Category Archives: Public lands

Tug-of-War over Federal Lands

The Hammonds case in eastern Oregon is the result of a political tug-of-war between ranchers and environmentalists. Congress’ willingness to cater to whichever happens to be most politically powerful has left public land management in a shambles and subject to repeated disputes like this one.

Two acts of Congress, one passed in 1978 and one in 2000, played hidden but key roles in the Hammonds’ case. The Public Range Improvement Act (PRIA) of 1978 was passed at the behest of ranchers, but ultimately it may have worked against them. The Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Act of 2000 was passed in response to environmental lobbying, and it probably generated much of the Hammonds’ hostility to the federal government.

When the Forest Service and later the Grazing Service (forerunner of the BLM) started regulating grazing, they established rules that were similar to rules the ranchers themselves had developed years before the agencies were created. These rules were much like those for mining and water, and included first-in-time, first-in-right and use-it-or-lose-it.

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A Western Film Noir

The more I read about the case of Dwight and Steven Hammond, the more convinced I am that their prison sentences are a gross miscarriage of justice. After conducting prescribed fires on their own land that crossed onto a few acres of federal grasslands, they were convicted of arson on federal lands, which under a 1996 anti-terrorism law carries a five-year mandatory minimum sentence.

The law says, “Whoever maliciously damages or destroys . . . by means of fire or an explosive, any . . . real property in whole or in part owned or possessed by, or leased to, the United States . . . shall be imprisoned for not less than 5 years.” The key word is “maliciously”: there is nothing malicious about starting a prescribed fire, something that is regularly practiced by thousands of landowners as well as the government itself.

In its opinion on the case, the Ninth Circuit concluded that a 2001 fire (which the Hammonds started on their own land but which escaped to federal land) was malicious because Dwight Hammond’s grandson and Steven’s nephew, who was a 13 years old in 2001, “testified that Steven had instructed him to drop lit matches on the ground so as to ‘light up the whole country on fire.'” This betrays a divide between urban and rural cultures. To urbanites such as the judges on the Ninth Circuit, “the whole country” means the entire United States.

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No Good Guys

There are no good guys to cheer for in the militia takeover of an Oregon federal office building on January 2. The ostensible issue is the re-sentencing of two Oregon ranchers–Dwight Hammond and son Steven Hammond–for arson, while the underlying issue is federal land ownership of much of the West.

The arson fires lit by the Hammonds in 2001 and 2006 may have actually represented sensible land management, but the Hammonds lost the high ground by their failure to coordinate with the government agency managing the land they burned. Prescribed fire is a tool used to improve wildlife habitat, increase land productivity, and control wildfire. The 2001 fire aimed at improving productivity, but the government says the ranchers didn’t bother informing the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) they planned to burn until two hours after they lit the fire. While they lit the fire on their own land, it escaped and burned 139 acres of federal land, but that fire probably did not do serious damage to the grassland and they put the fire out themselves.

The 2006 fire was more questionable. A wildfire was burning on BLM land near the Hammond’s ranch, so to defend their land they lit a backfire on their own land. That would be standard procedure except, again, they didn’t tell anyone and when their fire crossed over onto federal land it endangered firefighters who the Hammonds apparently knew were located between the wildfire and their backfire. Due to severe fire hazards, the county had a no-burn rule which the Hammonds apparently violated, but this was hardly a terrorist act.

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Vilsack to Congress: Give Me More Money or I’ll Let the West Burn

Congress rejected the Forest Service plan to give the agency access to up to $2.9 billion a year to suppress wildfires. In response, Secretary of Agriculture threatened to let fires burn up the West unless Congress gives his department more money. In a letter to key members of Congress, Vilsack warned, “I will not authorize transfers from restoration and resilience funding” to suppress fires. If the Forest Service runs out of appropriated funds to fight fires, it will stop fighting them until Congress appropriates additional funds.

This is a stunning example of brinksmanship on the part of an agency once known for its easygoing nature. Since about 1990, Congress has given the Forest Service the average of its previous ten years of fire suppression funds. If the agency has to spend more than that amount during a severe fire year, Congress authorized it to borrow funds from its other programs, with the promise that Congress would reimburse those funds later. In other words, during severe fire years, some projects might be delayed for a year–hardly a crisis.

Yet Vilsack and the Forest Service are intent on turning it into a crisis. In a report prominently posted on the Forest Service’s web site, the agency whines about “the rising costs of wildfire operations”–that cost not being the dollar cost but the “effects on the Forest Service’s non-fire work.”

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Restoring the Blank Check

A bill before Congress would practically give the Forest Service a blank check for firefighting. HR 167, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, proposes to allow the Forest Service to tap into federal disaster relief funds whenever its annual firefighting appropriation runs out of money. It’s not quite a blank check as the bill would limit the Forest Service to $2.9 billion in firefighting expenses per year, but that’s not much of a limit (yet), as the most it has ever spent (so far) was in 2006 when it spent $1.501 billion.


The Forest Service puts out fires by dumping money on them.

Having a blank check is nothing new for the Forest Service. In 1908, Congress literally gave the agency a blank check for fire suppression, promising to refund all fire suppression costs at the end of each year. As far as I know, this is the only time in history that a democratically elected legislature gave a bureaucracy a blank check to do anything: even in wartime, the Defense Department had to live within a budget.

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Road Trip

As previously noted, the Antiplanner left Oregon late in October to drive to Austin for a conference. I just returned on Sunday. To keep up my reputation as an expert in public land management, I also visited eight units of the National Park System.


Cedar Breaks National Monument. Click any image for a larger view.

My first park was Cedar Breaks National Monument, and I was lucky enough to arrive after the first snowfall but before the snow got so deep that the road to the park was closed. Most of my photos use a combination of high-dynamic range (HDR) exposures of several different angles stitched together in Photoshop. This means the photos shown here are anywhere from six to 24 different exposures combined together. One nice thing about HDR is that you can shoot directly into the sun and still get great photos.

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Hal Salwasser R.I.P.

The Forest Service has historically been dominated by foresters and engineers, so a wildlife biologist who joined the agency in 1978 wouldn’t expect to advance very far. But after getting a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from the University of California at Berkeley, Hal Salwasser went to work for the Forest Service and quickly moved up within the agency.

In the 1980s, just a few years after he began working for the Forest Service, he was the agency’s deputy national director of wildlife and fisheries. In 1990, Forest Service Chief Dale Robertson was searching for a way out of the environmental controversies that beset the agency and asked Salwasser to run what Robertson called the “New Perspectives” program. Salwasser made an earnest effort to find new ways of managing the national forests. In one sense, the program was a dead end, but in another sense it contributed to major changes including an 80 percent reduction in timber sales.

Salwasser then left the agency for a short time to become the Boone & Crockett Professor at the University of Montana. In this chair, Salwasser not only taught students but hunted and fished with the 100 wealthy members of this exclusive club. “Am I having fun, or what?” he enthused.

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Senior Citizen

The Antiplanner turned 62 on October 1, and I celebrated by buying a “senior pass” from the National Park Service. This $10 pass is supposed to allow me free (or, at least, discounted) entry into every national park for the rest of my life.


Nymph Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. Click image for a larger view.

Since I happened to be in Denver, I first used the pass to visit Rocky Mountain National Park, where I saw and heard elk bugling on my way to the Bear Lake trailhead where I hiked to Nymph, Dream, and Emerald lakes. The Park Service representative at the gate–who admitted he was older than I am–didn’t resent selling me a lifetime pass for just $10.

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Good-Bye Drakes Bay Oyster Co.

Antiplanner readers know that I have no sympathy for Clive Bundy, who has been trespassing on federal lands for two decades and somehow made people feel like he was the victim. Perhaps it seems strange, then, that I have a lot more sympathy for the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, whose operations in California’s Point Reyes National Seashore the National Park Service is trying to shut down.


Incompatible use? As long as the oyster company could avoid using motorized equipment in the part of the bay designated wilderness, oyster growing should be compatible with wilderness. Flickr photo by Earthworm.

At first glance, the facts are similar. Both Bundy and Drakes Bay
used public lands or waters for decades, and were allowed to continue to use those resources after the BLM took over the former and the Park Service took over the latter. Then Congress passed laws–the Endangered Species Act in Bundy’s case and a wilderness law covering the oyster farm–that restricted the use of those resources.

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Blank Check, Here We Come!

Now that forest fires are in the news, someone noticed that President Obama has proposed a new way of funding wild firefighting. Instead of borrowing from its fuels treatment funds when the Forest Service exhausts its regular fire-fighting budget, Obama wants to let the agency draw upon a new “special disaster account” that is “adjusted each year to reflect the 10-year average cost of responding to such events.”

That makes so much sense, because treating excessive firefighting costs by giving the Forest Service more money is exactly like suppressing forest fires by throwing gasoline on them. In case you don’t hear the sarcasm, it makes no sense at all.

Obama is focusing on the wrong problem, the drawdown of funds intended for fuel treatments. The real problem is the incentives the Forest Service has to spend wildly on firefighting.

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