Graze it, don’t blaze it

This column is about wildfire, federal mismanagement, settlement with enviros, and solar panels for chicken coops

So far this year we’ve had thousands of fires that have burned more than 7 million acres.  Three firefighters have been killed, hundreds of homes destroyed, thousands of people evacuated and for the first time the Forest Service expects to spend more than half of it’s budget on fire suppression. We have 29,000 firefighters in the field, including some from Canada, and are now bringing in additional numbers from New Zealand and Australia

As a result political tongues are wagging again about mismanagement of federal lands and ranchers are speaking up.

The recent Soda fire fire burned more than 283,000 acres in southwest Idaho and eastern Oregon, and 900 firefighters, aided by helicopters, air support, bulldozers and water trucks fought the catastrophic fire.  Alan Davis owner of Greybell Farms near Marsing, Idaho, says, “We have a bunch of people making decisions on wildlife, habitat, grazing and land management, and they have no practical experience. They have no clue how the world really works.” And he wasn’t done yet, saying “If Bureau of Land Management is not going to take an active management role … then they need to get the heck out of the way and let ranchers or somebody take care of the land.” He is critical of federal officials for letting fuel loads pile up.

The Idaho Cattle Association also blasted the feds, saying, “These fires are largely a result of the federal government’s management framework. We will never be able to stop all wildfires, but we can curb catastrophic fires in the future through grazing.” The issue was put most succinctly by Wyatt Prescott, executive vice-president of the Association, who said, “Graze it, don’t blaze it.”

The national boys are also unhappy. In an August 17th letter to Obama the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and Public Lands Council accuse the feds of gross mismanagement, and ask the President to “streamline regulations that will allow for active management” of federal lands and stop closed-door settlements with environmental groups that seek to block such efforts. The livestock industry is supporting the Resilient Federal Forests Act to partially address these issues, but a USDA official says they should instead support legislation to change the way wildfire suppression is funded. The livestock reps respond that despite “the increasing evidence that mismanagement of forests and rangeland is to blame for the higher occurrence of catastrophic wildfires, Washington seems to believe that allocating more money to fire suppression” is the only answer. 

The Resilient Federal Forests Act (H.R. 2647) takes some baby steps toward fixing the problems, and is in response to the fact that catastrophic wildfires have a significant negative impact on watershed health, wildlife habitat, property, and human life. Since 2006 more than 3,000 man-made structures have been destroyed. Most disturbingly, agency data indicates that 348 lives have been lost to catastrophic wildfire since 1995.

Among other things, the bill would simplify the NEPA process and offer categorical exclusions to the agencies in instances where they are needed to: (1) expedite specified critical response actions, (2) expedite salvage operations in response to catastrophic events, and (3) meet forest plan goals. In addition the bill would require that any plaintiffs challenging a forest management activity developed through a collaborative process or proposed by a resource advisory committee will be required to post a bond or other security. Keep in mind this legislation would only apply to a small subset of the total federal estate that meets certain criteria.

The legislation has passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 262-167, and was supported by 19 Democrats, mostly from the West. Our two Democrat reps, Lujan and Lujan-Grisham were not among those supporters, having voted no.

Sue & Settle

This issue has been of concern to many, and is one of the reasons our federal lands aren’t being managed appropriately. Sue and settle is where an activist group sues a federal agency and the agency, instead of defending itself, settles with the group.  Many of these settlements involve agency actions and regulations, and are strictly between the agency and the interest group. Left out are the general public, the Congress and those who may be most negatively impacted by the actions or regulations. 

Recent Congressional testimony and reports reveal these type settlements are increasing under the Obama administration. Concern is also being expressed that during its last months the Obama administration will use this method to “lock-in” regulations and prevent a new administration from revising those regulations.  Regulations promulgated by the regular administrative process can be changed by using that same process. That is not the case with those that are compliant with a court approved decree.

Solar Chickens & Commie Reindeer

I’ve told you about Toad Roads, Bee Highways and Prairie Dog Peanut Butter.  Well now we have solar panels for chicken coops. It’s true. The USDA has announced that as part of its Rural Energy for America Program it has awarded $16,094 to a Georgia poultry company to “install a solar array on the roof of poultry houses.”

Finally, Russia is claiming ownership of the North Pole. Putin has submitted documents to the United Nations and we are waiting to see how the UN will rule.

If they rule for Russia, we should all feel sorry for Rudolph the reindeer. Why?  Because then all the reindeer will be reds!

Till next time, be a nuisance to the devil and don’t forget to check that cinch.

Frank DuBois was the NM Secretary of Agriculture from 1988 to 2003, is the author of a blog: The Westerner (www.thewesterner.blogspot.com) and is the founder of The DuBois Rodeo Scholarship.