Tag Archive | "federal lands"

New Studies Highlight the Value of National Wildlife Refuges to Visitors and Communities

With visitation steadily rising each year – up to 45 million people in 2011 – national wildlife refuges are clearly popular destinations, but their value to visitors and the economy has remained largely unquantified.  Two new studies are helping to remedy that problem.

Last month, the U.S. Geological Survey released the results of a study that surveyed more than 10,000 visitors to 53 national wildlife refuges around the nation.  Approximately 90 percent of respondents expressed satisfaction with the recreational opportunities, services, and information provided at the wildlife refuges.  In addition, the survey measured visitor spending in nearby communities.  At Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, for example, average spending in the area by nonlocal visitors was $82 per day, while local visitors averaged $45 per day in spending.  These expenditures can add up.  According to the 2006 Banking on Nature report, visitors to the nation’s wildlife refuges that year contributed approximately $1.7 billion in sales to local economies.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to release an updated version of that report later this year.

A separate study released last week adds to a growing body of evidence that being located in close proximity to protected open spaces boosts home values.  Researchers from North Carolina State University focused on urban national wildlife refuges in three regions of the country and found that homes within one-half mile of those refuges were valued three to nine percent higher than those located further from a refuge.  Wildlife refuges included in the study were found to boost local property values by $122 million in the Southeast, $95 million in the Northeast, and $83 million in the California/Nevada region.  An upcoming report on ecosystem services will offer an additional measure of the economic value of America’s wildlife refuges.

Though these benefits are undeniably significant, the National Wildlife Refuge System has consistently lacked the congressional investment needed to reach its full potential.  Even at its highest funding level in FY 2010, the Refuge System received only $503 million – little more than half the $900 million that the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement estimates is needed for the agency to fulfill its conservation mission.  Unfortunately, as Congress looks to make good on the debt deal reached last summer, the Refuge System could see its appropriations slashed by 10 percent or more.  These cuts could force many refuges to eliminate recreation programs or close their doors entirely, and many of the demonstrated benefits that they provide to visitors and to local economies will be lost.

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Defenders offers recommendations for sage-grouse conservation

Defenders offers recommendations for sage-grouse conservation

Photo: C. Robert Smith Elk Meadow ImagesNational Geographic Stock

Defenders submitted comments today to the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service highlighting important issues as the agencies undertake to revise their land use plans to conserve and recover the greater sage-grouse. A few key points from our comments:

  • A scientific panel selected by the BLM outlined conservation measures that are an important starting point for this process in the 2011 ‘Report on National Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation Measures’These conservation measures should be put into practice to the fullest extent possible throughout the greater sage-grouse range.
  • The agencies indicate that they plan to use “adaptive management”. In order to do so effectively, we urge them to develop a scientifically legitimate adaptive management strategy that commits to reduce uncertainty and improve conservation through the use of ecologically grounded quantitative triggers rather than simply providing the agencies with flexibility and discretion that result in “trial and error” management.
  • BLM and the Forest Service should not assume that as long as “some” regulatory mechanisms are put in place, they will be adequate to avoid listing under the ESA.  There are other factors that will go into a decision whether to list the greater sage-grouse, and these two agencies represent only part of the picture.  Instead, they should approach this process understanding that listing could still occur, and use this analysis and planning to both try to avoid listing and to be better prepared if listing is unavoidable.
  • A targeted multispecies approach is more efficient than a narrow single-species approach; by looking at what other wildlife species can benefit from sagebrush ecosystem conservation, the agencies take advantage of the opportunity at hand, and gain additional benefits from work already being done.
  • The agencies should develop a mitigation framework and policies that achieve a measurable “net conservation benefit” standard.  It is necessary that any development within the sage-grouse range leave the bird better off than it was – holding steady at the status quo will not be enough to recover the species.
  • The Forest Service should play a key role.  They operate under wildlife protection regulations and policies that are unique from those that govern the BLM.  They must meet all of their existing statutory, regulatory and policy obligations in this conservation and decision making process.  In addition, the Forest Service must strive to embrace emerging conservation policy goals found in the new National Forest Management Act planning regulations.
  • We encourage BLM and FS to fully consider the risks caused by renewable energy development to sage-grouse and the sagebrush steppe ecosystem and to err on the side of caution in the development of new management standards and conservation measures.

You can read our full comments here.

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Bills to “give away” public lands move forward despite harms to wildlife and water

Congressman McCarthy’s Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act seeks to give away some of the last best places on our public lands, and allow private industrial development to move forward in these valuable areas.  The bill would reverse protections on up to 55 million acres of Inventoried Roadless Areas (IRAs) in National Forests and 6.7 million acres of Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs).

However, a timely report from the Geos Institute shows that there is a great deal of value in protecting unroaded areas, like IRAs and WSAs, throughout our public lands.  The report indicates that the roadless areas in our national forests alone are responsible for approximately $490 million in water purification services.  These benefits go beyond the dollar value of clean water – they provide healthy aquatic ecosystems and vital habitat for endangered and imperiled species.

The Tongass National Forest is threatened by a new Alaska-specific bill.

Despite these benefits, McCarthy’s bill to undo protections on as much as 60 million acres of our public lands has been scheduled for a hearing this Tuesday, and it will be interesting to find out what arguments bill supporters use to try and explain away the vast reach of the bill.  No doubt their primary message will be that lands currently designated as Roadless and Wilderness Study Areas are “locked up” and cannot be used by industry.  This argument truly misses the mark, as I’ve discussed before, and as the Geos report indicates regarding water, just one of many valuable services provided by undeveloped lands.  Defenders of Wildlife has developed a Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act fact sheet with additional information on its potential impacts, as have some of our partners.

While McCarthy’s bill is attacking Wilderness Study and Inventoried Roadless Areas nationwide, some members of the Congressional delegation from Alaska have put forth their own, Alaska-specific bill that would exempt the Tongass and the Chugach National Forests from roadless protections.  This means that all of the designated roadless areas in Alaska would be released and be on the table for development.  Roadless areas in Alaska cover about 15 million acres and contain some of the largest intact areas of old growth temperate rainforest on the planet.  The radical move of exposing these vast areas to development would deliver a setback to the Tongass National Forest where a transition from damaging and controversial roadless and old growth logging toward more sustainable economic development promises to support communities and maintain the healthy and unique ecosystems of southeast Alaska.

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“No More Wilderness” bill introduced in Congress

“No More Wilderness” bill introduced in Congress

The Coronado National Forest supports the “sky island” ecosystems of the southwest, some of the most unique and biodiverse areas on our public lands. Portions of the sky islands would be put at risk by this bill.

Companion bills in the House and Senate have been introduced that would strip areas of our public lands currently managed for their wilderness characteristics of their protected status.  If the “Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act of 2011” were to pass, 43 million acres of Inventoried Roadless Areas on Forest Service lands and Wilderness Study Areas throughout our public lands would no longer be protected, including portions of the sky islands in the Coronado National Forest in Arizona.  The bill would also forbid the land management agencies from providing new protections for these “released” areas in the future, effectively preventing them from being designated as permanently protected Wilderness by Congress and opening them up for development.

What’s worse is that the determination of whether a roadless or wilderness area should be stripped of its protections now and into the future would be based on old information without gathering any new data, and with no input from agency experts and scientists or the public.  This means that areas currently providing high quality habitat for wildlife and supporting healthy ecosystems would be exposed to potential development (including timber harvesting, oil and gas drilling, coal mining and more) without any consideration of those natural values.

Supporters of the bill argue that these areas are being managed as “de facto” Wilderness and that “capital W” Wilderness can only be designated by Congress.  While it’s true that only Congress can designate “capital W” Wilderness, they’re missing a lot of important facts in this argument:

First, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service both have multiple use mandates, which support activities like energy development BUT ALSO give these agencies authority to manage for wilderness characteristics and things like wildlife habitat and biodiversity.  This means that these agencies have plenty of authority for designating areas as roadless or wilderness study and managing them for these resources as a precursor to suggesting that Congress make a “capital W” Wilderness designation.

Second, this argument places the needs of industry ahead of the needs of the public who are, after all, the owners of our public lands.  They characterize these areas as being “locked up” from development instead of recognizing that these areas are open to the public for all kinds of valuable uses that are consistent with BLM and Forest Service missions, including recreation and supporting our national heritage of biodiversity and wildlife.  These uses also support our local economies through tourism, the recreation industry, and ecosystem services (like clean water).

Instead of focusing on developing smart policies that balance the many demands on our public lands, like efforts to direct development onto the already degraded areas on our public lands, this bill would open up the most spectacular pieces of our national heritage to development and could have devastating impacts on the wildlife that take refuge in these protected areas.

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Forest rule receives national interest

Forest rule receives national interest

As the public comment period on the Forest Service proposed planning rule came to an end last week, newspapers around the country provided extensive coverage of the concerns brought forth by the public and weighed in on the proposed rule through editorials.  Some clips and highlights are provided below.

From The Los Angeles Times:

Hundreds of conservationists, scientists and federal lawmakers have called the proposed new rules a big improvement but say it’s crucial that the Forest Service go several steps further in spelling out protections for watersheds and wildlife to ensure that the national forest system remains a bulwark to guarantee healthy wildlife populations and clean water.

“We have always maintained that our federal lands, our public lands, should be the front lines of healthy landscapes. They should be the front line of species conservation,” Jamie Rappaport Clark, former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director, now with the Defenders of Wildlife, told reporters in a briefing organized by the Pew Environment Group. “But the rule is actually far weaker than the almost 30-year-old rule it would replace.”

From The AP:

. . . Jamie Rappaport Clark, a Defenders of Wildlife executive and former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director . . . said forest supervisors being given unprecedented discretion under the new rules need strong standards and guidelines to resist the political pressure they regularly face in making decisions on managing their lands.

Opinion piece from The Olympian:

The Forest Service is proposing a new set of management rules. The new proposal has some laudable features. It acknowledges the crucial importance of maintaining federal forests in good ecological condition. And it’s full of sound concepts and helpful guidance for managers.

Where the rubber meets the road, though, it falls naively short.

It fails to deliver the kind of strong direction that saved Washington’s forests the last time around. Instead, it leaves the tough choices to local decision makers. It counts on them to make the right call no matter how much pressure they’re under from commercial interests and politicians, how little time and budget they have to track down and learn the relevant facts and science.

That’s not the kind of uncertainty we need for these forests. We need to take harmful options off the table. We need strong rules that will keep local agency officials out of trouble. We need something we can rely on to restore and maintain thriving fish and wildlife populations, clear-running rivers, and old growth forests.

Editorial from The Santa Fe New Mexican:

Suddenly, science’s role is reduced; the managers of 155 national forests and grasslands still will need to nod in its direction — but may feel free to ignore scientific findings as they consider industrial impact on clean water, fish and wildlife habitat and endangered-species protection. Hint, hint: If a developer sells a bill of goods about his project’s economic impact, well maybe biologists’ and geologists’ concerns about environmental effects aren’t that important after all …

Editorial from The Missoulian:

The proposed rule contains a number of changes, many of them word substitutions whose importance may be difficult to discern without deeper research. What, for instance, are the ramifications of re-naming “indicator species” to “species of concern” when it comes to endangered species management? Or of placing greater emphasis on the impacts of climate change? Or of emphasizing the importance of science in decision-making??

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Defenders submits formal comments on Obama’s forest rule

Today our staff has submitted a full set of comments to the Forest Service on the National Forest Management Act planning rule, which we have been blogging about for several months now.  Our comments provide workable fixes to the proposed rule’s primary problem areas, mainly in the areas of assessment, species diversity management, and monitoring, which are the key components of adaptive, science-based land management planning and decision-making.  We provide the agency with meaningful recommendations to better align the rule’s aspirations with its words.  Generally, we offer suggestions on how to better facilitate adaptive management and effective decision-making.  In many cases this requires clarification and better prescription of process.  We do not feel that enhanced clarity in any way detracts from the ability of the rule to facilitate efficient planning, in fact we strongly believe that clarity and prescription of process ensures that the rule will be applied as it is intended.

We offer clear suggestions for improving the critically important diversity provisions.  The agency has proposed a management strategy that is strong in concept, yet poor in design.  Our recommendations to improve the design include:

1)  Clarifying that the purpose of the coarse-filter species diversity protection is to provide for the long-term persistence of individual species

2)  Providing “focal species” with a more robust role in validating the resiliency and health of ecosystems

3)  Prescribing a process to identify and develop targeted plan components for species of conservation concern

4)  Clarifying the definition of a “viable population” of a species of wildlife

5)  Providing a means to determine when conditions outside the authority of the agency make it impossible to meet the rule’s species diversity requirements

Similar recommendations are made for other key areas of the rule – including climate change, watersheds, and public process – with the intent of giving this rule the structure that it will need to long remain the cornerstone of forest planning and management.

Read the full letter on our website.  You can also read a statement regarding the proposed rule and the close of the public comment period from Defenders’ Vice President, Jamie Rappaport Clark, and media stories from around the country.

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Too Special to Drill?

Earlier this month Defenders, along with some of our partners, submitted a letter calling for greater conservation measures to be incorporated into a proposed drilling project on the Bridger-Teton National Forest in eastern Wyoming, near Yellowstone National Park.  Our very own Dave Gaillard provided his expertise on lynx in an effort to show the Forest Service that this area may be, simply put, too special to drill.

lynxOne of the key issues that makes this project so important (and frightening) to Defenders of Wildlife is habitat connectivity – full field development of more than 300 acres in this area will lead to further fragmentation of habitat for lynx, as well as other iconic species in the region like elk.  Fragmentation is a problem because not only does it lead to less habitat for lynx and (as important) lynx prey, it also contributes to the separation of remaining lynx populations from each other.  This leads to a shallower gene pool and to difficulty moving through the landscape and escaping threats – wide ranging animals like lynx need space if they’re going to survive, and drilling dozens of oil wells in their way certainly won’t help efforts to recover the species.

As Dave puts it: “We are aware of no better documented travel corridor for lynx in the contiguous U.S. than the Hoback Rim, or “Bondurant Corridor” that passes directly through the project area.”  The challenges that lynx and other resources will face if this project moves forward as designed inspired a number of organizations to come together and seek out a solution (from our letter):

“The best solution to protecting these natural values from the development of these leases is to negotiate a buy-out and retirement of the leases . . . . Yet we understand the Forest Service lacks the authority to select this alternative without the consent of the lease holder. Thus we urge the Forest Service to create a new ‘conservation’ alternative for the exploration and development of these leases that can serve as a showcase for drilling in areas of extraordinary value to wildlife and recreation.”

As we state, our first and foremost priority is to see the negotiation of a buy-out of the leases, but this solution requires a great deal of cooperation, and isn’t one the Forest Service necessarily has control over.  The Forest Service does have the ability to influence what the project looks like if it moves forward.  The types of things we would expect out of a “conservation” alternative include project phasing, which would allow only one well pad to be built and operated at a time.  Each well pad would have to be disassembled and the location would be restored before the next pad could be built and drilled.  Such an alternative, along with other mitigation measures, would lay out a realistic way forward in which leases that have given private oil companies certain rights can be honored without permanent damage to the public lands that we all have ownership over.

Though we worry about the lynx, at its core this is a human problem.  Citizens for the Wyoming Range has put together a great video of local residents who attended the Forest Service public meeting on this project, and shared their own concerns.

We look forward to seeing the Forest Service do the right thing for the Hoback basin of Wyoming, as well as the people and wildlife that call it home.

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dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.