Should the States Control Drilling on Public Lands?

No. That’s the answer to the question above.

From Fox News comes the report that Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, has proposed to put state governments in charge of the drilling permitting process on federal lands in their states. The proposal is not entirely surprising, and Romney is not the first candidate to support a change in control over oil and gas leases on federal lands. It’s a bad idea for multiple reasons, but let’s move on to the bigger discussion.

I don’t know a lot about the permitting process. When Romney says it takes less than a month for a state to issue a drilling permit, but that the feds need almost a year, I’ll tell you I’m surprised the feds have such a quick turn-around. I’ll also tell you that the federal process is contributing very little, if anything at all, to environmental protection. It’s a paperwork exercise, and that’s it.

I’m not an absolutist when it comes to resource extraction on public lands. I’ve argued that we need to cut timber from federal forests, and I likewise believe that we need to drill for oil and natural gas on public lands. But like my proposal for harvesting federal timber, I believe we need a reasonable and ecologically sound approach to drilling for oil and gas. Protect the Commons: they belong to us all, in perpetuity. Environmental protections should be paramount, and wild lands are completely off limits.

We all know that until new technologies arise, drilling on federal lands is inescapable: We must have reliable and inexpensive sources of energy. And I firmly believe – as I argue all intellectually honest conservationists should – that we have an ethical obligation to produce our energy needs domestically, rather than import our oil (as we do) from Canada, Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Venezuela, and then simply pretend that there isn’t any environmental cost.

But the how, and where, and under what conditions we drill for our oil and natural gas on federal lands, these are technical questions to which I don’t have answers. I’m embarrassed I don’t’ know more about this incredibly important topic: I’ll try and learn more about drilling, but I can’t make any promises. In the meantime, don’t become enamored with the idea of turning the process over to the states, a non-starter for anyone concerned about environmental protections and the integrity of our public lands.

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Give the Public Lands Back, But to Whom?

I’ve been thinking of a way to present this story for a few months. Back in March (I believe) Utah Governor Gary Herbert signed a state law that requires the federal government to turn 30 million acres of public lands over to state ownership. Most of this land is controlled by the Bureau of Land Management, but the Forest Service and the National Park Service also would lose control of lands (although apparently the state would return control of the national parks and wilderness areas to the federal government). The Deseret News adds local flavor to the story here. Notice that RS 2477 makes an appearance in this debate!

There have been variations on this story for as long as I have been involved in public land management, and the story always ends the same. The Feds will never cede these lands back to the state of Utah, or any other state. The state lacks the constitutional authority for these type of claims, claims that cannot withstand even a modicum of scrutiny in a federal court. But I understand why Utah wants these lands back: not for recreation and tourism, but for the imagined riches of precious metals, coal, cattle, and petroleum and natural gas.

But the whole sordid affair raises a question for me, one that I would like to put toward a constitutional scholar or public lands historian: Why, if the federal government ever did decided to divest itself of these massive western land holdings, would they give the lands back to the states? Why would they not give these lands back to the Tribal governments? The Navajo, the Utes, the Hopi? Should the Tribes not be first in line – have dibs as it were – to the return of these lands, much of which was their ancestral homeland, and much of which was taken from them by the government? Why do we act as if the Tribes don’t exist? Don’t have a say? Aren’t recognized in our Constitution (they are)? Aren’t we forgetting them a bit prematurely? Now there’s a lawsuit I’d like to see: How long would it take the Tribes to intervene in any lawsuit forcing the Feds to return public lands to the states, especially if the case showed even the slightest hint of gaining traction? If I were a member of Tribal government, I’d be passing some Tribal resolutions of my own. What’s fair is fair.

Death of the Western Pine Forests 2

High Country News has a nice article that I thought you might enjoy as a follow-up to a post I wrote a few days ago about the state of havoc in which we find our western pine forests. Overall it’s a good story; here’s a bit I want specifically to comment on:

But the push to thin forests while boosting timber production has created a conundrum for many conservationists, including myself, who are wary that the programs could be giving a “new name to an old saw.” A report released earlier this year, Increasing the Pace of Restoration and Job Creation on our National Forests, estimated that new ‘restoration’ activities would increase the amount of logged forest sold in 2014 to 3 billion board feet, up from 2.4 billion board feet in 2011. (emphasis mine)

The moment an economic component is attached to a logging project, even a much-needed restoration thinning project, the environmental community throws up its hands and says “hell no.” Environmentalists can’t let it go; the hangover they have from the bad old days when the timber industry ran roughshod over our forest (and the Forest Service). They can’t recognize that those days are long gone. We’ve gone from cutting 12 billion board feet a year in this country to only 2.4 bbf, yet the environmental groups still won’t condone any nexus between business and forestry. It’s a fact that if a private business doesn’t cut the timber, then the timber won’t get cut. There’s no federal “logging crew” on call to do the work.

If we have any hope of restoring our western forests, this is a roadblock we’ve got to work through. We’ve got 120 million acres of forest that needs restoration work, and we’re knocking off a few hundred thousand acres a year, if we’re lucky.

Have We Destroyed Our Western Pine Forests?

I have been waiting to write about the wildfires ravaging the western United States until the worst of the fires were contained. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, as I write there are 37 active large wildfires burning just over 900,000 acres. To date, more than 2.5 million acres of our western forests have been consumed by wildfire.

Fires can be devastating affairs, and this year’s fires in Colorado are no exception, with over 350 families losing their homes and wildfire claiming at least two lives.

Wildfire is a complex, emotional issue, and because of this it often provides agenda-driven fodder for politicians, special interest groups, and the media, some of whom end up making wildly stupid statements as they seek to use the devastation caused by wildfire to leverage their points of view.

The bottom line on wildfire is this: we have horribly mismanaged our western pine forests for the past century, and the devastating wildfires we are experiencing – and will continue to experience – are the direct result of this mismanagement.

Forget about western pine beetle and climate change and environmentalists who block logging projects. These are all the aftereffects of bad policy decisions at the turn of the last century. The big three policy mistakes that have led us to the brink of losing our pine forests were grazing, timber clearing, and fire suppression.

Western ponderosa pine forests once had park-like settings: trees were large and wide spaced, with an open understory of grasses. Fires under these conditions were likely just as massive, just as widespread, but stayed close to the ground, consuming the grass and new shrub and tree growth, keeping the forest natural thinned to a density of something like 80 trees per acre. We know that these were the historic conditions through the study of tree ring data, research in relict reference sites (areas that have gone largely unaffected by man), and even by looking at historic photos of our western forests.  

It was in the early 1900’s that everything changed. The railroads opened up vast new reaches of the isolated American west, bringing with them cattle and loggers. Cattle grazed off the grasses, interrupting the historic fire cycle, while the loggers clear cut what appeared to be forests of endless pine stands. Fire suppression had been a practice since the turn of the century, and with the establishment of the U.S. Forest Service in 1905 wildland fire suppression became the preferred policy of the U.S. government.

Today, I have personally worked on tree thinning projects were tree densities on these exact same forests are around 800 to 1,000 trees per acre. You can’t walk through these forests; you can’t even see through these forests. They are full of spindly dried-up trees and tall shrubs with tons and tons of dead trees per acre. They are also devoid of wildlife. They are, in every sense of the word, unnatural. And when a fire burns in areas like these, the fire spreads directly from the ground to the crown of the trees, consuming and killing them as the fire spreads from tree top to tree top.

The consequences of our decisions could not be known in 1900. While some understood that wildfire was part of the natural ecosystem, the damage to property that could be caused by wildfire was deemed too costly to avoid. Indeed, a large wildfire in Wisconsin in 1871 had claimed the lives of 1,500 people. As a matter of policy, at the time, fighting fire must have appeared the rational approach to forest management. We were also feeding and housing a new and growing nation, and again, those western forests must have looked endless.

Today, and really since the 1960’s, we know better. Wildfire plays a critical role in the ecological balance of our western pine forests. But our forests have been mismanaged for so long that establishing a natural fire regime is almost impossible, and would require the active management of millions of acres of forest land to return these areas to a tree density that could accommodate natural wildfire. Some feel it is already too late.

I remain moderately hopeful. I believe that with some new tools and new government policy, we can restore some semblance of balance to our pine forests. Part of what I’m doing with this blog is arguing for a new approach to management of our public lands. I don’t believe that our antiquated set of land management laws can accommodate the magnitude of the effort required. And so I will continue to build my case for new laws and policies to move us toward solutions.

The Death of Western Pine Forests

Juliet Eilperin has a good story in the Washington Post on federal efforts to study and try to circumvent the effects of climate change on pine forests in the West. When it comes to western pine forests, there are a lot of moving parts. If you understand the issues and can fill in a few blanks, the article ties all of these moving parts together.

The crux of the matter is this:

Scientists know that global warming will reshape these forests, which provide crucial habitat and food for key species, curb soil erosion and slow melting snow destined for local water supplies. What they don’t yet understand is which trees are best poised to survive under these changed conditions and how they can help them adapt in the decades to come.

Is this hubris? I support the efforts to study and prepare for a changing climate’s impacts on forests, but can we help nature adapt to natural events?

We know from paleoecology – the study of prehistoric plants – that vegetation has been in a constant state of flux for the past 20,000 years. We know that pine trees, as well as other tree species, have been migrating great distances and reestablishing in new areas, partly as a result of changing climatic conditions, for thousands of years. Trying to prevent this natural succession and eventual migration of pine forests seems like a futile effort.

But maybe the effort is one we need to undertake? Isn’t it in human nature to believe that we can manipulate nature – indeed, outwit nature – to suit our needs? I also think part of this is the fear of the unknown, or more directly, the loss of what we find comforting. Who knows what future forests will look like? What we know is that we like the way our pine forests look now, today, in this climate.

I support the efforts of our government and other researchers who are working to understand what is happening and how to protect pines. The effort is worth the small cost, and in the process we are likely to learn more about our own contributions to the loss of pine habitat. Let’s allow these research efforts to play out.

Antiquities Act Under Attack

Fox News carried this story today on a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives that would increase hunter access to public lands. I have not read the bill, but what caught my attention was the last paragraph in the story:

Lawmakers also approved an amendment by Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., to limit the president’s authority to set aside historic and culturally important federal lands under the 1906 Antiquities Act. Critics say presidents have usurped legislative rights in using the act, and Foxx’s amendment would require that state legislatures and governors approve such designations.

If this were to become law, it would effectively end use of the Antiquities Act for conservation of public lands. Passed in 1906, the Antiquities Act was the first law to protect natural and cultural resources in the United States. Although the emphasis behind the Act was to protect sites like Chaco Culture and Mesa Verde, which were being vandalized and destroyed by pot hunters and artifact collectors, President Roosevelt first used this new authority to declare Devils Tower a National Monument. He also designated the Grand Canyon National Monument through the Act, so the Act was used early to set aside public lands. Use of the Act was heavily criticized when in 1996 President Clinton declared the 1.9 million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah.

The Antiquities Act is the only tool that allows for conservation of federal lands through administrative action, rather than requiring an act of Congress. Should Congress have a problem with a specific use of the Act, they have the legislative authority to change a declaration. The Antiquities Act to this day it remains a valuable tool for conservation and should be protected.