WASHINGTON, Oct. 25, 2017 – A panel of Western stakeholders told the House Natural Resources Committee Wednesday that a sage grouse conservation plan needs to allow for more state input.

The witnesses – one each from Idaho, Montana, Utah, and Nevada – said the unique geographies in the Western U.S. and the differences in land ownership – some states have more public than private land, or vice versa – should serve as caution against a blanket approach to the entire region.

“The top-down approach has squeezed public land industries all while continuing to lose sensitive habitat and imperil wildlife species,” J.J. Goicoechea, a Nevada county commissioner who serves as chairman of the state’s Sagebrush Ecosystem Council, said at the hearing. “If the true goal is conservation, put it back in the hands of those closest to the land.”

The conversation comes as the Department of the Interior undertakes a review to test the compatibility of state sage grouse ecosystem plans and the federal plan. In June, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke acknowledged the federal government’s role in using the Endangered Species Act to protect vulnerable wildlife, but he said “destroying local communities and levying onerous regulations on the public lands that they rely on is no way to be a good neighbor.”

The federal plan Zinke is examining was released in September 2015, when DOI and the Department of Agriculture announced changes to 98 Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service land use plans in 11 different states. The administration at the time touted meetings with local stakeholders and trumpeted the ability to avoid a listing for the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.

But the witnesses say the plan was a blanket approach that didn’t take into account unique factors in different states.

“There was coordination and cooperation if you will, but those have become buzz words,” Goicoechea said. “We need to stop checking the box, we need to stop holding meetings to say that we are coordinating and cooperating with local and state agencies and we need to get down to actually using what they presented.”

“They wanted uniformity across the West,” he added. “They did not use the state specific or local specific recommendations as they should have.”

Witnesses, who also included a legislator from Idaho and state natural resources employees from Montana and Utah, said allowing for a state-by-state approach would allow for more localized management.

“I think that we need to be able to roll back the federal plan amendments, go back to the state’s plan so that each state has a plan that works in their locality,” Scott Bedke, Speaker of the Idaho House of Representatives, told the committee. “I applaud these states; they should applaud us.”

Bedke, who is also a rancher, drove his point home by telling the story of a fire that had damaged one of his family’s grazing allotments near the Nevada-Idaho border. He said firefighters showed up to the blaze, but much of their equipment “sat unused for hours” because there was no “cat tender” present to walk in front of a bulldozer and ensure “no historical artifacts are disturbed.” Ultimately, Bedke said the fire burned another 20,000 acres of land, “all of which was sage grouse habitat.”

Privately, Democrat committee staffers balked at the notion that the lack of a “cat tender” was the reason firefighters did not take action, wondering if instead they simply needed to gather more information about the 20,000-acre fire before taking action. Other factors – public or private land, weather, topography – would have also played a role, leading the staffers to say it was impossible to know exactly what had transpired.

One point of agreement, though, was that wildfires were a severe threat to sage grouse habitat. At the same time as the House Natural Resources hearing, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee was holding a hearing on a draft bill to address the persistent wildfire problem. As written, the discussion draft would expand the scope of activities that would not be subject to full environmental analyses under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Among the projects that would not require an Environmental Assessment or Environmental Impact Statement: Forest thinning; salvage operations; and projects to improve wildlife habitat or address disease or insect infestations.

The bill does not include a “budget fix,” EPW Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said, “for the simple reason that budget issues are outside the jurisdiction of this committee.” The Forest Service spends about half its annual budget fighting fires.


(Steve Davies contributed to this report)

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