Category: Public Lands

Stories about public lands policy and management

What’s at Stake: Adapting to Climate Change

What’s at Stake: Adapting to Climate Change

A view of Ray Lake, on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. Like other parts of the Great Plains, the region is prone to extreme dryness. (Photo by Natalie Umphlett/ via NOAA)

Potential budget cuts are alarming because much of the country is already behind in adapting to climate change, including the Great Plains. Dennis Ojima, director of the North Central Climate Science Center, projects that the region will face a “dramatic increase” in the number of extremely hot days (95°F and higher) and warm nights by mid-century, regardless of any action to curb carbon emissions. The increased heat will affect patterns of rainfall and drought, forcing farmers and ranchers to experiment with growing practices and eventually plant different crops. It will stress existing infrastructure, challenging the reliability of water supplies and electric grids. The sooner managers can get ahead of these changes and begin adapting, the better.

“What’s at Stake: Adapting to Climate Change”

Audubon, November 2017

RV industry lobbies to privatize services on public lands

RV industry lobbies to privatize services on public lands

Recreational vehicles at Fishing Bridge, a RV-only camping area in Yellowstone National Park run by Xanterra Parks & Resorts (Photo: Jim Peaco/National Park Service)

At Yellowstone, Yosemite, and elsewhere, turning over national park campgrounds and other services to private companies is a common — and somewhat controversial — practice, where concessionaires offer more amenities and charge higher prices to visitors. And it may soon become even more ubiquitous in popular parks and some national forests, bringing changes that could alter the natural settings of campgrounds and public lands.

As Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has begun steering the department that oversees our national parks, the RV and parks-hospitality industries appear to have their hands on the wheel. “We have been knocking on (Zinke’s) door and saying, ‘We have some great ideas, will you listen, please?’” says Derrick Crandall, who heads the National Parks Hospitality Association, the industry lobbying group for park concessionaires, and the American Recreation Coalition, which advocates for public-private partnerships. “We are excited.”

“RV industry lobbies to privatize services on public lands”

High Country News, September 29, 2017

Harry Reid exits the ring

Harry Reid exits the ring

Senator Harry Reid (UNLV Photo Services / Geri Kodey, via Center for American Progress Action Fund)

Senator Harry Reid retired in December 2016 at age 77, leaving an impressive public-lands legacy, forged through compromises. During his five terms in Congress, Nevada went from having fewer than 67,000 acres of federal wilderness to nearly 3.4 million acres, plus new national parks and conservation areas. “And every piece of legislation was mine,” says Reid. “It hurt my political career in some places, but it was worth it because it was good for the state.”

Reid traces his own environmental awareness to his youthful visits to Piute Springs, a Mojave Desert oasis a day’s bumpy drive from the remote mining town of Searchlight, where he grew up. When he returned home as an adult to show his wife his beloved refuge, the springs and a nearby old military fort had been trashed. “Since that day, I have done everything I can to preserve the environment,” Reid says, including helping to create the Mojave Natural Preserve, which protected the springs.

A Mormon convert and one-time boxer, Reid paired a commitment to Nevada and the environment with a pragmatic but stubborn tenacity. Representing a state with minimal, albeit growing, political influence, Reid became the Democrats’ ranking Senate leader. He jockeyed Obamacare and the 2009 stimulus package through a polarized Congress. He fended off plans to locate a high-level nuclear waste dump in Nevada, and helped develop his state’s renewable energy industry. And while his environmental record isn’t spotless, his accomplishments serve as proof of his ability to flat-out get things done in Washington.

“Harry Reid exits the ring”

High Country News, February 20, 2017

Harvesting in the Park

Harvesting in the Park

Park Service biologists Tania Lewis and Christopher Behnke work with Huna Tlingit tribal member Charlie Wright to record data from a glaucous-winged gull egg. (Photo: NPS)

For centuries, Tlingit people of southeast Alaska lived, hunted, fished, and gathered at Bartlett Cove in Glacier Bay, abandoning and rebuilding settlements as glaciers advanced and retreated during and after the Little Ice Age. But a different historic episode froze the tribe out of the area in 1925 when the National Park Service designated Glacier Bay a national monument and banned Tlingits from their ancestral homeland.

Now, the Huna Tlingit and Park Service are ushering in the tribe’s return to Glacier Bay, with the new tribal house and a renewal of traditional harvesting of glaucous-winged gull eggs in the park.

The progress at Glacier Bay is one sign of how the Park Service is rebuilding its relationships with tribes. In its centennial year, the agency clarified a rule to enable native plant gathering in national parks, and has officially recognized the importance of tribal knowledge and practices tied to the natural world—called traditional ecological knowledge (TEK)—in guiding park management.

“Harvesting in the Park”

Hakai Magazine, September 7, 2016

Keepers of the Flame

Keepers of the Flame

Prairie burn at Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge, Washington (Photo via UWFWS – Pacific Region)

Across the West, a century of vigilant fire suppression has left many forests and prairies dangerously overgrown and degraded, prone to catastrophic wildfires that destroy homes and habitat. Members of The Nature Conservancy’s Southern Rockies Wildland Fire Module, a traveling fire crew of specially trained experts, spend their share of time wrangling wildfires. But they are also applying a science-based strategy to reintroduce and manage fire on the landscapes that naturally need it.

There are just a dozen or so certified Type 1 Wildland Fire Modules across the country, highly trained groups of firefighters prepared to dispatch quickly to remote terrain, equipped with enough gear and food for at least two weeks. Most are run by the National Park Service or Forest Service. The Conservancy’s module is unique for being nongovernmental, and it is dedicated to not only fighting fires but also lighting them. Its members are trained to use prescribed burns—blazes ignited under carefully controlled conditions—and to manage, rather than just suppress, naturally occurring fires as part of a healthy ecosystem.

Since its creation in 2008, this Colorado-based crew has carried out about 60 prescribed burns on some 16,000 acres, and trained hundreds to tackle similar work.

 

“Keepers of the Flame”

Nature Conservancy Magazine, August/September 2016

‘Keep It in the Ground’ prompts online oil and gas leasing auctions

‘Keep It in the Ground’ prompts online oil and gas leasing auctions

Climate activists protest a BLM oil and gas lease sale in Denver in May 2016 (JZ)

Lease sales, where energy companies bid for the right to drill for oil and gas on federal land, used to be mundane events. But lately they’ve become raucous, with climate activists in Salt Lake City, Denver and Reno urging the government to leave fossil fuels in the ground. Eventually, they hope to end public-lands drilling altogether.

In response, some industry leaders want auctions to move online — eBay style. The Bureau of Land Management agrees, and will host its first online sale this September. Explaining the move to Congress this March, BLM Director Neil Kornze said online sales are cheaper to host and will speed up transactions. He added that the agency is on “heightened alert” and concerned about safety as a result of incidents like the militia occupation at Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. “And so a situation that we are not used to — separating out who is a bidder and who is not — gives us pause,” Kornze said.

So far, environmentalists are uncertain whether an online system will help or hurt their cause. “If this is part of a broader effort to make BLM processes more efficient and transparent, it’s a great idea,” says Nada Culver, director of The Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center. But if it simply allows energy companies to escape growing scrutiny, “it’s not progress.”

“‘Keep It in the Ground’ prompts online oil and gas leasing auctions”

High Country News, July 20, 2016

How will Trump act on conservation and public lands?

How will Trump act on conservation and public lands?

Donald Trump Jr. speaks with Field & Stream editor Mike Toth at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership Western Media Summit, June 2016 (JZ)

While speaking at a media summit in June 2016 in Fort Collins, Colorado, Donald Trump Jr. defended keeping federal lands managed by the government and open to the public. He also reiterated his father’s strong support for U.S. energy development, proposed some corporate sponsorships in national parks, questioned humans’ role in climate change, and criticized Hillary Clinton for “pandering” to hunters with “phoniness.”

Trump Jr. has served as an adviser to his father on natural-resources issues and has even joked with family that, should his father win, he’d like to be Secretary of the Interior, overseeing national parks and millions of acres of federal public lands. In Fort Collins, he said he’s not “the policy guy,” but repeated his frequent pledge to be a “loud voice” for preserving public lands access for sportsmen. Trump Jr. also mocked some gun-control measures, such as ammunition limits, boasting, “I have a thousand rounds of ammunition in my vehicle almost at all times because it’s called two bricks of .22 … You know, I’ll blow…through that with my kids on a weekend.”

“How will Trump act on conservation and public lands?”

High Country News, June 28, 2016

In bison recovery, scientists start small

In bison recovery, scientists start small

The Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd, at the City of Fort Collins’ Soapstone Prairie Natural Area (Photo: City of Fort Collins Natural Areas)

Up to 60 million bison once wandered the plains. The largest land mammal in North America, the bison is now recognized as a keystone species that helps maintain the ecology of grasslands. Their grazing habits influence the diversity of forbs and grasses, and their hooves help aerate the soil. Even their dirt wallows create seasonal habitat for birds and affect how fire moves through grasslands.

Today, there are an estimated 500,000 scattered across the plains but nearly all are managed as livestock, destined to become buffalo burger. Fewer than 21,000 are part of 62 “conservation herds” that are managed for environmental purposes with limited human intervention, and many of those have cattle genes. Even fewer genetically pure animals are considered truly free-roaming and “wild.” Many scientists consider the species to be ecologically extinct, meaning that its functional role in the landscape has been eliminated.

So while the reintroduction of 10 bison in Colorado’s Laramie Foothills may not sound like that big a deal, genetically pure conservation herds like this one are a crucial step toward restoring wild bison to the Western landscape. They could help calm ranchers’ longstanding worries about disease, and over time new herds have the potential to become self-sustaining populations that more closely resemble historic herds — if, that is, state and local managers are willing to give them room to grow.

“In bison recovery, scientists start small”

High Country News, April 6, 2016

How not to forget the West’s past atrocities

How not to forget the West’s past atrocities

Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site (Photo: National Park Service)

I stood on a bluff in southeastern Colorado, overlooking the lonesome prairie, 180 miles southeast of Denver. Bare cottonwoods lined the dry bed of Big Sandy Creek. Otherwise, there was nothing but grass, earth, rocks and sky. The only sounds that November day were the wind and the singing of LaForce “Lee” Lonely Bear, a Northern Cheyenne spiritual adviser.

This was the site of the notorious Sand Creek Massacre. At dawn on Nov. 29, 1864, a 675-man Colorado militia, led by Col. John Chivington, a Methodist minister, attacked a small, peaceful village of Cheyenne and Arapaho camped along the creek. Without provocation, the militia charged and killed at least 150 Indians, mostly women and children. According to militiamen and survivors, soldiers chased unarmed Indians down the creek bed, raped and bayoneted women, hacked off limbs and genitals. Cheyenne Chief White Antelope was scalped and mutilated as he pleaded for peace. The Cheyenne say that White Antelope repeated his final journey song as he lay dying: “All my relations, remember / Only the rocks on earth stay forever.”

Braided Hair, Lone Bear and the others who brought me to the site in 2005 had been working to change that, partly by establishing Sand Creek as a national historic site managed by the National Park Service. Along with other Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, they envisioned it becoming a place of remembrance and healing for their own people and the nation. “So the history may live on,” Lone Bear told me.

“How not to forget the West’s past atrocities”

High Country News, March 7, 2016

The BLM Just Sold More Leases on the Pawnee — and Environmentalists Say That’s for the Birds

The BLM Just Sold More Leases on the Pawnee — and Environmentalists Say That’s for the Birds

An oil rig on the Pawnee National Grassland, Colorado (Photo via US Forest Service)

An hour’s drive northeast of Denver and encompassing an area twice the size of the city, the Pawnee National Grassland’s whopping diversity of songbirds and raptors has earned the area a reputation as a birder’s paradise. Some people drive hundreds of miles and fly in from around the world each summer to view mountain plovers and burrowing owls, lark buntings and McCowns’s longspurs.

But in recent years, birders have begun spotting a whole other family of beasts nesting in the Pawnee. Oil and gas drilling has skyrocketed in the area over the past decade, part of a nationwide industry boom that has tapped underground shale formations up and down Colorado’s Front Range. Just as he tracks the birds he sees, Gary Lefko notes the pump jacks and well pads that have sprung up on the grassland. On some outings, he has seen dozens of tall blue flames from flare stacks, burning off unused methane and glowing in the half dark in and around the Pawnee. Along state highway 14, which runs through the grassland, Lefko and his wife count the tank batteries — silos that store oil — and other industry equipment that keeps filling in pieces of the prairie. “There’s more every time,” Lefko says.

Amid the massive grassland, the industry impacts may not seem like much. The Pawnee still mostly looks like an empty, undeveloped canvas of greens and browns. But each new well pad and scraped patch of ground and every truck that rumbles along and kicks up dust from the dirt roads affects this subtly beautiful ecosystem. The piecemeal energy development destroys bird and wildlife habitat and alters the shortgrass prairie in ways that even scientists don’t fully understand. Some compare the impacts to death by a thousand cuts for the flora and fauna of grasslands already in decline.

“The BLM Just Sold More Leases on the Pawnee — and Environmentalists Say That’s for the Birds”

Westword, July 28, 2015