Obama declares national monuments in Nevada and Utah

President Barack Obama gave a late Christmas present to environmental protection advocates and Native American tribes by declaring federal land in Nevada and Utah as national monuments.

The Dec. 28 move by the White House covers about 1.64 million acres of Bureau of Land Management and USDA Forest Service land. Included are about 300,000 acres in Nevada and about 1.35 million acres in southeastern Utah.

“Today’s actions will help protect this cultural legacy and will ensure that future generations are able to enjoy and appreciate these scenic and historic landscapes,” Obama said in a statement.

gold-butte-national-monument-map
This map of the new Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada shows its close proximity to the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument in Arizona and Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Map courtesy U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

The new Nevada preserve, to be known as Gold Butte National Monument, is in Clark County, northeast of Las Vegas. A fact sheet released by the White House pointed to its importance as a connective corridor between Lake Mead Recreation Area and Grand Canyon-Parishant National Monument in northern Arizona.

Obama, in the formal proclamation creating the national monument, specifically highlighted the area’s Native American artifacts, 19th century ranch buildings, artifacts from the Spanish exploration of the area centuries ago, fossilized dinosaur tracks, and wildlife habitat.

“The Gold Butte area contains an extraordinary variety of diverse and irreplaceable scientific, historic, and prehistoric resources, including vital plant and wildlife habitat, significant geological formations, rare fossils, important sites from the history of Native Americans, and remnants of our Western mining and ranching heritage. The landscape reveals a story of thousands of years of human interaction with this harsh environment and provides a rare glimpse into the lives of Nevada’s first inhabitants, the rich and varied indigenous cultures that followed, and the eventual arrival of Euro-American settlers. Canyons and intricate rock formations are a stunning backdrop to the area’s famously beautiful rock art, and the desert provides critical habitat for the threatened Mojave desert tortoise.”

– Presidential Proclamation: Establishment of the Gold Butte National Monument, Dec. 28, 2016

Among the species that will benefit from the increased restrictions on natural resource use that comes with the national monument designation are Mojave desert tortoise, mountain lions, and desert bighorn sheep.

The designation of Gold Butte National Monument was pushed for many years by outgoing U.S. Senate majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Reid said in a statement that the new national monument represents what “Nevada once was.”

gold-butte-national-monument-photo-by-wendy-harrell-courtesy-blm
This photo shows some of the land included in the new Gold Butte National Monument. Image courtesy U.S. Bureau of Land Management, photo by Wendy Harrell.

Gold Butte National Monument is the third one to be designated by Obama in Nevada.

In July 2015 the President designated Basin and Range National Monument there. That preserve includes 704,000 acres in two remote southeastern counties.

In 2014 Obama declared the Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument, which encompasses 22,650 acres of land containing Ice Age-vintage paleontological artifacts.

The Utah preserve will be known as Bears Ears National Monument.

Named for two buttes that have similar names in several Native American languages, the protection of cultural artifacts the new national monument affords has been avidly sought by the region’s tribes for at least eight decades.

bears-ears-buttes
The Bears Ears buttes are the namesake of a new national monument in Utah. Photo courtesy Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, photo by Tim Peterson.

More than two dozen tribes, representing native Americans across the U.S, had asked Obama to preserve about 1.9 million acres in the Bears Ears area.

Long heralded as one of the few remaining unspoiled areas in the West, the region has experienced a significant increase in vandalism and looting of sacred sites. The  National Trust for Historic Preservation named it one of the 11 most endangered historic sites in the U.S. last year, specifically noting that BLM has lacked both funds and staff needed to protect its archaeological resources.

Obama’s proclamation establishing the preserve paid homage to the area’s importance to the country’s indigenous peoples:

“For hundreds of generations, native peoples lived in the surrounding deep sandstone canyons, desert mesas, and meadow mountaintops, which constitute one of the densest and most significant cultural landscapes in the United States. Abundant rock art, ancient cliff dwellings, ceremonial sites, and countless other artifacts provide an extraordinary archaeological and cultural record that is important to us all, but most notably the land is profoundly sacred to many Native American tribehttps://wordpress.com/post/naturalresourcestoday.org/4571s, including the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah Ouray, Hopi Nation, and Zuni Tribe.”

– Presidential Proclamation: Establishment of the Bears Ears National Monument, Dec. 28, 2016

At the core of Bears Ears National Monument is Cedar Mesa, which includes at least 56,000 cultural artifacts, the vistas of Muley Point, and the origin of at least twelve canyons. Some of the native artifacts there date back at least 12,000 years.

muley-point-looking-south-photo-courtesy-wikimedia
This photo shows the vista from Muley Point, looking toward the south. Image courtesy Wikimedia.

In addition to the Bears Ears buttes, the new national monument includes the Abajo Mountains and Elk Ridge, Beef Basin, Chimney Rocks, Comb Ridge, Indian Creek and Harts Draw, Moqui Canyon, Mancos Mesa, Nokai Dome, Red Canyon, Valley of the Gods, White Canyon, and the confluence of the San Juan and Colorado rivers.

bears-ears-national-monument-map
This map shows the proximity of Bears Ears National Monument to Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and several tribal nations. Map courtesy U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Obama’s proclamation also gave Native Americans a formal role in management of the new national monument, a first under the Antiquities Act, by establishing a commission of tribal leaders to advise BLM and USDA Forest Service land managers in the region.

Bears Ears National Monument will protect more than cultural assets. The area also includes arches, canyons, hoodoos, and natural bridges, making it geologically unique, as well as fossils that extend from Earth’s Permian period through the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras of geologic time.

petroglyph-comb-ridge-bears-ears-photo-by-josh-ewing-photo-courtesy-bears-ears-intertribal-coalition
This image shows petroglyphs on Comb Ridge. Photo courtesy Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, photo by Josh Ewing.

Environmentalists, too, lauded Obama’s move.

In preserving the iconic Bears Ears, President Obama has made conservation history,” Rhea Suh, the president of Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. “These lands will now be safe from mining, drilling and other threats.”

Opponents of Bears Ears National Monument, including Republicans in the Utah Congressional delegation, promised a fight over the designation.

Rep. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, both of whom represent rural regions of the Beehive State, introduced in a bill during the 114th Congress that would have set aside some of the Bears Ears region as wilderness. Native American leaders did not support it, however, after concluding that their perspective was not being considered by the two anti-public land congressmen.

Bishop and Chaffetz incorporated their “Public Lands Initiative” into a bill, H.R. 5780, that cleared the House Natural Resources Committee but did not receive a floor vote. It is not clear whether it could pass the U.S. Senate, though Utah’s two senators have also expressed opposition to Obama’s move.

Deseret News reported Dec. 29 that Chaffetz, in his role as chair of the House Oversight and Government Operations Committee, demanded that the administration turn over documents relating to the designation of both Bears Ears National Monument and Gold Butte National Monument.

The state’s attorney general also announced on Dec. 28 that he would sue in an effort to obtain a federal court order overturning Obama’s action in creating Bears Ears National Monument.

No obvious precedent indicates that such a lawsuit would succeed. The U.S. Supreme Court has, on several occasions, upheld unilateral Presidential authority to designate national monuments, even in cases of large swaths of public land such as the Bears Ears region.

Obama has now designated or increased the size of 29 national monuments that include more than 550 million acres of land or sea. He has made the second-most use of the Antiquities Act of 1906, following only President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Justices will not hear dispute over Tongass exemption to national forest roadless area protection

View from Deer Mountain Trail
This photo shows a portion of the Tongass National Forest. Image courtesy USDA Forest Service.

The U.S. Supreme Court will not take up a long-running dispute over preserving large areas of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest from logging.

The justices declined Monday to grant a petition for certiorari in the case, which involves an exemption from the landmark 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule, and allowed a lower court decision that bans regulatory changes based solely on political considerations to stand.

“Today’s court order is great news for southeast Alaska and for all those who visit this spectacular place,” Tom Waldo, an attorney at Earthjustice who represented environmental groups in the case, said.

Encompassing nearly 17 million acres, the Tongass is the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest. It extends along the coast of southeast Alaska for about 500 miles, with a variety of bays, coves, fjords, and glaciers within the national forest boundaries, and constitutes about seven percent of Alaska’s land. Wildlife found in the forest include salmon, wolves, brown and black bears, bald eagles, and the Arctic tern.

RACR was adopted by the administration of President William J. Clinton in January 2001, just days before the inauguration of a new President.  It did not initially exempt the Tongass. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service decided, during the process leading to RACR’s establishment, that the “long-term ecological benefits to the nation of conserving these inventoried roadless areas outweigh the potential economic loss to [southeast Alaska] communities.”

In 2003 the agency reversed itself. The agency, which had come under the leadership of President George W. Bush’s appointees, reached a conclusion exactly opposite to the one it had in 2001. This time, USDA Forest Service decided that “the social and economic hardships to Southeast Alaska outweigh the potential long-term ecological benefits” of RACR.

The Bush administration granted the RACR exemption to the Tongass as part of a settlement of a legal challenge to RACR filed by Alaska.

Environmental groups, an Alaskan native village, and a non-profit boat touring company challenged the exemption under the federal law that governs agency rulemaking. A divided panel of 11 judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in July 2015 that the agency had not adequately explained its change of mind.

Alaska asked the justices to review that decision on grounds that the San Francisco-based appeals court had read a 2009 opinion of the Supreme Court too broadly by assuming that it forbids changes in policy that are dictated by ideology.

That 2009 decision held that agencies must demonstrate “good reasons” for a change in policy direction indicated by a final regulation and that an explanation of that change has to include a “reasoned explanation . . . for disregarding the facts and circumstances that underlay or were engendered by the prior policy.”

USDA Forest Service is considering changes to the existing management plan for the Tongass that would permit continued old-growth logging for another 15 years. The agency released its proposed amendment to the Tongass National Forest Management Plan in Nov. 2015; it is likely to be adopted late this year.

President Barack Obama’s secretary of agriculture,  Tom Vilsack, directed the Forest Service in 2013 to shift timber production on the Tongass away from old-growth stands and toward young trees.

The case in which the Supreme Court declined to grant review is Alaska v. Organized Village of Kake, No. 15-467.

Forest Service slaps Idaho wildlife agency for collaring wolves in wilderness area

The supervisor of an Idaho national forest has declared that the Gem State’s fish and wildlife agency violated a permit allowing use of a helicopter in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness area by collaring wolves.

Salmon-Challis National Forest supervisor Chuck Mark entered an order of noncompliance on Wednesday.

“Helicopter landings in the Frank to collar wolves were not authorized, and constitute noncompliance with the terms and conditions of the permit,” Mark said.

Idaho’s Department of Fish & Game had been granted the permit on Jan. 6 so that the agency could collar elk in the Middle Fork section of the wilderness area. That operation was started on Jan. 7 and finished Jan. 9.

Environmental advocacy organizations have filed a lawsuit challenging the permit as a violation of the Wilderness Act. They also sought an injunction that would prevent the helicopter flights. No hearing on that request has occurred.

Four wolves were collared in violation of the permit granted to IDFG. Mark’s order of noncompliance does not require those collars to be removed. Instead, IDFG must “provide information as to how and why the decision to collar the wolves was made,” “participate in an after-action review with the Forest Service” during which the two agencies will examine why the helicopter landings to collar wolves in the wilderness area occurred, and “develop a plan to assure that IDFG will not utilize helicopter landings in the wilderness for any purposes other than those for which the Forest Service specifically approves landings in any future permits that may be issued.”

IDFG notified the Forest Service of the violation. The state agency called the wolf collaring incident a “mistake.”

The environmental group plaintiffs in the litigation pending before U.S. district judge B. Lynn Winmill have amended their complaint to ask that the court bar IDFG from using collar data to track wolves.

“There is every reason to believe that these new wolf collars will be used by a state trapper to locate wolves for the purpose of killing them in pursuit of a program to manipulate wildlife populations that is fundamentally at odds with the concept of wilderness,” Tim Preso, an attorney at Earthjustice who represents the environmental advocacy organizations, said in a statement.

Environmental groups challenge Forest Service permit authorizing helicopter use in wilderness

Gray Wolf - courtesy USFWS, photo by Gary Kramer
The gray wolf (Canis lupus) is hunted in several western states. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, photo by Gary Kramer.

The Obama administration is taking heat over a decision to allow the use of helicopters in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.

Attorneys representing a coalition of environmental advocacy organizations filed a lawsuit in federal court in Boise, arguing that the plan violates the Wilderness Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

It is the second time the agency has become enmeshed in controversy over the issue of helicopter use by the state of Idaho. The earlier go-round involved the state of Idaho’s effort to support the federal government’s re-introduction of gray wolves to the wilderness area. U.S. district judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled in a Feb. 2010 decision that the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service could permit the state’s Fish and Game Department to carry out helicopter monitoring of the wolves, but also made clear that its permission indicated a rare exception to the Wilderness Act’s general prohibition of machinery in protected reserves.

This time, the Forest Service has granted a permit to the Idaho Department of Fish & Game so that it can tag elk within the wilderness area. A Jan. 6 notice by the Forest Service said that IDFG would be allowed to make as many as 120 helicopter landings inside the preserve.

The state agency wants to tag the elk as part of its obligation to facilitate hunting.

“Our goal is to manage those [elk] populations in a way that there will be a surplus for hunting and to reduce impacts and instances where, perhaps, predation by wolves, bears, or mountain lions may also be impacting that potential surplus,” Michael Keckler, a spokesperson for IDFG, explained.

IDFG has said that it wants to kill sixty percent of the wolves in the Frank Church-River of No Return wilderness.

The Idaho fish and wildlife agency argued in a 2014 document that the number of elk in the 1.7 million-acre Middle Fork Zone of the wilderness area declined by more than 40 percent between 2002 and 2011. “It’s been five years since we were in there and really been able to see what’s going on,” Keckler said. “We’re pretty sure those declines have continued.”

IDFG has indicated that it believes predation is a major cause of elk population declines in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. “Based on population modeling, the MFZ elk population is expected to continue to decline at [three] to [seven percent] annually if predation rates are not reduced,” the agency said in its Predation Management Plan for the Middle Fork Elk Zone. The IDFG plan also specifically blamed wolves for a significant portion of the decline.

Opponents of the state fish and wildlife agency’s plan disagree that predators are the culprit for any decline in the number of elk inhabiting the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.

“I think, historically, elk populations, they weren’t that high in these areas,” Ken Cole, a biologist with Western Watersheds Project, said. “It’s not what you would consider high quality elk habitat. It was more of a bighorn sheep-mule deer habitat. The reason that elk populations got so high in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and early 90s is because they eradicated the wolf population and the grizzly population. You would expect the population of elk to decline once the native predators were reestablished.”

The Wilderness Act, which was enacted into law in 1964, includes broad language indicating that helicopters are, for the most part, forbidden in wilderness areas. Section 4(c) of the Wilderness Act provides:

“Except as specifically provided for in this Act, and subject to existing private rights, there shall be no commercial enterprise and no permanent road within any wilderness area designated by this Act and except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this Act (including measures required in emergencies involving the health and safety of persons within the area), there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.”

Federal courts have interpreted the phrase “administration of the area” to authorize only those activities that advance a protected preserve’s “wilderness character.”

Winmill’s 2010 decision in Wolf Recovery Foundation v. U.S. Forest Service indicates that he may be skeptical of the Forest Service’s effort to extend helicopter use beyond monitoring of wolves to monitoring of wolf prey. “[H]elicopter use in a wilderness area is antithetical to a wilderness experience, and that the approval of the single project at issue [in that case] — based on unique facts — is unlikely to be repeated,” he wrote in her opinion.

A USDA Forest Service regional forester in Arizona reached a similar conclusion last year.

Salmon-Challis National Forest supervisor Chuck Mark authorized the IDFG plan without requiring USDA Forest Service personnel to complete an environmental impact statement. He wrote in a Jan. 6 Record of Decision that the agency’s authorization of helicopter landings is “very restrictive” and that the aircraft will be permitted to land only in a “mere fraction” of the Middle Fork Zone. Mark did not specify the exact amount of the wilderness area’s acreage that would be directly impacted by helicopter landings or by helicopter flights overhead.

“The map that we’ve seen shows it to be a fairly significant area,” Cole said. “I’d say probably 20 to 30 percent of it.”

The landings would occur on one or more of USDA Forest Service’s eight airstrips within the wilderness area.

According to an editorial column published by Mark in the Jan. 7 edition of the Idaho Statesman, IDFG plans to land helicopters in the Middle Fork Zone on five days between mid-January and March 31.

The Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness encompasses more than 2.3 million acres and is the largest forested designated wilderness area in the country. During 2014 observers noted the presence of 119 wolf packs in Idaho. IDFG thinks the wolf population might be a little lower than that.

“Last year we documented 104 packs within the state,” Keckler said.

About eight of those packs are resident to the Middle Fork Zone of the wilderness area.

Wolves in the northern Rockies were protected by the Endangered Species Act from 1973 until April 2011, when President Barack Obama signed a budget bill that included a rider that forced the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to remove Canis lupus in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah, and Washington from the list of threatened and endangered species.

The plaintiffs in the Idaho case include Friends of the Clearwater, Western Watersheds Project, and Wilderness Watch. They seek an injunction to prevent the helicopter landings from going forward.

Winmill has been assigned to hear the case for the Idaho federal court, Cole said.

BLM pulls back from Idaho hunting contest

The Bureau of Land Management reversed course Tuesday on its previous authorization of a contest to kill gray wolves, coyotes, and other wildlife on Idaho public lands.

Gray wolves were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act until a bill passed by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama in April 2011 compelled an end to their protection.

The agency revoked a five-year permit that had been granted on Nov. 13 to organizers of a “predator derby” to be held on BLM and Forest Service lands near Salmon.

Idaho Falls district manager Joe Kraayenbrink explained that elimination of entry fees for killing contest participants and confusion as to the nature or extent of prizes to be awarded were “factual uncertainties” that prevented BLM from deciding appropriate conditions for the permit.

“As IFW plans have more fully developed over time, our analyses did not fully appreciate and capture important aspects of how IFW envisions or ultimately intends the Derby to actually take place,” Kraayenbrink wrote in an announcement of the permit rescission.

Kraayenbrink referred to Idaho for Wildlife, the organizer of the predator hunt.

Environmental advocacy organizations had challenged the issuance of the permit in federal court. A lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in Boise on the same day BLM had issued the permit authorizing mass killing of wildlife alleged that BLM and its sister agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to prepare a study of environmental impacts resulting from the participation in the planned massacre of up to 500 hunters.

The extent of BLM’s NEPA compliance with regard to the hunt had been a Finding of No Significant Impact, which is a conclusion that an activity planned for the public lands will have no significant environmental consequence.

During last year’s version of the event, which was apparently the first wolf-killing contest in the United States in 40 years, participants killed 21 coyotes and no gray wolves.

Organizers had made available prizes to the hunters who killed the largest gray wolf and the most coyotes.

They also explicitly encouraged the participation of children and gave unique awards to hunters who were not adults.

The plaintiffs in the Nov. 13 lawsuit also suggested that both agencies violated their own regulations by allowing the event to proceed.

The killing contest, which is set for Jan. 2-4, 2015, is still authorized on the Salmon-Challis National Forest. USDA Forest Service did not require hunt organizers to obtain any permit at all.