We touched on wildfires in the last newsletter. Recent Congressional testimony by Tom Tidwell, Chief of the U. S. Forest Service, served as a further wakeup call on how expensive it is to fight wildfires. We know from experience that outdoor recreation suffers from wildfires due to a loss of lands to recreate on, but also suffers when funds are diverted from federal recreation programs to fund the fight against wildfires. Here’s a snapshot of what Chief Tidwell had to say in testimony before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Percentage of Forest Service Budget Devoted to Fighting Wildfires
There have been efforts in previous Congresses to fund wildfire expenses in the same way we fund other types of natural disasters, thereby building a “firewall” around normal Forest Service budget items. There seems to be a renewed effort in both the House and the Senate to pass legislation to accomplish this task. We are hoping that in this session there can be agreement on the terms of a natural disaster wildfire fund. Doing so will protect the normal operational needs of the Forest Service, especially for outdoor recreation.
Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has been on Capitol Hill testifying before various committees on the FY 2018 budget submission for the department. The proposed budget calls for the elimination of 4,000 positions from the department, 1,000 of which would come from the Bureau of Land Management.
Early feedback from the Hill generally has not been supportive of the Trump budget and there is more and more talk that spending levels for 2017 will be used as the template for deciding the parameters of the 2018 budget.
At a minimum, we see a reduction in force at the Interior Department through attrition, if nothing else. Meanwhile, the Department is devoid of confirmed political appointees with the exception of the Secretary himself. We view this as a serious management problem. While David Bernhardt, Deputy Secretary designate, has had his nomination reported out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, no time has been set for his nomination to be considered on the Senate floor. Elsewhere in the department, the following agencies are led by acting directors with no one yet nominated to serve in these positions: Bureau of Land Management; the National Park Service; the Fish and Wildlife Service.
On a somewhat related subject affecting the Interior Department, Rep. Scott Tipton (R-CO) and Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO) have introduced legislation that would authorize the transfer of BLM’s headquarters from Washington to any one of 12 western states. The legislation would give the Secretary of the Interior the responsibility to select the new location. Denver is already the site of a major regional office for Interior, so perhaps the two Colorado legislators are hoping that BLM will naturally locate there as well. At this stage, it’s impossible to know the prospects for this legislation but the mere suggestion adds further evidence of the political will to reform the agency to reflect today’s budget realities and the need to streamline management practices.
Sage Grouse Review
Secretary Zinke announced a 60-day review of federal land management policies governing Sage-Grouse preservation efforts. The intent is to take a closer look at and recognize state and local led efforts rather than just rely upon plans promulgated by the federal government. This is potentially a major change in the approach of managing the Sage-Grouse issue and we are following it closely.
National Monument Review
Comments are due on July 10th on the issue of reviewing the status of all National Monuments of 100,000 acres or more created since 1996 or any monument created “without adequate public outreach and coordination.” The review is controversial among some and applauded by others. We are in the applauding category.
As a part of his review of monument designations, Secretary Zinke was recently in Maine visiting the newly created Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. By the way, this is the only monument under review that is less than 100,000 acres. When the paper industry owned these lands, outdoor recreation was permitted including camping, snowmobiling and ATV access. That all ended when the Elliotsville Foundation acquired the land and continues today now that it is a National Monument. This is a huge loss to outdoor recreation and we hope the Secretary will address this as a part of his review.
Our best guess is that the boundaries of some National Monuments will be adjusted and we are already heartened by the news that Secretary Zinke believes that the boundaries of the Bears Ears National Monument should be reduced in some fashion. We also believe that outright revocation of monument status is unlikely. And finally, we believe the Administration will be recommending to the Congress a series of changes to the present Antiquities Act of 1906; changes that are 111 years overdue.
Clear Creek Clears a Hurdle
H.R. 1913, the Clear Creek National Recreation and Conservation Act, cleared an important hurdle when the House Resources Committee reported the legislation to the full House. Introduced by Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D-CA), this legislation would restore OHV access to a very important riding area managed by the Bureau of Land Management. This area has been closed to OHV recreation because of concern over naturally occurring asbestos though an independent risk assessment study has now concluded that prudent management and operational methods could allow OHV access without exposing the public to unacceptable risks.
Similar legislation was approved by the House late in the session last year, but did not receive consideration by the Senate before the Congress adjourned. We are hoping that early action this session will provide sufficient time to get this measure enacted into law and we are working hard to advocate its passage.
The 4th of July holiday is around the corner and the prime recreation season is upon us. Enjoy your time outdoors and please recreate responsibly.
Larry E. Smith
Americans for Responsible Recreational Access