News Roundup: A look at 30 by 30

Also: Tortoise translocation; Aridification Ticker; and "Diesel Smoke Matters"!?

On May 6, four federal land management agencies released a much-anticipated preliminary report on the Biden administration’s initiative to conserve 30 percent of America’s lands and waters by 2030. While the report contains little in the way of detailed plans on what means, exactly, the administration would use to reach its goals, it does lay out a broad framework and principles it will follow. 

Hardcore preservationists are likely to be disappointed. There is no scheme to designate millions of acres of wilderness or national monuments or to list dozens more critters under the Endangered Species Act, nor does it contain plans to cancel public lands grazing or the like (to the contrary). Instead, the report emphasizes voluntary and collaborative efforts and notes that the initiative strives for conservation and working landscapes over preservation and protection. It is the very opposite of the “land grab” many conservative, private property rights advocates feared. 

Perhaps most striking, however, is the way the report elevates environmental justice, inclusion, and tribal sovereignty, while also acknowledging the ways in which conservation efforts have sometimes violated these tenets in the past.

“While the U.S. has a remarkable record of success in safeguarding iconic lands, species-rich waters, and at-risk wildlife,” the report notes, “the Federal Government has also caused pain along the way: dispossessing Tribal Nations and Indigenous people of their lands and infringing upon their subsistence rights; evicting private landowners to create national parks; imposing segregationist policies on public lands and beaches; ignoring the contributions of communities of color and underrepresented communities in the preservation of national resources; and more.”

The three big threats the initiative confronts include not only the disappearance of nature and climate change, but also inequitable access to the outdoors. Tackling all of these at the same time will take a more holistic approach than in the past. “Instead of focusing land conservation efforts primarily on western public lands—as has been a past practice of Federal agencies—agencies should support collaborative conservation efforts across the country,” the report notes. That includes building more parks in urban areas, working to keep farmland in agriculture, and so forth. 

The initiative’s eight guiding principles:

  1. Pursuing a collaborative and inclusive approach to conservation;

  2. conserving lands and waters for the benefit of all people, which includes “recognizing the oversized contributions that farmers, ranchers, forest owners, fishers, hunters, rural communities, and Tribal Nations already make in safeguarding wildlife and open spaces;” 

  3. federal support for locally led conservation efforts; 

  4. honoring tribal sovereignty, subsistence rights, and religious practices; 

  5. Pursuing conservation and restoration approaches that create jobs and support healthy communities (e.g. a healthy ocean —> productive fisheries; restoring forests —> creates jobs and reduces wildfire risk; creating parks —> keeps cities cool, reduces utility bills, improves human health); 

  6. honoring private property rights and supporting voluntary stewardship efforts, which includes “a clear recognition that maintaining ranching in the West—on both public and private lands—is essential to maintaining the health of wildlife, the prosperity of local economies, and an important and proud way of life” (i.e. don’t expect radical grazing reform from this administration);

  7. using science as a guide; and,

  8. building on existing tools with an emphasis on flexibility. 

These tenets are anything but a fervent-preservationist’s wish list. Indeed, much of the report seems to be designed to appease the local-control, anti-federal land management crowd. Yet that has done nothing to quell the outpouring of anger from those same ideologues, who are calling the plan a land grab forwarded by radical environmentalists.

This conservative coterie is currently led by the American Stewards of Liberty, a far-right group based out of Georgetown, Texas. On its webpage, ASL blasts the 30 by 30 plan based not on what is in the report, but on all of the presumed actions that “they (Biden et al) are not telling us directly.” The group is so staunch in its anti-federal land management stance that it has opposed federal purchases of private land from willing landowners via the Land and Water Conservation Fund. 

Stewards of Liberty is a (literal) marriage of Stewards of the Range and the American Land Foundation (née Farm Credit Property Rights Foundation), both of which were part of the Wise Use movement of the nineties. Stewards of the Range was launched in the early 1990s by Margaret Hage Byfield to support her father, prominent Sagebrush Rebel Wayne Hage (d. 2006), in his long-running battle with the federal government over grazing rights on public land. Byfield’s husband, Dan Byfield, led the ALF until the 2009 merger. William Perry Pendley, who served unlawfully as acting director of the Bureau of Land Management during the Trump administration, was on the American Land Foundation’s property rights task force. 

Margaret and Dan Byfield now serve as Stewards of Liberty’s executive director and CEO, respectively. 

Meanwhile, Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo. 3, is sponsoring the 30 by 30 Termination Act, which would essentially ban new national monuments, federal mineral withdrawals, or even federal purchases of private lands from willing landowners. Again, the bill seems to be targeting what Boebert expected the initiative to do, not what the report actually says. Not that it matters: the bill has virtually zero chance of passing. 

(Read the Land Desk’s in-depth look at the Wise Use movement and how it lives on today. One of these days the Land Desk is going to make a Wise Use/Sagebrush Rebel family tree. Stay tuned). 

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The type of preservation that the 30 by 30 initiative seems to shy away from could happen by way of two small plants in the natural gas and oil hotspot of the San Juan Basin in northwestern New Mexico. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced last week that it would initiate Endangered Species Act status reviews of the Aztec gilia and Clover’s cactus. If either plant is listed, it could affect future permitting of oil and gas drilling in the area. 

The Aztec gilia, a perennial herb with small, star-like, pinkish-purple flowers is endemic to northwestern New Mexico and is believed to be limited to a single 1,750-square-mile swath of land. Clover’s cactus, a barrel-shaped cactus in miniature, is also endemic to the region, covering a slightly larger area. 

The review was prompted by a petition for listing from WildEarth Guardians, a Santa Fe-based environmental group. 

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The desert tortoise is listed as threatened, not endangered, under the ESA, which is not enough to halt a large solar power project and associated transmission line from going forward in tortoise habitat in southern Nevada. 

Late last year the Trump administration gave the go-ahead for NextEra Energy to construct the 500-megawatt Yellow Pine Solar Project and Trout Canyon Substation on about 3,000 acres of BLM land southeast of Pahrump. The project is in known desert tortoise habitat—a survey last year found 54 adult and sub-adult tortoises in the project-area—as well as habitat for burrowing owls, kit foxes, gila monsters, and a number of other species. Basin and Range Watch fought to stop the project or have it moved elsewhere (i.e. to rooftops), to no avail. 

Now, instead of moving the project, biologists are moving the tortoises, rounding up and translocating as many of them as they can from the soon-to-be construction zone. The other species of flora and fauna will be left to fend for themselves. 

Although the Yellow Pine project was approved by the Trump administration, the pace of approval and construction of such projects on public lands is expected to accelerate under President Joe Biden as part of an effort to meet climate goals. Earlier this month, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced her department’s approval of a 350-mw solar installation in the California desert near Blythe. 

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ARIDIFICATION WATCH: It’s only May, but the warming climate and resulting long-term drought are already hitting some parts of the Western U.S. in harrowing and heartbreaking ways. Perhaps the biggest victim is the Klamath River watershed in northern California and southern Oregon, where salmon are dying en masse due to low streamflows and a major irrigation canal has been shut off. The area is experiencing its driest winter of the last 127 years. 

As if that’s not bad enough, the Klamath National Forest has also seen a number of small wildfires start in recent days. Far further inland, a brush fire burned 133 acres on the fringe of Cortez, Colorado, earlier this month and residents of part of Bisbee, Arizona, were evacuated last week due to a fire burning nearby. The most threatening fire burning as of Monday morning was the Palisades fire near Los Angeles, which had forced the evacuation of 1,000 people in the Topanga Canyon area. Officials suspect it was a case of arson and are seeking suspects. 

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Drought clearly has a detrimental effect on river health both directly (see above) and indirectly when it results in wildfires. However, given time, a river can heal—from wildfire, at least—according to a recent update from the Durango, Colorado-based Mountain Studies Institute. The Institute has been monitoring the health of Hermosa Creek—a major tributary to the Animas River—since the 416 Fire burned a good portion of the watershed in 2018. 

Monsoon rains that followed the fire caused massive debris flows in the burn scar and sent large quantities of silt and ash into both Hermosa Creek and the Animas River, turning them both a black color for miles downstream and substantially affecting fish and aquatic bug habitat. “However, conditions have improved incrementally each year since the fire,” the report notes, “indicating a recovery trajectory back toward pre-fire conditions.”

MSI also tracked the impacts of the Gold King Mine blowout of 2015 and found that bug and fish populations had recovered within months after the event. 

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BIG BREAKDOWN TICKER: The U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that coal producers delivered 22 percent less coal to the electricity sector in 2020 than the year before. Coal deliveries have been in decline for over a decade, but the reduced demand for power last year due to the coronavirus hit the fossil fuel harder than other fuels on the grid. 

Only two months of data are in so far for 2021, but it appears as if coal consumption will be significantly higher this year than in 2020, at least for the first quarter, due perhaps to slightly higher natural gas prices and colder temperatures in some parts of the country this past winter. 

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What a difference an election can make. On April 30, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced that Sarah Krakoff would be joining the administration as Interior’s deputy solicitor for parks and wildlife. Krakoff has been a law professor at University of Colorado for years, specializing in environmental justice and Native American law. She founded the Acequia Assistance Project in the San Luis Valley of Colorado and directed CU’s American Indian Law Clinic. 

Krakoff replaces Karen Budd-Falen in the post, a zealous leader of the Wise Use movement (see above). 

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It was evening rush hour in Montrose, a mid-sized town on Colorado’s Western Slope, when I found myself in my tiny, 30-year-old car, swimming down a river of outbound traffic composed mostly of giant, late-model, American brand pickup trucks. Even in that crowd, the shiny black truck merging into the vehicle-stream from the east was conspicuous with its tinted windows, its black wheels, and the aggressive way in which the driver was maneuvering through the thick traffic.

At one point the guy—through the dark windows he looked to be in his twenties—swerved in front of a Subaru and then accelerated, spewing a big black cloud of diesel smoke from the fat tailpipe. It was bad enough to obscure the smaller car from view for a brief moment.

I think I rolled my eyes at that, but figured it wasn’t on purpose—it couldn’t have been, right? But then I saw him do the same thing again to another small car in the lane next to mine. The flow of cars in my lane sped up, meaning I passed the guy and was able to get a closer look. That’s when I noticed the sticker on his back window that proclaimed: “Diesel Smoke Matters.” I was so befuddled that I almost drove into the windshield-level bumper of the truck ahead of me. And then, before I had a chance to pull out my phone and take a picture, the guy pulled ahead of me and blew smoke right into my little car’s face.

I had my windows rolled up, so no harm done. In fact, at first I just laughed at the guy’s stupidity; it was almost as if he was playing a caricature of a cartoon redneck. But then, as he drove ahead of me and continued to do the same thing to nearly every car that wasn’t a big truck, I got angry. When that wore off I just became depressed.

It occurred to me that this guy was a symbol of so much that ails America right now: toxic masculinity, fossil-fuel-fetishization, giant cars, a sense of entitlement, and, judging by the sticker, racism and bigotry. In addition to all of that, the guy was just a malicious jerk.

I wish I had some sort of wisdom regarding how this, too, will pass. I don’t. Instead, I can only throw my hands up and sigh, sadly.

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WHAT ELSE WE’RE READING: A strong story from Dave Philipps about how wild horses going to foster homes under the BLM’s adoption incentive program are actually being sold to slaughterhouses. It’s a good, but sad, read.

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