N.M. Federal Lands News

by Frank DuBois

The Federal Land Council News

My column this month covers budget deception by the feds and two court decisions that slap the federales down hard.

The Sequester Jester

I wrote last month about the puny size of the first round of sequestration budget adjustments. These mini-cuts, however, are resulting in squawking and political posturing by the current administration and others.
We now have leaked emails confirming our suspicions of how the politicians would react. Fox News reports a U.S. park ranger says supervisors within the National Park Service overruled plans to handle the budget adjustments in a way that would have had minimal impact on the public. Instead, park staff were told to cut “interpretation services”, which are the talks, tours and other education services provided by park rangers. The National Park Service had previously warned of delayed access to portions of Yellowstone and Yosemite national parks, closed campgrounds at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, reduced hours at the Grand Canyon visitor center, and so on. “Apparently, they want the public to feel the pain,” the ranger said.
In another email, a program manager with USDA-APHIS asked his supervisors “if there was any latitude” in how officials handled the budget adjustments, so they could avoid negatively impacting fish inspections. Sorry, but no. The program manager received the following reply: “We have gone on record with a notification to Congress and whoever else that APHIS would eliminate assistance to producers in 24 states in managing wildlife damage to the aquaculture industry, unless they provide funding to cover the costs. So it is our opinion that however you manage that reduction, you need to make sure you are not contradicting what we said the impact would be.”
It’s pretty clear what’s going on here.  In an attempt to scare Congress and interest groups and prevent the sequestration from becoming a reality, the administration manufactured a series of adjustments that would be the least popular or cause “the public to feel the pain” as the Park Service ranger said. Now that the initial phase of the sequestration is being implemented they are doing their best to make sure the painful changes are happening.  In other words, long lines at the most popular Park Service facilities and USDA-APHIS using the process to require the private sector to fund a program.
Their worst fear is the initial stages of these adjustments will result in nothing the public sees or cares about. That’s not good management, but they are hoping it is good politics.
Based on my personal experience, I would recommend maximum flexibility to program and field employees. They know where the fluff is and where delayed or lessened expenditures will have the least impact on their mission. They also know much of the spending problem is generated by headquarters, either through outright spending, or through duplicative, politically correct or cover-your-butt guidance that has nothing to do with managing a program or our natural resources.
Keep in mind that in 2007 federal revenues were at an all-time high of $2.6 Trillion, with a deficit of $161 billion. A recent report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says federal revenues are about to set a new record of $2.7 billion. But, uh oh, the deficit will be $1 Trillion.
Federal revenues are essentially the same for 2007 and 2013. Having a 2013 deficit more than five times larger, however, makes it pretty easy to spot the problem: federal spending. Real cuts, not just slow-downs in increases, will eventually happen and those who use or enjoy federal lands had better get ready.

Arizona Wants Wolves

To manage them, that is. The Arizona Game and Fish Commission recently voted to support a Congressional letter sent to the Fish and Wildlife Service requesting the national delisting of grey wolves in the lower 48 states. The Commission says the letter, penned by a U.S. Senator and a U.S. Representative, was sent while the Service reviews the recovery status of grey wolves nationwide and the species’ potential delisting.
The letter expresses a need to transfer wolf management to the states to meet the needs of each state and the wolves residing inside each state’s boundaries. The letter also says, “Unmanaged wolves are devastating to livestock and indigenous wildlife” and “Currently, state wildlife officials have their hands tied any time wolves are involved.”

Agua y Caminos

This concerns the old point versus nonpoint source of pollution debate. Agriculture is generally considered to be a nonpoint source.
In a 7-1 ruling (with Justice Breyer recused), the United States Supreme Court reversed a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that would have required public and private logging operations to obtain Clean Water Act discharge permits for storm water flowing from logging roads.  
The enviro’s suit alleged that run off from logging roads is industrial (point) pollution that requires a Clean Water Act permit. The Supreme Court disagreed, saying the EPA was within its authority in finding that Clean Water Act permits only apply to manufacturing, processing and storage in fixed locations, not to the harvest of raw materials from different areas.  That part of the ruling is very important to agriculture.
In finding for the EPA, the Court relied heavily on prior decisions granting government agencies substantial deference in interpreting regulations they have promulgated. Of interest here is the frustration many of us have expressed over this “deference” to federal agencies. Things may be changing on that front, as two of the justices, Roberts and Alito, openly invited a challenge to this practice by a subsequent lawsuit.
On another roads issue a federal judge has handed a substantial victory to Utah and Kane County in a long-simmering dispute with the feds over whether some rural routes should remain in use as roads, or if they should be closed to the public.  Based on an 1866 law the judge ruled twelve routes were roads and therefore still accessible by the public. The Salt Lake Tribune quotes Utah Attorney General John Swallows as saying the decision means “these historic public roads have and will continue to belong to the people of Utah.” Swallow also said the federal government’s refusal to recognize the routes as state and county roads had impeded routine maintenance and “damaged the economy and put motorists at risk”.
That’s right. The feds would rather wreck the economy and put the public in danger than turn these lands over to local entities.

Monument

Just as I’m wrapping this up the local and national media are reporting President Obama is going to bypass Congress and designate five national monuments, one of which is in New Mexico. The media reports he will use the Antiquities Act to designate the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument consisting of 240,000 acres in Taos and Rio Arriba counties.
The official proclamation is not yet available, so I can’t comment on the language in the document, but similar proclamations in the recent past have caused problems for livestock grazing. I’ll have more on that next time.
Till then, 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 (www.nmsu.edu/~duboisrodeo).