Newsletter Archive

January 31, 2009

Dear CalUWild friends and supporters —

Pres. Barack Obama is off to a quick start, and while he has done little directly related to public lands, there are clear indications that things will be different in Washington under his administration.

Some of the changes so far:

— In his Inaugural Address, Pres. Obama said: “We will restore science to its rightful place.” If implemented, this will change the approach to decision-making that prevailed in the previous administration. In particular, it will change endangered species policy and climate policy, where higher-ups often overruled reports and opinions of staff, based solely on political considerations.

— One of Pres. Obama’s first orders was to agencies telling them that the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is to be liberally construed, with a presumption in favor of disclosure. This is in contrast to the previous administration’s policy that information not be released unless absolutely required. Furthermore, Pres. Obama said that agencies shouldn’t wait for FOIA to be invoked before making information public. Rather they should proactively use technology to become more transparent and accountable to citizens. He directed the Attorney General to draw up new regulations to implement these ideas.

— The White House website has a comments page where citizens can submit comments and suggestions. Full contact information for the White House is on the page as well, and you can also sign up here for email updates from the White House.

— White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel announced that the administration was putting a hold on regulations not yet finalized but proposed by the previous administration, until a policy review has been completed. This should include the controversial proposal to allow weapons in national parks.

— The new administration has also indicated it may drop the defense of lawsuits brought against agencies that were implementing previous policies that it opposed.

In other news from Washington, Ken Salazar was confirmed as Secretary of the Interior. In his confirmation hearings, he promised to undertake a complete review of the policies that his predecessors in the previous administration had implemented.

In a speech to Interior employees he said that he would maintain high ethical standards and that the public interest would come before private interest. To hear Mr. Salazar’s full speech, (about 20 minutes long) click here.

While the spirit and tone of the Department, as expressed by Mr. Salazar, is very different, we will still need to follow the Department’s policies closely. People must not be afraid to criticize that which needs correcting, even if overall the Department’s policies are improved. In particular, we will need to ensure that the drive for “energy independence” does not compromise the other values that we hold dear. Oil and gas exploration, the siting of solar energy projects in desert wildlands, and the designation of energy transmission corridors across wildlands will continue to be of particular concern.

Nevertheless, it will be a different atmosphere, one where we know that our opinions will be heard and take into account, even if not always implemented.

Thanks again to everyone who contributed to CalUWild’s 2009 membership support drive over the holidays. With foundation funding become more and more scarce, we’re going to need to count on our members even more. If you would like to make a contribution, please print out this coupon and mail it with your gift to P.O. Box 210474, San Francisco, CA 94121. It’s never too late!

Most of all, though, thanks for your interest in protecting the West’s wildlands!

1. Federal Court Halts Lease Sale
2. Washington County Bill Included in Omnibus Lands Bill

3. Omnibus Public Lands Bill Passes Senate

4. Forest Service Proposes Chainsaw Use in Wilderness
Comments Needed
DEADLINE: February16, 2009


1. Federal Court Halts Lease Sale

Good news for Utah’s wildlands arrived on Saturday, January 17, when a federal judge in Washington, DC issued an injunction against the BLM and the finalizing of its controversial lease sale in December. BLM had offered many leases in areas near national parks and in proposed wilderness areas. Some parcels were withdrawn before the sale in response to complaints from the National Park Service — but not all.

Injunctions are granted to prevent imminent harm, which the finalizing of the leases would have been, and often only when the judge feels that the requesting party has a good chance of winning its case on the merits.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Wilderness Society, and Earthjustice won the injunction, buying time to prepare the case against BLM that the leases were improperly offered. Many people feel that the resource management plans pushed through last year were an attempt to allow leasing in areas that might otherwise be off-limits. So we’ll see how this turns out in the end.

In addition, as we reported last month, Tim DeChristopher, a student from the University of Utah, upped bids at the lease sale without any intention or ability to actually pay for the leases he won. His actions have continued to attract attention and contributions to his defense fund. Interior Secretary Salazar has said he’s aware of the issue and will take a look at how best to resolve it.

Here’s are a few articles and opinion pieces about his case.

Washington Post

High Country News

Salt Lake Tribune (may be removed from archive 30 days after publication date)

2. Washington County Bill Included in Omnibus Lands Bill

In a surprise to many, when the Omnibus Public Lands Bill was introduced in the Senate at the start of the 111th Congress this month, it included the Washington County Growth and Conservation Act. The Utah legislation had not been included in the Omnibus Bill when it was assembled in the 110th Congress last year.

The bill designates about 130,000 acres of BLM wilderness, in addition to wilderness inside Zion National Park. It also designates much of the Virgin River in Utah as Wild & Scenic and includes 50,000 acres in National Conservation Areas.

The most egregious objectionable provisions have been removed in this latest version, such as the sale of large areas of public lands for development. But other concerns do remain, such as the release of some wilderness study areas and the omission of other wilderness-quality lands. Non-wilderness concerns include the inclusion of a study of a freeway through a desert tortoise preserve area.

Item 3 contains more information on the Omnibus Bill

3. Omnibus Public Lands Bill Passes Senate

The Omnibus Public Lands Act of 2009 is a collection of nearly 160 public lands bills, held over from the last Congress, where most of them had passed committees in the last Congress, but were never finally approved. (Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) had even promised to call a lame duck session specifically to consider this legislation, but economic matters wound up overshadowing everything after the election.)

So Sen. Reid made the bill just about the first item of business when the new Congress convened, even going so far as to hold a rare Sunday session of the Senate to consider a procedural vote on the bill to stop the filibuster by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK). A final vote was held a few days later and the bill passed by a vote of 73-21.

It now goes to the House of Representatives.

As we’re reported previously, the bill contains legislation designating three new wilderness areas, and additions to existing areas, in California, totaling 735,000 acres. It also designates Wild & Scenic Rivers in this state as well. The bill contains four new wilderness designations in Oregon around Mt. Hood, the Copper Salmon Wilderness, the Oregon Badlands, and in Cascade Siskiyou National Monument. Much of Rocky Mountain National Park, a subject CalUWild has previously written about is also designated. The bill also makes permanent the National Landscape Conservation System set up by Interior Secretary Babbitt. A non-wilderness item of interest to Californians is the inclusion of the San Joaquin River Restoration, which is designed to put permanent flows in the San Joaquin River in the Central Valley to restore salmon runs.

Controversial provisions include the Izembek Road in Alaska, which would exchange 200 acres of wilderness in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in order to construct a road to an isolated village. And the Owyhee Public Lands Management Act contains troublesome language as well. The Washington County bill was mentioned in Item 2.

Legislation often involves compromise. When this many bills are packaged together, the decision each person (and organization) has to make is whether the positives outweigh the negatives. This most obviously includes looking at the specifics of each included bill. But almost as important is considering the amount of work that has already gone into getting bills through committees and whether that work can or should be repeated in a new Congress. Given the other hot topics on the national agenda right now, it is very unlikely that the various committees will consider this many bills again.

If the legislation is amended in the House, it will have to go back to the Senate for another vote or a conference committee and face the additional possibility of another filibuster.

From CalUWild’s perspective, the positives do outweigh the negatives.

Let your Representative know your views!

4. Forest Service Proposes Chainsaw Use in Wilderness
To Fell “Hazard” Trees
Comments Needed
DEADLINE: February16, 2009

The Wilderness Act of 1964 prohibits the use of motorized equipment in designated wilderness areas, except as necessary to meet the minimum requirements for the management of an area. This is generally understood to mean no chainsaws.

Our friends at Wilderness Watch in Missoula have alerted us to a project that the Forest Service is proposing in the Sandia Mountains Wilderness, just to the east of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The Forest Service says that there are many dead and dying trees, creating hazardous trail conditions in the wilderness area. So it is developing a plan to cope with the issue. Among the options it is exploring is the removal of many (thousands, apparently) of trees along trails using chainsaws to cut them down. This flies in the face of the Wilderness Act and should be opposed.

Here is the alert from Wilderness Watch, slightly modified for formatting, containing more information.

The Forest Service is proposing to use chainsaws for trail clearing and to cut down thousands of “hazard” trees along 80 miles of trails in the Sandia Mountains Wilderness in New Mexico. Wilderness Watch strongly objects to the proposal and urges you to write to the Forest Service expressing your concerns with its plans.

Background: According to the US Forest Service (USFS), significant tree mortality is occurring in the 34,232-acre Sandia Mountain Wilderness due to insects and disease. The USFS believes that dead trees falling on the trails presents a safety hazard in this popular Wilderness, and the Regional Forester is requesting public feedback on a proposal to use chainsaws to fell and remove “hazard” trees along the affected trails (Pino, Embudo, Embudito, La Luz, Cienega, Faulty, Domingo Baca, and the Sandia Crest Trail). The proposal includes closing all 79.5 miles of these trails until the falling trees no longer pose a risk to visitors, and felling trees standing within 1.5 tree lengths from trail center. Public feedback is being requested prior to the agency’s final decision.

The USFS scoping letter describes the following four options:

Option 1: Allow the dead and dying trees to fall to the ground naturally, then cut the fallen trees with cross-cut saws. The trails most affected by the downfall will be closed to public use until the trail has been cleared of the hazard trees.

Option 2: Allow the dead and dying trees to fall to the ground naturally, and then cut the fallen trees with chainsaws. According to the USFS, the use of chainsaws would expedite the trail corridor clearing, allowing the trails to be reopened sooner to use.

Option 3: Close the trails to use until the hazard trees can be felled by cross-cut saws. The USFS claims that the use of cross-cut saws is “labor-extensive and time-consuming;” therefore the trails would remain closed longer.

Option 4: Close the trails to use until the hazard trees can be felled by chainsaws.

Wilderness Watch opposes this proposal, which goes beyond the minimum required to protect the Wilderness, and it places administrative convenience before preservation of wilderness character. Wilderness Watch supports an alternative in which the trails remain open, with warning signs posted at trailheads where hazards may be encountered. Visitors to the Wilderness should be allowed to experience nature on its own terms, including any risks that naturally exist. Dead trees should be allowed to fall naturally, with cross-cut saws then used to clear trails of fallen trees.

Please submit your comments supporting something similar to this alternative, and opposing the Forest Service’s proposal to fell the trees or use chainsaws, by February 16, 2009 (see below for submission information). The Forest Service does not intend to do an environmental analysis of the proposal. While that is probably illegal, it means this will be your only chance to influence the agency’s decision on this project, so please be sure to make your voice heard now on this important issue in the Sandia Mountains Wilderness.

Written responses may be submitted to:

Lisa L. Jones
Trails and Wilderness Program Manager
Sandia Ranger District
11776 Hwy 337
Tijeras, NM 87059

Fax number: 505-281-1176.

Electronic responses may be submitted to:

Hand-delivered or oral responses may be submitted weekdays 8:00 am – 4:30 pm to the address above, or called in via phone: 505-281-3304.

For more information, please contact George Nickas:
phone: 406.542.2048