Senate Subcommittee considers Great Basin management

The Senate Public Lands and Forests Subcommittee is holding a hearing in Las Vegas today ~ Thursday, October 11 ~ to discuss threats to the Great Basin. From what I gather, fire and cheatgrass will be highlighted on the agenda. Subscription only article from E & E :

The Senate Public Lands and Forests Subcommittee looks at environmental threats facing rangelands and forests in the Great Basin at a field hearing Thursday in Las Vegas.

The Great Basin includes much of Nevada, western Utah, the lower third of Idaho, the southeastern corner of Oregon and a narrow strip of eastern California. It has been under assault recently by a combination of invasive species, wildfire, drought and climate change.

The hearing has the potential to alter the current momentum of the debate over how best to manage habitat in the West that continues to diminish ~ habitat that is critical to the almost listed pygmy rabbit, sage grouse, and a host of other species including pronghorn, a variety of beautiful birds, fish, and other wonderous plants and animals.

The committee can uplift environmental/wildlife values by responding to the necessary and repeated virtues of humility that a good and wise understanding of science continues to teach us about this remarkable landscape.

Up to this point, right-wing Western politicians have been carrying water for livestock interests by co-opting science and spinning the disasterous consequences of grazing into the baseless idea that it may be a solution. Idaho congressional politicians including Larry Craig, Mike Crapo, Mike Simpson and Idaho’s Governor “Butch” Otter are among those pushing for industrial livestock on your public land. The idea is simple ~ graze shrub-steppe to the ground before fire has a chance to blow through. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

Politicized “Treatments”

State – Idaho

One recent state response to the “War on Cheatgrass” has been Idaho Governor ‘Butch’ Otter’s recently promulgated Executive Order No. 2007-14 (small pdf) establishing a statewide wildfire rehabilitation committee. The merit of this will depend on those he selects to contribute to the committee – in the past that has meant livestock industry cohorts. We can all cross our fingers, but from previous statements we know that Otter has focused on only addressing the symptoms of the problems by prescribing the ‘less-than-substantiated’ treatment of livestock grazing. Time will tell.

Federal – BLM

Another developement, this time on the federal level, is the recent news of Brian Amme at Reno BLM clearing his Final Vegetation Treatments Using Herbicides Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for 17 Western states Record of Decision a few days ago. This controversial approach to the problems of exotic spread exposes shrubsteppe in 17 Western states to four new herbicides to include aerial application and some to be poured into streams to combat aquatic exotics. The plan also dimishes required environmental analyis for agency approval to use future chemical formulations on non-natives throughout the West.

The use of herbicides on public land utilizing widespread aerial application or aquatic application is controversial ~ with good-faith questions and concerns on both sides. Some cite it as a ‘lesser of two evils’ scenerio where the negative consequences of cheat/exotics are balanced against those of herbicides. Other prominant conservationists believe that the most effective efforts could be leveraged by pushing to vehemently preserve those expanses of the West untouched by exotics citing the vigor of these wildlife habitat communities as the best defense against introduction. Without the widespread disturbances of aggressive anthropogenic activites, one of the most widespread in Western Great Basin shrubsteppe being activities associated with livestock grazing on public land (including road blading, cattle and sheep themselves, fence and water-development installation, etc.), exotics are rarely able to compete with natives themselves.

Either way, combatting exotic species requires more than just wiping out entire native and non-native plant communities after an incursion, an activity which can also sacrifice wildlife and desirable habitat. During public comment on the Vegetation Treatment DPEIS (widely referred to as the “Weed EIS”) Brian Amme was asked point blank why causal contributors to the spread of cheatgrass, an explosive and habitat denuding exotic that spreads at a rate BLM postulates to be 4,000 acres a day, were not included in the Preferred Alternative of the program. Amme’s response was, “causal contributions are not in the realm of ‘treatment’. ” This approach and attitude is typical. Under this administration, BLM intends to spend its efforts and monies ‘treating’ the symptomatic consequences of mismanaged public lands by lacing public watersheds with chemicals rather than by taking the steps necessary to prevent the spread of cheat and other exotics in the first place. It’s a ‘spray, burn, spray, burn’ myopic strategy that continues the woefully counter-productive mindset premised on dominating and subduing the natural world, allegedly for its own good. It kicks the can of the conspicuous consequences ~weeds~ of aggressive uses into the inconspicuous and largely unknown realm of chemical consequences to Western landscapes, water-sources, and wildlife communities. Unfortunately, that’s the same paradigm that led to the widespread proliferation of cheatgrass and its contribution to fire and denuded landscapes in the first place. It’s also a subsidy shouldered by the tax-payer to cover the externality cost of public lands ranching.

Instead of bringing these facts and ideas to the table, Western politicians continue to press for increased use ~ doing what politicians do best by obfuscating and highlighting the very industrial aggravations to these problems, ironically, by prescribing the guilty contributors as ‘treatments’ to the problems.

Preventative Solutions

From the beginning, BLM set aside an alternative laboriously developed by a coalition of conservation organizations entitled the ‘Restore Native Ecosystems Alternative’ that would have incorporated the holistic aim of preventative management. It could have at least been incorporated into aspects of the agency’s “Preferred Alernative” if ‘war’ must be declared. The caveat: Uses and abuses of public lands that disturb soils and native habitat communities could and should be selectively removed or lessened in areas where they are demonstrated to most contribute to disturbances that promote the incursion of cheat or other exotics. Mitigate the causal contributors.

Millions of tax dollars and effort could be spared and critical wildlife & habitat preserved into the future by minimizing industrial activities that most disturb soils on public land in the Great Basin. These efforts are essential to buffer and preserve our wildlife values recognizing the ever ominous consequences of exotic incursion, climate change, catastrophic fire, and human-induced ‘perpetual drought’. If we say that we value wildlife and biodiversity then these threats demand action aimed at robust preservation NOW.

Same E & E article:

Native grasses grow in widely spaced clumps, forcing fires to leap across the desert, therefore slowing their advance. Those grasses stayed green until the late summer, making wildfires more difficult to start. But in areas already dominated by invasive grasses like cheatgrass, the increased vegetation could fuel more wildfires, resulting in weed expansion, soil erosion and carbon loss.

More and more, it is accepted that the preserved natural condition of shrubsteppe is the best condition to prevent and mitigate the consequences of fire, drought, and climate change. For a general overview of this visit a WWP webpage which includes illustrations and more content.

More and more it is recognized that restoration of public land works best when management models the natural conditions – as opposed to imposing extractive use objectives by inflating livestock forage, building fences, roads, and water developements for industry – including oil and gas. But it takes patience not afforded the current restoration appropriations models and practices.

Let’s hope that better ideas come of this meeting in Las Vegas given the recent shake-up of power in Washington… The Great Basin can’t afford much more of the same ~ this hearing is an opportunity for leaders to change course and begin finding solutions that serve the public interest by serving wildlife values and the West’s environmental heritage for generations to come.

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Brian Ertz