Archive for the ‘Public Lands’ Category

Old Debate, Same Outcome

sagebrush

The Idaho Legislature has devoted considerable time and money over the last few months to an analysis of how the state might take over the public lands in Idaho that have been owned since statehood (and before) by all of us – meaning all American citizens – and managed by the federal government.

Never mind that the effort would likely be declared unconstitutional or that the U.S. Congress would never permit such a wholesale transfer, the movement has once again gained some modest traction in the American West. This latest effort will doubtless fade, as earlier ones have time and again, when the reality of managing the land collides with the fear of having to sell much of it in order for a state to afford ownership.

As the Washington Post has reported Utah has been the most aggressive in pushing a state takeover. Utah’s governor signed legislation in 2012 demanding the federal government transfer title even though the state’s legislative counsel opined that the move had a very “high probability of being declared unconstitutional.”

Just because a federal land transfer is a fool’s errand doesn’t mean this is a new issue. Far from it. Some of us will remember the Nevada roots of the a similar effort in the 1980′s, dubbed “the Sagebrush Rebellion” when local officials in the Silver State worked themselves into high dudgeon over federal management of public lands. The movement rose like a rocket and eventually sank like a stone, but not before it had a full political run at the county and state levels all across the West.

When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 he promised to reflect the “values and goals” of the Sagebrush Rebellion, but the former California governor must have know, even if his inept Interior Secretary James Watt didn’t, there was no public appetite for selling off the public’s land or for allowing it to be exploited by a rape, ruin and run crowd of exploiters. Quite to the contrary, the public wanted in the 1980’s – and still wants today – a conservation and economic development balance that demonstrates respect for policies that both conserve and carefully utilize the public lands.

An internal 1980 Interior Department analysis of the Sagebrush Rebellion – “A Old Issue With A New Name” – pointed out that agitation over control, ownership and management of Western public land is as old as the nation itself. In other words, the political winds have blown back and forth on these issues, but always the policy course has tacked in the direction of maintaining the public’s land for the public’s benefit.

I want to quote from that 33 year old Interior analysis, because it still seems so relevant to the debate today in Idaho, Utah and elsewhere:

• In 1832 the Public Land Committee of the U.S. Senate claimed that state sovereignty was threatened by federal land ownership. The rest of Congress, however, maintained its discretionary authority to manage such land without limitation and rejected the complaint.

• In 1930 the Hoover Administration proposed to cede much of the public domain to the states. The recommendation was opposed by both an eastern Congressional majority and by Western states, who having already acquired the most productive land, wanted no responsibility for, as was said, the “waste lands” remaining.

• In the 1940’s Nevada Senator Pat McCarran conducted a series of “investigations” into the Grazing Service (one of Bureau of Land Management’s predecessors) and the Forest Service, both of whom were trying to bring livestock grazing under greater control on public land. In 1946 Senator Edward Robertson of Wyoming sponsored a bill to convey all unreserved and unappropriated lands to their respective states. The BLM was formed the same year.

• In 1956 Senator Russell Long of Louisiana proposed similar legislation.

None of the legislation went anywhere, but the political heat generated was substantial in every case.

The 1980 Interior document goes on to pin the genesis of the 80′s Sagebrush Rebellion on what it termed “the pinch of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, the final comprehensive articulation of national policy on how the remaining unreserved lands would be managed. FLPMA, years in the making, reflected the public realization of the enormous national values held in trust in the public lands and called for those resources and values to be managed for all Americans under the principles of multiple use and sustained yield and on the basis of sound land planning.

“Stated simply, it became clear that consideration of all possible users made the sphere of influence of certain users, heretofore unchallenged, suddenly shrink.”

It has been argued by various advocates of state control over the West’s vast public lands that the states could manage the land more efficiently. The 1980 Interior analysis asked and answered a more important question.

“Fundamentally, the question isn’t whether the States can afford to manage the public lands. They could. They could increase taxes and sell some of the land, and in the case of the energy States bet against future revenues. That’s not the right question. The question is whether the Nation’s interests are best served by such management, and the answer is no.”

Some useful information has been generated by Idaho’s current effort, including a new Congressional Research Service report that estimates, on the conservative side, that the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service spend upwards of $320 million annually managing your public lands in the state. The Idaho Department of Lands entire budget, including federal funds that the department administers, is something less than $20 million. The math, to say the least, doesn’t compute.

The Tea Party-type groups that have to a significant degree been driving the current debate must believe the transfer of lands issue is a political winner, but they may want to check that assumption. Before he was governor of Idaho, Butch Otter was the congressman who briefly advocated selling some public land in the West to offset Hurricane Katrina expenses. The future governor wisely backed off the idea when the political downside, including a potential loss of prized Idaho hunting ground, became a real liability.

From time-to-time and for far into the future we will hear of “a new Sagebrush Rebellion” sparked by some alleged misdeed by a federal agency or federal policy, yet the overall course of federal-state relations in the West is set and has been for a long, long time. Serving the broad public interest will no doubt remain the essential objective of public lands policy in the American West.

The land legislators talk about as “federal” is really “public” land, and one of the beauties of America unlike most of Europe, for example, is that the land really is owned by all of us. Even better for we westerners, American taxpayers in states with little or no public land – think Nebraska, Kansas or Iowa – subsidize the management of our public land, but we need to remember that those folks also share ownership.

We’ll continue to fight over public land management, that is the western way, but rather than continuing to argue over a land transfer that will never happen we might be better served to more constructively debate the details of land management policy, including fire, grazing, timber and mining policy, so that our kids and grand kids can be certain to benefit from the great legacy – the trust – that is embodied in the singularly American idea that all that precious land belongs to all of us.

 

J. Robb Brady

A Rare Breed

Loyal readers at this spot know that I occasionally rage against the dying of the light of local journalism. The days of independent, community-minded and engaged newspapers, television and radio stations does seem to me more and more imperiled, which makes the passing of J. Robb Brady, the long-time publisher and editorialist of the Idaho Falls Post Register, a singularly sad milestone.

Brady was a young 92 when he died Sunday in Idaho Falls. His wife Rose – they were married for 69 years - died earlier this year.

Robb Brady was, as the younger set might say, “old school.” His office looked like it could have been at home on the set of the old television show “Lou Grant.” Robb truly had printer’s ink in his veins and it was obvious he took great pride and satisfaction in running a family-owned newspaper.

Robb Brady was also a conservationist, occasionally at the expense of his objectivity, but had I the chance, as he did, to buy ink by the barrel, I would want to have the same kind of opinionated, passionate editorial page he presided over at the Post Register. I remember taking a client in some years back to “background” Robb and others at the paper on a new mining venture in Lemhi County. I warned the client that it would be a tough session full of pointed questions. Robb, as far as I know, never met a mine he liked and the editorial board meeting was tough and pointed, but never lacking in civility.

Brady simply wanted folks to justify their plans and most of all answer how they would take care of the Idaho environment he came to champion. The answers he got were seldom good enough, but his judgments were rarely nasty, rather more concerned and dubious. In other words, his was the newspapering mind of a skeptic, not a cynic.

He wasn’t a booster – OK, well maybe a little bit of a hometown booster of the Department of Energy. All politics is local after all. Not many mines in Bonneville County, Idaho, but thousands of jobs at the Idaho National Laboratory.

For example, in a 2006 editorial Brady lamented the power of oil and gas companies to dominate the Bush Administration’s public lands leasing policies and suggested that global warming had an answer – develop a newer, safer generation of nuclear reactors rather than exploit more dirty carbon-based energy. At least Brady, unlike too many who possess a strong conservation ethic, had a real alternative to more oil and gas exploration – invest in nuclear power.

The tributes to Robb Brady will flow in now from those who will remember his spirited, passionate editorials about the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains, about his championing of protection for the magnificent Sawtooth Range and the River of No Return Wilderness. But some of the best and most important memories will come from the generations of ink-stained wretches he touched and trained.

Marty Trillhaase, now the editorial page editor of another family-owned newspaper in Lewiston, once worked with Brady in Idaho Falls, as did the Idaho Statesman’s Kevin Richert and Rocky Barker. Calling Brady kind, generous, opinionated and courageous, Trillhaase concluded his editorial today with the all-too-true observation: we’ll not see his like again.

 

Forecasting the Future

Interior ReportA View of Public Land Policy…50 Years Ago

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

Fifty years ago last Friday – August 27, 1960 – near the end of the Eisenhower Administration, then-Secretary of the Interior Fred Seaton wrote to the President to transmit a report entitled Project Twenty-Twelve. The report was an effort by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to look at its programs fifty years into the future – 2012.

Perhaps Eisenhower conjured up his famous quote about plans and planning when Seaton presented the document; a government report by an agency that had only been around officially since 1946 and was struggling to define its identity.

More likely, I suspect, Ike slipped out the back door of the Oval Office, putter in hand, to visit his private putting green and didn’t give the BLM document a second thought. Then again, one likes to think that the former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, known to be handy with a fly rod, would have taken at least a passing interest in predictions about the future of America’s natural landscape.

In any event, Project Twenty-Twelve, like so many government reports, found a home on a shelf gathering dust. Still the impressive effort at forecasting what the future might hold did lay the foundation for the relatively young agency. BLM was created by the great Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes who combined Interior’s General Land Office with the department’s Grazing Service.

Given the 50th anniversary of the official release of the report, its worth revisiting what they saw in the land management crystal ball as they tried to envisioned the early 21st Century. Credit for unearthing the old report goes to a group of Idaho BLM retirees who, while sitting around at lunch a while back remembered the effort and the document was recently unearthed in BLM archives in Phoenix.

Credit also to the University of Michigan Library which digitized the report in December 2009 and made the full work available on line.

With thanks to my friend and former Andrus Administration colleague, Andy Brunelle, who has a both fine eye for history and an encyclopedic understanding of public lands issues, for both pointing out the existance of the report and helping form some observations that both look back and forward 50 years.

Compared to a modern day Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) the 2012 report was mercifully brief. It includes a nice, short section on the history of the public domain lands and recounts how the federal government gave away lands for 150 years before turning away from that policy in the mid-20th Century. The 1976 passage of
Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) finally brought the public land disposal era to an end.

The second chapter of the forecast provided a broad look at the future. The United States, according to those looking forward a half century, was projected to double in population to 360 million by 2012. We have actually grown a little more slowly, with the current population standing at about 310 million.

The BLM forecasters said in 1960 that the nation would use more than 30 billion cubic feet of wood annually. We are a little over 20 billion now.

While guessing too high on those measures, the report also included a Bureau of Mines projection that the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2012 would stand at $2.4 trillion. The GDP stood at about $500 billion in 1959. Today’s GDP is somewhere around $15 trillion, but in inflation-adjusted terms, and when compared to 1959, the 50 year old guess is actually quite close to what was predicted – $2.4 trillion.

Visits to National Parks, National Forests, BLM lands and state parks were projected to grow from 400 million visits in 1960 to 1.7 billion visits by 2010. It is impossible to compare those guesses to current numbers because the way the agencies monitor visits has changed. This much can be said, however. The percentage of population engaged in outdoor recreation has doubled since 1965 and the amount of time people engage in outdoor recreation has also doubled.

So with population increasing in that period from 180 million to 310 million, Americans are spending twice as much time engaged in outdoor recreation as they were nearly 50 years ago. No wonder its difficult to find a good campsite.

The BLM forecasters also predicted dramatic scientific and technological advances from research and development that would have special impact on BLM programs and operations.

In 1960, the agency forecast widespread application of mechanization and automation in industries dependent on minerals, wood and other raw materials from public lands administered by BLM. This prediction seems spot on since, particularly in the 1980′s, Idaho and other resource states witnessed widespread sawmill modernization that, while making the wood products industry much more productive, also had the unfortunate side effect of the loss of thousands of jobs that were the backbone of many rural communities in the West.

The report forecast water treatment of saline and brackish waters for agriculture and domestic use. This prediction is certainly true as it relates to the vast increase over 50 years in sophisticated community waste water treatment, much of it driven by the Clean Water Act. The prediction has proven to be less valid when agriculture polluted run-off is involved. And, the ocean has not become a major water source, but stay tuned.


BLM forecast fifty years ago the development of transportation systems and facilities for rapid movement of large numbers of people from urban areas to and from rural recreation sites. The Interstate Highway System we now take for granted has helped this prediction to be realized, but we also bought into urban sprawl, exurbs and, in recent years, a welcome trend for some to move back into central cities in places like Portland, Salt Lake City and, to some degree, Boise. I’m betting, as the report forecast, that we see more and more “car free” National Parks in the future with visitors arriving by the shuttles that now move people at Zion and Yosemite.

The agency also forecast improved techniques and facilities for protecting public lands and resources from damaged due to fire, insects, diseases, or other hazards.

Certainly fire protection programs have been greatly improved since the authors of the BLM report thought about the future, but Mother Nature has also responded by producing larger, more intense wildfires. This is the “paradox of success” defined at a 2004 Andrus Center for Public Policy conference on the history and future of the Forest Service.

Critics of the BLM have often referred to the agency at the Bureau of Livestock and Mining – much more true in 1960 than today – and the 1960 report does devote a great deal of attention to the condition of grazing lands as well as an assessment of the mineral estate at that time. Much less attention was focused on forest resources or recreation.

Other parts of the forecast provide a program-by-program discussion of current efforts and how over a fifty year time frame BLM programs will continue to work. This section of the report will likely only be of interest to a BLM alum or a wild land ecologist, but it is nonetheless important stuff.

Only one paragraph – one – is devoted to the topic of weed control, where mention is made that “depleted ranges contribute to the spread of noxious and poisonous weeds” and that an ongoing weed control program is anticipated to respond to this problem. “The long-range program provides for substantial weed control activity through 1980,” the report says, “after which time this work will be progressively reduced.”

What has actually happened is that after about 1980 the increasing spread of noxious weeds became much worse and the BLM continues a long, twilight struggle against these unglamourous, but awfully important pests. We now recognize the important work that must occur with invasive species, whether its weeds affecting habitat and forage, or whirling disease affecting important trout populations. The BLM has generally kept up with the problem and has steadily accelerated the battle.

In the 1960 discussion on forest management, which centers on the O and C lands in Oregon, a smooth path forward was predicted for a sustainable harvest of 1 to 1.2 billion board feet annually for the next fifty years. The projection was good for about half of that period. Twenty-five years in, by 1985, there was growing public discontent about the effects of clearcut logging on public lands, and the BLM’s O and C lands in Oregon were eventually swept into the larger Northwest forest wars symbolized by the environmental concerns over the northern spotted owl.

What the Project Twenty-Twelve planners missed – and what almost any long-range planning effort will struggle to understand – are changing societal values. The planners did not forecast the increasing public and political consensus about environmental protection. They did not – or perhaps could not – forecast that the 1950′s Congressional debates over wilderness would lead to the passage in 1964 of The Wilderness Act.

That fundamental piece of national public land policy was followed by much other legislation – the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968, the National Environmental Policy Act in 1969 and the Endangered Species Act in 1973, to name a few.

The Project Twenty-Twelve report, proves that the most difficult thing to predict in the pace and magnitude of change. It’s pretty easy to collect data and then use a straight line to project growth into the future, but being able to see where the line will curve, or break or take a new direction is much more difficult.

The great general was right. Plans are useless, but planning is essential. Perhaps this old, dusty BLM report can – fifty years after its release – help a new generation of public land managers and policy makers ask better questions about the assumptions we all make about the future.

We can always start with the question and think deeply about it: what is taking place now that won’t – or can’t – continue into the future?

My thanks again to Andy for bringing the Project Twenty-Twelve report – ancient history, but fascinating information – to my attention.