Friday, July 26, 2013

This Week in Outdoor Policy - July 26th

Tom Flynn tracks policy related to conservation and recreation for the 
Outdoor Alliance. Most Fridays, he summarizes the week’s top outdoor policy related headlines. With questions, news tips and angry hate mail, email him at tom [at] outdooralliance [dot] net.


Proposed Budgets Gut Funding for Conservation, Recreation…

Funding for the outdoors took a beating this week. This time every year, Congress determines how much money goes where. On the House side, funding for public lands has to go through the Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies. This week, that subcommittee released a funding bill that cuts 19% from last year. That’s a lot. The Environmental Protection Agency takes a big hit, but for recreation and conservation, the blow to the Land and Water Conservation Fund – LWCF - hurts the most. For the first time in its 50-year history, LWCF got exactly nothing. Zilch. Nada. Here’s how LWCF works. It takes fees from offshore drilling in the Gulf and sends that money to the states for projects, like buying important pieces of public land or building mountain bike trails. Sounds simple enough, except every year Congress determines how much of a possible $900 million LWCF gets. Yes, that’s right, the subcommittee wants to give LWCF $0 of a possible $900 million. This means that not only would there be no money for new projects, but ongoing projects would also grind to a halt. Sure, our country faces a debt crisis. But zeroing out LWCF – a program that protects the outdoors, gets people outside and is NOT funded with taxpayer dollars – is ridiculous. Thankfully there are those standing up for LWCF, like Senator Udall of Colorado and President Obama, who asked for $600 million for LWCF in his version of the budget. With a few more steps before any of this is finalized, including a full committee hearing next week, there is still hope for LWCF. When you start at zero, any change is an improvement.

…And Trails Too.

But wait, there’s more. While LWCF stands to be zeroed out by the House, the Recreation Trails Program faces a similar threat in the Senate. This program, RTP for short, uses money from a gas tax to build and maintain trails for mountain bikers and others. Now one Senator wants to use an amendment to the Senate’s transportation funding bill to take this money…and spend it on bridges. (Actually, it’s a bit worse than that, because he wants to take a whole pot of money, which goes to RTP as well as on-road bike lanes and the like.) No one is arguing that bridges should be left to crumble. But RTP funding really isn’t enough money to make a dent in our country’s infrastructure problem. Eliminating it, on the other hand, will have a huge affect on multi-use trail construction and maintenance. Like with LWCF, this is not a done deal. Taken together, these threats to LWCF and RTP are bad news for the outdoors  - not so much because they will certainly happen, but because funding for the outdoors seems to look to some politicians like a juicy target, ripe for the taking.

Friday, July 19, 2013

This Week in Outdoor Policy - July 19th

IMG_0030Tom Flynn tracks policy related to conservation and recreation for the Outdoor Alliance. Most Fridays, he summarizes the week’s top outdoor policy related headlines. With questions, news tips and angry hate mail, email him at tom [at] outdooralliance [dot] net.

Good Public Land News out of...Utah?
The words “good news for the outdoors” and “Utah lawmakers” aren’t normally found together. But this week is an exception. Utah’s elected officials changed course on two of their worst public land proposals. First, Federal legislation for the SkiLink gondola proposal was pronounced dead. The problems with Ski Link could fill a book, but here’s the short story. Talisker, a Canadian company, wanted to build a gondola through an undeveloped slice of public land in the Wasatch (see photo) to connect two ski areas: Canyons in Park City and Solitude in Big Cottonwood. City and county officials opposed the idea and the Forest Service didn’t want to give up the land. So Utah’s congressional delegation joined Talisker to push for a Federal law to force the sale of 30 acres of public land. If built, Ski Link would impact a prime bit of entry-level backcountry skiing, an IMBA Epic mountain bike trail, the watershed for Salt Lake City, and much else – all based on faulty claims of it providing an economic boost and a “transportation solution.” Thankfully, backers in the state and in DC backed down. In the second bit of good news, the Utah legislature repealed HB 155, which would have made it illegal for Federal land managers to enforce State laws, like speed limits and gun regulations, on Federal lands. Proponents claimed citizens were being harassed, but they couldn't point to any actual evidence. For this and other reasons, a federal judge shot the law down and the Utah legislature retracted it. The timely deaths of both the SkiLink legislation and the anti-Federal land manager legislation are a rare bit of good news for Utah’s public lands. Hopefully the irony of these two now-dead proposals – one trying to use Federal power over local power and the other trying to use State power over Federal power – is not lost on anyone.

Support Grows for Boulder-White Cloud National Monument
In Idaho, there continues to be rumblings of a National Monument proposal for the Boulder-White Clouds. These two mountain ranges, between Sun Valley and Stanley, are home to amazing backcountry skiing, mountain biking and backpacking but don’t enjoy the protection and funding they deserve. A longstanding Wilderness proposal would protect the land but bar bikes from the burly, beautiful backcountry trails. This week, the Idaho Statesman issued an editorial, citing the opposition of the Sawtooth Society, and urging caution when ditching the Wilderness legislation in favor of the Presidentially-decreed National Monument proclamation. While this is reasonable, there is growing consensus that the Wilderness legislation is stuck and growing support for the National Monument route. The Wood River Bike Coalition, a chapter of IMBA, threw its support behind the idea. This is a big deal. For the first time in the long history of attempts to protect the Boulder-White Clouds, there is now a way to protect both the place AND the sustainable ways to enjoy it, which is supported by a diverse and growing list of groups. Though much work remains to be done, a Boulder-White Clouds National Monument may have a fighting chance.

Friday, July 12, 2013

This Week in Outdoor Policy - July 12th

Tom Flynn tracks policy related to conservation and recreation for the 
Outdoor Alliance. Most Fridays, he summarizes the week’s top outdoor policy related headlines. With questions, news tips and angry hate mail, email him at tom [at] outdooralliance [dot] net.


Hot and Loaded: Fires in the West
With last week’s tragic loss of 19 firefighters, wildfires consumed much of the news this week. The basic facts are these. With a changing climate, the West is hotter and drier. How bad is it? This interactive map relates temperatures, snow packs and fires and shows that some states, like Idaho, have seen the number of large wildfires per year quadruple. The forests themselves have suffered from disease and insects and are overloaded from a century of overzealous fire suppression. Add in a large and growing number of dispersed houses in fire prone areas – 1 million of which were built in California, Washington and Oregon since 1990 – and we have a particularly flammable and dangerous mix. Much of the discussion has focused on whether firefighting policy increasingly risks lives for the sake of houses. Some have called for wildfire insurance, not unlike flood insurance, for risky homes. The impulse to address policies for zoning, firefighting and insurance after a wake up call like Yarnell Hill is a good one. But there is always the risk of opportunists twisting tragedy for their own ends. Senators and Congressmen from the top environment committees also weighed in this week. On the Senate side, they reasonably objected to the nearly 50% reduction in wildfire prevention budgets. On the House side, the committee held a hearing Thursday, mostly about logging. This is where things get tricky. Considering the deadly fire in Arizona was on state and private land and was seemingly not the result of inadequate thinning, logging on Federal public land is beside the point. These deaths should not look like dollar signs to the logging industry.

Threats and Our Responsibility to Public Lands
Recently, the National Wildlife Federation released a comprehensive report called Valuing our Public Lands. In it, they look at both definitions of value – as a noun meaning the economic value and as a verb meaning to value, cherish and treasure these places. The report covers all the economic impacts of public lands; from the outdoor recreation economy to the harder to measure, but equally important fact that protected lands draw valuable business and people to cities that could use the boost. The report also covers all the recent and ongoing threats our public lands face: attempts to transfer all Federal land in 7 states, Congressional attacks on longstanding public land protections, and so on. Here’s the kicker. Polls show that a majority of people value our land and oppose these threats. Yet many of our elected officials are the source of the threats. The only explanation for this gap is that we don’t actually know how our representatives feel about public land. That means we need to get educated, and get heard.

Friday, July 5, 2013

This Week in Outdoor Policy - July 5th

OutdoorPolicy75Tom Flynn tracks policy related to conservation and recreation for the Outdoor Alliance. Most Fridays, he summarizes the week’s top outdoor policy related headlines. With questions, news tips and angry hate mail, email him at tom [at] outdooralliance [dot] net.

 Forest Management Scandal and Wildfire Tragedy in Arizona

Timber management on public lands doesn’t normally involve scandal that sounds more like Chicago politics. But recently an excellent investigative piece revealed serious evidence of corruption in the Four Forest Restoration Initiative. This project, 4FRI for short, is the largest of its kind in the nation, aimed at thinning 2.4 million acres of national forest land north of Flagstaff, Arizona. The plan is for a private company to do the work and profit from selling the wood. The valid hope is to reduce the amount of burnable fuel in the forests – a legacy of a century of misguided fire suppression – and reduce extreme fires like the one that killed 19 firefighters on state and private land in AZ this week. While the goals are commendable, the problem is with the company the Forest Service picked. Turns out that Pioneer Forest Products, which won the contract, made some ridiculous, scientifically unproven claims in their proposal: running logging trucks on wood biofuel, turning pine into mahogany and magically lightening wood panels. Maybe worst of all, one of the top people at Pioneer is an ex-Forest Supervisor. The damning allegations go on, but the point is, not a single tree has been cut in the year since the contract was awarded. Vegetation management matters, as absurd a euphemism for logging as it may be (couldn’t the vegetation “manage” itself just fine before?). The way we deal with our forests as they actually are -  getting warmer, full of fuel and littered with trophy homes - mattered to the 19 that died. It will also matter to the thousands more that will risk their lives to fight fires all summer long. For their sake, the Forest Service ought to take responsibility for the 4FRI and work to set a much better example for forest management.

 Less Agency Funding Means Less Volunteer Help

Can you be so poor that you can’t accept free help? If you are the Bureau of Land Management or the Forest Service, the answer is yes. The recreation budgets for these agencies – that’s the cash that keeps trails open and toilet paper in the bathrooms – have been shrinking for years. Sequestration’s budget cuts, coming late in the fiscal year, certainly made things worse. More and more, these agencies are looking to volunteers to do trail work and other necessary things they can’t afford to do on their own. The issue comes when the agency doesn’t have the resources to accept even unpaid volunteers. Free labor still needs direction and supervision, and without this, volunteers go unused. Losing agency staff means losing not just their time, but also all the volunteer hours they made possible. Shrinking agency budgets are bad news for volunteering and bad news for the outdoors.