, future climate change will no doubt exacerbate the trends.

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Boldt ruling to let Natives manage fisheries is still vastly influential, 40 years later

Christi Turner | Feb 14, 2014 05:00 AM

The Boldt Decision turned 40 this week, marking four decades since tribes of the Pacific Northwest were granted a 50-50 share of salmon and steelhead fisheries and co-manager status over their natural resources. Just this week, Washington state legislators are expected to decide on a bill that would pardon the dozens of activists arrested in the 1960s "fish wars" protests that led to that monumental court decision.

The two-part decision was handed down in 1974 by Judge George Hugo Boldt in U.S. v. Washington, a watershed moment in Native American rights law that laid the groundwork for Native American law across the U.S. and up to the present day.

“It was the Boldt Decision that was the lightning strike,” said Western historian and Native American law expert at the University of Colorado Boulder, Charles Wilkinson, who is now writing a book on the decision’s history and legacy. “It wasn’t just getting a fair share of the fish, but they had the right to act as sovereigns. These tribes really did not have working governments, certainly as far as the outside world was concerned. Afterward they set up courts, environmental codes and crack scientific operations – it gave them confidence.”

Billy Frank Jr. was a leading figure in the 'fish war' years, as pictured left. Pictured right more recently, as the director of the Northwest Indians Fisheries Commission. Photographs courtesy of NWIFC and Debby Preston.

The decision allowed tribes to work hand-in-hand with the state to co-manage all fishing resources, including those outside of reservations. This became particularly important after fish stocks suffered major collapses in the 1980s, and both Indian and state managers focused on the need to protect fish habitat and support long-term recovery of the once vital fisheries. The Boldt Decision also spurred the creation of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, which supports its 20 member tribes in this role as natural resource co-managers.

Co-management is now firmly established, but in its day Boldt’s ruling was so shocking to non-Native American fishermen that angry protestors branded Boldt a traitor and publically burned his effigy. For Boldt, a political conservative and a fishermen himself, the ruling was simply a strict interpretation of a critical phrase in the 1850s-era treaties that Isaac Stevens, then governor of the Washington Territory, had negotiated with the region’s tribes: “The right of taking fish…is further secured to said Indians, in common with all citizens of the territory.” Boldt interpreted “in common with” to mean a right to half of the harvestable catch – a right that had been systematically denied to the tribes for over a century.

The lasting importance of the Boldt ruling is vast. The so-called “Culverts Case” – filed in 2001 and decided in 2013 – is one of many contemporary cases linked directly to the Boldt. A Washington court ordered the state to repair more than 600 culverts under roads that block the passage of salmon through hundreds of miles of potential habitat, thus violating those same 1850s-era treaty rights. Yet the state has appealed the decision, to the dismay of Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission chairman and “fish wars” forerunner Billy Frank Jr., who called the appeal a disappointment. The appeal argument is set to be heard in court in the fall.

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Of mice and myth: Colorado flood recovery the latest chapter in Preble’s mouse saga

Ben Goldfarb | Feb 13, 2014 07:00 AM

The Preble’s meadow jumping mouse makes for an unlikely villain. It’s an unassuming, nocturnal rodent that spends its life scurrying through streamside brush, gnawing on bugs and seeds. When imperiled, as it often is by owls and foxes, it can leap three feet in the air. Sixty percent of its body length is tail. And, in the minds of some politicians and developers, it stands for everything that’s wrong with American governance.

That’s because the mouse, whose domain stretches from southeastern Wyoming to Colorado’s Front Range, is protected under the legislation that many lawmakers love to hate: the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The critter’s habitat, say biologists, is vanishing, degraded by suburban sprawl, grazing and irrigation diversions. Meanwhile, some state officials claim the rodent isn’t a genetically distinct species, and that protecting the Preble's has cost the American West millions of dollars in foregone development. The only mouse to spend more time in the national spotlight than Preble’s might be Mickey.

A Preble's meadow jumping mouse lies in torpor, a form of hibernation. Photo courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service.

The latest round of mouse-capades flared up last week, when news broke that the animal’s endangered status could delay federal projects to help the Front Range recover from last fall’s flooding. The reaction was furious – and predictable. “For the federal government to put concerns of a field mouse ahead of Colorado families struggling to recover from the floods is deeply concerning,” State Rep. Jerry Sonnenburg blustered. Rep. Cory Gardner, who told CBS Denver that the rodent-delayed recovery was “absolutely ridiculous,” did Sonnenburg one better: In a letter to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Daniel Ashe, Gardner demanded that FWS waive the Endangered Species Act so that recovery could proceed apace. Twitter amplified the outrage, as Twitter is wont to do.

The sole catalyst for the outrage was an innocuous two-page background paper that the Federal Emergency Management Agency – the primary coordinator of the recovery – distributed to Colorado officials on February 3. In the paper, FEMA warned (rather vaguely) that recovery efforts could harm mouse habitat, that legally required ESA reviews may delay projects, and that local officials who didn’t adhere to environmental laws could lose federal funding. Although it’s a long way from “may cause some delays” to headlines like “Mouse cripples Colorado flood-recovery efforts,” there’s no denying that, to the nearly 2,000 Coloradans who lost their homes, the report likely sounded callous.

But it also wasn’t true, says FWS biologist Craig Hansen. “I’m not sure why that statement was made, but it’s not accurate,” he insists. Hansen says that FWS has so far reviewed five flood recovery projects, such as bridge and culvert replacements, and approved most in a matter of hours. The longest evaluation, he says, has been two days. “No delays have occurred, or will occur,” he says. FEMA public affairs officer Ed Conley corroborates Hansen’s account. “Everything is fine, there have been no delays, the [recovery] money’s flowing,” Conley says.

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Policies and pollinators: How the feds deepen the precipitous decline of monarchs

Krista Langlois | Feb 12, 2014 08:00 AM

The numbers are in from Mexico, and they ain’t pretty. Every fall, monarch butterflies fly thousands of miles from the Great Plains to their winter grounds in central Mexico, where they're scrupulously counted by the World Wildlife Fund. In 1996, the overwintering monarchs blanketed 45 acres of forest. This year, they cover only about 1.6 acres, and the population – already at its lowest ever recorded – has dropped by half again since just last year. Scientists fear that one of North America’s greatest migrations is in its death throes.

The stats were announced Jan. 29 by the Mexican government and the World Wildlife Fund. Blame has been sure and swift. It’s Monsanto’s fault, it’s climate change, it’s shrinking winter habitat. Yet while those are indeed factors, the biggest – and perhaps the easiest to change, relatively speaking – are U.S. government policies like the farm bill signed into law by President Obama last Friday.

Policies that encourage the destruction of native grasslands contribute to plummeting monarch butterfly populations. Photo courtesy USFWS Mountain Prairie.

Not that you can call anything about the farm bill “easy.” The $956 billion, 949-page behemoth took three years to craft and covers a veritable Swiss army knife of programs, including agriculture, conservation, rural development, energy, forestry and food stamps. That it passed Congress at all is impressive; that it did so with the support of conservation groups like the World Wildlife Fund and Ducks Unlimited is even more so. Julie Sibbing, senior director of agriculture and forestry programs for the National Wildlife Federation, called the bill “worth the wait.” One provision in particular discourages farmers from plowing up virgin grasslands in Montana, the Dakotas and three other states, with the hope that limiting crop insurance on such fields will discourage sodbusting, thereby preserving native prairie and improving the chances of monarchs. Monarchs only lay their eggs on milkweed plants, which are rapidly disappearing under heavy machinery and herbicides.

Yet though the farm bill offers some protection for grasslands, it also maintains incentives for farmers to plant ever more corn and soybeans – a policy that’s led to a rate of grassland destruction on the northern plains greater than that of Amazonian deforestation. The new bill cuts back on the direct subsidies of the past and replaces them with crop insurance and price guarantees, but critics counter that the end result is essentially the same.

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Troubleweeds: Russian thistle buries roads and homes in southeastern Colorado

Sarah Gilman | Feb 11, 2014 02:26 PM

J.D. Wright pauses to check in with his wife of 51 years. “Do you remember, Mama, when that wind was?” After a few minutes perusing her cellphone photos, she reports back: Tumbleweeds first buried the house on November 17. The gusts screamed up and there they were, piled so deep over the doors and windows that Wright, who has a ranch on the Crowley-Pueblo County line in southeastern Colorado, had to call his grandson to come dig the couple out with a front end loader and pitchfork.

Since then, the house has been completely buried twice more, and partially buried five or six times. On one trip to town for groceries and a doctor’s visit, so many tumbleweeds clogged the road home that the couple didn’t make it back until the following day. “We had some bad weeds in the ‘50s and the ‘70s” – both decades saw serious dry spells – “but nothing like this,” says Wright, whose family has been on the place since 1950. They had always managed to keep running cows then, for example. The latest drought, though, has forced them to sell their 125-head herd and get by on income from odd jobs and Wright’s truck and equipment repair shop.

The Wrights’ story is not unusual on Colorado's corner of the Southern High Plains these days. “That neck of the woods has had a significant tumbleweed issue for a couple of decades,” in part because farmers are fallowing fields as they sell their water rights to growing Front Range cities, leaving bare dirt and little financial incentive to control weeds, explains Eric Lane, director of the state Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Services Division. Meanwhile, an extreme drought has hammered both cultivated fields and grasses and forbs on unplowed ground over the past three years, rolling huge dust storms over the state line into Oklahoma and Kansas. And because tumbleweeds are annuals, their seeds can colonize all that denuded soil in response to changing conditions much more quickly than the native perennials. When a big deluge of rain finally hit the area last fall, the tumbleweed population exploded, sending vagabond skeletons scything over the prairie with each passing cold front, dispersing seed hither and yon.

weed clog
Tumbleweeds clog a road fenceline to fenceline all the way to the horizon.

The exotic plant, also known as Russian thistle for its Eurasian roots, was accidentally imported into the United States in the 19th century. It has clogged 42 miles of roads in Crowley County alone since last fall. In the most extreme case, tumbleweeds piled fenceline to fenceline over a road to a depth of seven feet for six miles.

The accumulation is more than inconvenient: It blocks emergency vehicle access and boosts fire danger around homes and outbuildings. “Have you ever seen a tumbleweed burn?” asks Crowley County Commissioner Tobe Allumbaugh. “It’s like a dried-up Christmas tree on steroids – just PHOOO!”

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With Gila River deadline looming, New Mexico debates its water options

Ben Goldfarb | Feb 10, 2014 05:00 AM

In the Colorado River drainage basin, where states and cities routinely wrestle over limited water, and where a 14-year drought may portend long-term scarcity, new water sources are rare and precious. Thanks to a decade-old settlement, New Mexico has access to just such a resource. But, after years of debate, and with just months before a federal deadline, state officials still haven’t decided whether to use the water or let it remain in the Gila River.

Farmers and ranchers say diverting the Gila would ensure long-term supply, but conservationists fear disrupting riparian ecology. Photo by Flickr user Chris M. Morris.

The settlement in question is the Arizona Water Settlements Act, a 2004 agreement that gave New Mexico annual rights to 14,000 acre-feet of water (over 4.5 billion gallons) from the Gila, a 649-mile-long tributary of the Colorado, and the Gila’s own tributary, the San Francisco. Taking the water would mean diverting the Gila – the state’s last free-flowing river – through dams, channels and pipelines for storage. Farmers, ranchers and municipalities say the project would protect against flooding and ensure long-term supply. “I really think this is a one-time opportunity to secure water for our kids and grandkids,” rancher David Ogilvie told the Albuquerque Journal last month.

Conservation groups and sportsmen, however, fear that diversions would do ecological harm without solving the state’s long-term water problems. Although the environmental impacts of diversion on the Gila haven’t yet been fully assessed, Allyson Siwik, executive director of the Gila Conservation Coalition, says that preliminary analyses suggest that it would substantially alter natural flow. “These flows wet the floodplains, recharge groundwater and trigger spawning in native fish,” Siwik says. “This is one of the last intact riparian areas we have.”

The state only has until the end of 2014 to decide how to proceed. Complicating the situation is that, under the terms of the settlement, the federal government offered New Mexico $128 million to develop its water resources; around half of that funding can only be spent on diversion. Yet even if the state spends all the federal money on diversion, it won’t be enough to cover costs: according to an analysis by engineering firm Bohannan Huston, the recommended diversion project would come in at $348 million. That means the state could end up on the hook for around $200 million.

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A wildfire forum takes radical approach to protecting wildland-urban interface

Christi Turner | Feb 06, 2014 05:00 AM

Wildfire in the West is getting more severe all the time - burning longer, hotter and more frequently, destroying more homes, stretching federal funds to the limit, endangering more firefighters. Rising temperatures are driving the trend, and there's no indication things will change course.

Faced with these dire circumstances, 20 of the West’s most influential wildfire experts gathered in Jackson Hole, Wyo., at a closed-door Wildfire Solutions Forum last month in an effort to generate radical ideas on how to lessen future fire danger in Western communities. The theme of the event centered on one question: How can we control the pace, scale and pattern of future development of the wildland-urban interface, or WUI? Across the West, 84 percent of this interface – where federal public land abuts private land within a 1/3-mile radius – remains undeveloped.

This “84 percent” was a rallying cry for the two-day forum, and symbolized a need to shift wildfire conversation away from the portion of WUI that is already developed. This is breakthrough thinking in the world of wildfire policy, where the priority has been to protect existing communities rather than venturing into the realm of future development.

Headwaters Economics interactive graphic of the wildland-urban interface in the American West. Developed, undeveloped and high-risk zones are mapped by color. Click to explore the graphic.
“There’s this invisible line you’re not allowed to cross,” said the forum’s organizer, Ray Rasker, director of Headwaters Economics, an independent research group focused on Western land management. “If you start talking about restricting private property rights, that’s sort of a career-ending conversation you’re having.”

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Service problems and pilot shortages plague rural air service

Emily Guerin | Feb 05, 2014 10:20 PM

Long-time residents of Cheyenne, Wyo., might remember the days when Frontier Airlines flew cushy commercial jets out of the city’s small regional airport. That was back in the 1970s and earlier, when the Federal Aviation Administration required airlines to prove they were servicing rural communities in order to keep their certifications. When the FAA deregulated the airline industry in 1978, the big jets took off from Cheyenne and didn’t come back. Instead, airlines concentrated on larger, more profitable hubs, leaving small airports around the country without dedicated commercial air service.

To avoid stranding rural residents, that same year the FAA started paying commercial airlines to fly into small towns. Not all airlines were interested, but some, like Cheyenne-based Great Lakes Airlines, found a niche in flying to Essential Air Service communities, as the program is known. Great Lakes is now the most heavily-subsidized airline in the country and the largest provider of Essential Air Service flights, receiving 42 percent of its revenue from the federal program. It services 13 states in the West and upper Midwest.

Yet despite its broad reach, Great Lakes passengers have recently taken to calling the airline “Great Mistakes.” Stories abound in places of cancelled flights, lost baggage and missed connections. According to WyoFile:

Rob Godby, an economist at the University of Wyoming, told WyoFile he once hosted a visitor who bought a ticket to fly out of Laramie to Denver. The flight to Denver originated in Worland, and would stop in Laramie to pick up passengers. But when Godby took his visitor to the Laramie airport, the plane never arrived. Great Lakes employees explained that the plane, “forgot to land.”

Great Lakes blames the service problems in Wyoming and elsewhere on a major pilot shortage caused by new FAA regulations. Last August, the agency began requiring all co-pilots to have 1,500 training hours before stepping into the cockpit of a commercial airline. Previously, co-pilots of smaller airlines only needed 250 hours. The change came in response to a pilot error that resulted in a 2009 crash of a regional jet flying to Buffalo, N.Y. Fifty people died in that crash. EAS subsidy by state

Since the new rules came into effect, Great Lakes has had trouble hiring and retaining employees. According to the Associated Press, in August the airline had to lay off 30 co-pilots who were just short of 1,500 hours. And co-pilots who do complete the extended training on their own are less willing to work for low-paying regional airlines like Great Lakes now that they have the experience to work elsewhere. Before the new law, co-pilots would work at places like Great Lakes until they could accumulate the amount of flying hours needed to move to a larger airline. Now, they jump straight to the big leagues, since they have to get the requisite hours anyway. As noted by one air industry blogger, “would a pilot with 1500 hours rather go to Great Lakes & fly a prop, or go to a Republic, Mesa, or SkyWest and fly a shiny jet?”

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Slew of public lands and sportsmen's bills debated on Capitol Hill this week

Krista Langlois | Feb 04, 2014 05:25 PM

It’s been an exciting year for public lands geeks. After nearly five years in which Congress failed to designate a single acre of wilderness (the first Congress since 1966 to earn that dubious distinction), the House this week is taking action on a slew of wilderness, public lands and recreation bills. But while it’s tempting to applaud lawmakers for making headway on conservation measures, the bills aren’t all rosy, and they may illustrate the environmental compromises necessary to pass legislation in today’s hyper-partisan climate.

Three packages of bills are making their way through Congress. Here’s a rundown of what we’re paying attention to at HCN, with gratitude to E&E News for much of the information:

Organ Mountains2
President Obama may invoke executive action to protect the Organ Mountains in New Mexico from oil and gas development if Congress doesn't act soon. Photo courtesy BLM.

PACKAGE 1 - Wilderness bills:

  • On Jan. 28, the House Natural Resources Committee approved bills that would designate 75,000 acres of new wilderness in Nevada. But though environmental advocates praised the Pine Forest and Wovoka wilderness proposals, last-minute amendments tacked on by Rob Bishop, R-Utah, weakened the measures, The Wilderness Society says. Bishop’s amendments would prevent federal agencies from closing roads in or near wilderness areas without opening an equivalent road nearby, allow logging for fire management, and prevent land adjacent to Pine Forest from being considered for future wilderness designation. Bishop claims the trade-offs are standard. But Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., called them unprecedented. “You only want (them) to be standard because you hate the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” he retorted.

    Yet while conservation-minded Democrats like DeFazio begrudged the compromise, industry backers like Bishop weren’t satisfied either. It pained him, he said, that “we are creating more wilderness than we are actually adding to economic development.” In exchange for the 75,000 acres of wilderness, restrictions will be eased on about 25,000 acres of Nevada public lands to encourage economic development, including a copper mine in Lyon County.
  • Rep. Steve Daines, a Montana Republican running for Max Baucus’ vacant Senate seat, says his bill to protect the North Fork Watershed west of Glacier National Park from future oil and gas leases is the first public lands bill in 30 years supported by each member of the Montana delegation. The bill passed committee with overwhelming support.  

    Other wilderness bills include 32,000 acres of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan and several smaller parcels in Nevada. All the wilderness bills will now go before the full House; companion bills have already passed Senate committees.

PACKAGE 2 - Sportsmen’s bills:

  • The Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act – an eight-bill package promoting hunting, fishing and target shooting on public lands – is expected to pass the House this week with bipartisan support, but is predicted to encounter hiccups in the Senate. The most contentious provision would prohibit the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from regulating lead ammunition or fishing tackle. As HCN has reported, California condors can die from lead poisoning after feeding on carrion embedded with bullets; California became the first state to ban lead bullets last year. Some hunters oppose such regulations because lead-alternative bullets are more expensive and aren’t manufactured for all guns.

    Another provision in the package would allocate firearm and ammunition tax revenue to fund promotional outreach of shooting ranges on public lands. And another would allow the importation of legally killed polar bears. (Because, truly, there’s nothing more comforting than a stuffed polar bear in your living room when you’re reading scary stories about climate change.)
  • Related, but not part of the sportsmen’s package, Montana’s Daines tackles the issue of public lands that aren’t really public at all – an issue Jodi Peterson covered for HCN. Nationally, more than 4 million acres of public land are off-limits because users simply can’t access them. Daines’ proposal – which mirrors a Senate bill from Jon Tester, D-Mont., – would ensure that at least 1.5 percent of Land and Water Conservation Fund money goes to improving recreational access to these places.

  • Also on a related note, the House unanimously passed a “good Samaritan” bill by Joe Heck, R-Nev., designed to expedite search-and-rescue groups’ access to federal lands. The legislation was introduced last May after private search teams waited nearly a year for permits to recover the bodies of two people missing near Lake Mead. A companion bill is now before the Senate.

North Fork
A bill to protect the North Fork of Montana's Flathead River overwhelmingly passed a House committee this week. Photo courtesy Flickr user Sunburned Surveyor.
PACKAGE 3 - (More) public lands bills:

  • Of all the public lands’ packages before Congress, the Public Access and Lands Improvement Act is perhaps the most controversial. It includes a bill from Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., that would salvage 1 billion board feet of burned timber from Yosemite’s Rim Fire. As I reported for HCN last fall, salvage logging is always a controversial practice – some say it clears fuel and adds economic value, while others claim it destroys valuable habitat – but McClintock’s suggestion to commercially log 257,000 acres of Yosemite National Park and Stanislaus National Forest without public notice, environmental review or litigation has raised ire among some environmental groups.

  • Fewer public lands: A bill written by Bishop would forbid the Bureau of Land Management from acquiring any new lands until it creates a database of public lands it could get rid of; while another Utah Republican, Jason Chaffetz, has a separate bill (not part of the package) requiring the Interior Department to sell 3.3 million acres of lands identified as “excess” during the Clinton administration.

  • The package also includes a bill from Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., to expand human-powered boating on off-limit rivers in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Kayaking enthusiasts have complained for decades that some of the world’s best whitewater is locked up behind outdated Park Service policies, but officials say the strict boating rules protect wildlife and uphold park policies. The same officials strongly oppose the bill for siphoning policy decisions from park managers. See more HCN coverage of the controversy here.

Though it’s heartening that lawmakers are taking a look at public lands – and may even protect some of them, albeit with strings attached – the past few years have made many of us skeptical of counting on Congressional action. Lately, President Obama has been dropping hints that he’s thinking the same thing. In his State of the Union address last week, Obama said he would employ executive action on issues with legislation stalled in Congress, a course of action that Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has closely echoed.

So far, Obama’s public lands legacy favors development: as of December, he’d protected 2.9 million acres of federal land, while leasing 7.3 million acres to oil and gas companies. But as the Washington Post reported on Sunday, anonymous White House sources say Obama is “poised” to protect 500,000 acres of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks region near Las Cruces, N.M., and 1,600 acres of the Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands on California’s central coast from development if Congress doesn’t act soon on similar protections.

Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2.

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Enviros and industry agree: Keystone XL means more oil. Why does the State Department disagree?

Judith Lewis Mernit | Feb 04, 2014 08:00 AM

It’s hard to know where to begin unpacking the U.S. State Department's Final Environmental Impact Statement on the controversial Keystone XL, the transcontinental pipeline that has been proposed to transport heavy crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta to the Gulf Coast of Louisiana. On one hand, the document admits that from "wells to wheels" — a lifecycle analysis that includes extracting, refining and burning — crude from landlocked Canada is 17 percent worse for the climate than the other kinds. On the other, moving any oil, no matter how polluting, along a pipeline is better than transporting it by rail or tanker. No one wants to repeat what happened last summer at Lac-Mégantic, the small Quebeçois village where 47 people died when a train derailed carrying oil from North Dakota’s Bakken fields, nor do the residents of Casselton, N.D., want to be forced to flee another fiery rail crash, as they did in December. Build the pipeline, goes the ominous Hobson's choice the State Department report offers, or get ready for more horrific railcar explosions to rock rural North America.

The proposed route of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Whether that's really the tradeoff, however, remains a matter of debate. There's no question that as flammable petroleum fills up tank cars designed for more benign cargo, rail disasters have mushroomed. Since March, the New York Times reported recently, “there have been no fewer than 10 large crude spills in the United States and Canada because of rail accidents.” Keystone XL would be contractually obligated to carry off about 100,000 barrels per day from the Bakken development, thus reducing the railcar risk from North Dakota as well Alberta. The pipeline, then, clearly wins on the issue of transportation risk.

But as a project that crosses an international boundary, the pipeline's approval hinges not on the opinions of rail-safety experts but on a decision to be made by President Barack Obama, who announced in his landmark June speech on climate that "the net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward." And that net effects calculation gets tricky.

On its face, the State Department's analysis says the pipeline will have no significant impact on climate, which is different from saying the oil itself won't contribute to carbon pollution when it's extracted and burned. Instead, the report concludes, the pipeline won't exacerbate the greenhouse effect for the simple reason that oil producers will still develop the fields without it, moving their oil to export terminals in the Gulf by rail or truck. In other words, no matter how "GHG intensive" the tar sands' oil might be, access to the pipeline won't exacerbate climate change because access to the pipeline will have no effect on oil production. Several environmentalists opposed to the pipeline, including NextGen Climate Action founder Tom Steyer, say that's bunk. And most investment analyses argue that without the pipeline, Canada's oil will cost so much and sell for so little it won't be worth the trouble.

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