Friday, November 15, 2013

This Week in Outdoor Policy - November 15th

Side CountryTom 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. 

Sidecountry: What’s in a name?
It’s that time of year again, where both snow and headlines about backcountry skiers caught in avalanches begin to pile up. All this means renewed attention on the concept of “sidecountry” – the untracked, unpatrolled and un-avalanche-controlled terrain just outside resort boundaries, tempting all with its siren call. With ticket sales at resorts falling while backcountry gear sales soar, it is becoming more and more important to figure out just what to do with this adjacent backcountry – what is it called? And how do we manage the legions of skiers drawn to it? “Sidecountry” is a problematic term to many, suggesting slopes just outside resorts are somehow safer than the backcountry. Last year, the National Ski Areas Association proclaimed that “sidecountry” doesn’t actually exist. Powder Magazine pronounced it dead. This is all great, but perception can be reality. Evidence of skiers taking adjacent backcountry lightly abound. Just read the NY Time’s award winning multi media piece (and group dynamics case study) Snow Fall, about the avalanche at Washington’s Tunnel Creek. Even if skiers and ski areas settle on a new term, like “lift-accessed backcountry”, there are still other questions that need answers. Some access gates feature images of sculls and crossbones and bold letters reading YOU CAN DIE. While it seems the message couldn’t be clearer, what if it actually inspires some people? Are beacon check stations, which blink green when they recognize a transceiver, more effective? Hopefully the whole skiing community can find answers to these questions this season, allowing more and more properly educated and equipped skiers to experience the inspiring joy of the backcountry. 

Utah Motorized Plan Overturned
Last week, a Federal Judge overturned a controversial management plan for motorized use on 2 million acres of the Bureau of Land Management’s Richfield district in Utah. The court decided that the BLM did not adequately address the impacts ATVs can have on the environment and archeological sites, sending the agency back to the drawing board. The lawsuit against the plan, instituted in the final days of President George W Bush’s term, was brought by the Southern Utah Wilderness Association and Earthjustice. Though these groups rightly claim a victory for the landscape, it is hard not to wonder how well this plan-sue-repeat approach is actually working. There are hopeful signs that many land management agencies are finding ways out of this often vicious, wasteful cycle. Top amongst these is the BLM’s landscape scale planning. Though touted as a breakthrough, the idea is basic – look at big chunks of land, including all the land agencies, and figure out the best places for recreation, permanent protection, energy extraction and, conceivably, motorized use.

Friday, November 8, 2013

This Week in Outdoor Policy - November 8th

Week Outdoor PolicyTom 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.

Ruminating on National Monuments
A combination of events, especially Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s speech, lead to a lot of talk about National Monuments this week. When Sec. Jewell basically told Congress, “If you don’t protect places, the President will,” she was referring to National Monuments, the only land protection tool that the President can use without Congress. Most of the recent discussion boils down to this: though National Monuments may be a shorter road to permanent protection, they are still complicated. Considering the long list of places in line for this designation, this bears keeping in mind. Take for example the Bureau of Land Management’s announcement that they are restarting talks about grazing cows in Escalate National Monument – a full 17 years after it was designated. Presidential proclamations that make Monuments are short, both in length and on details. It can take a very, very long time to work out how things will look on the ground. Along with the long timelines, there are a few other considerations. Designating too many Monuments (and opponents would point to Escalante as the poster child for overreach) could lead to a backlash that weakens the Antiquities Act that makes all of this possible. Also, along with the well-known Presidential route, Congress can designate Monuments too. These sorts of proposals should be allowed their shot at passing Congress, because they are particularly attuned to the views of those that care about the place. For any Monument, Presidential or Congressional, work must be done to get consensus from everyone, near and far, that has a stake in the landscape. National Monuments remain an excellent and especially handy tool, but like any, there is a right way and a wrong way to use it and it can become dull with overuse.

Dogged Pursuit of Federal Land Takeover
This week in Wyoming, a legislative task force decided to continue considering state ownership of Federal lands. This despite that state’s own Attorney General saying that Utah’s Federal land takeover law, like any effort in Wyoming, is unlikely to succeed because it rests on “weak foundations.” Undeterred, the task force plans to draft a bill to make a whole new committee and study the issue for not one, not two, but four more years. How they imagine the legal underpinnings of the land grab will change during that time, or how they will justify spending more taxpayer money looking at it, is unclear. Speaking of Utah, County Commissioners there argued again that the recent government shutdown makes the case for state ownership. They said that the “only solution is transferring lands to the state.” Presumably they mean the only solution, except for, you know, just keeping the government funded like normal. One of the strongest arguments to counter those for state takeover? As stated in a recent op-ed, Federal public lands are owned by all Americans (never by the states) and held in trust for future generations. And that’s not about to change.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Week in Outdoor Policy - November 1st

173659157Tom 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.

Two Pro Public Land Op-eds
With the government shutdown old news already, many are trying to figure out what it all meant. Two recent and highly recommended opinion pieces draw the right conclusions: that the debacle of the shutdown showed us just how valuable public lands are, and how problematic state take over would be. In the first, Black Diamond’s dedicated CEO Peter Metcalf points out how much federal lands are worth, to rural economies, to small businesses like his, to Utahns and to all Americans that visit their public lands in that state. He points a finger directly at the hypocrisy of counties that criticize public lands at every turn – but declare a state of emergency when they are closed. In the second recent piece, the chairman of the Center for American Progress also highlights the economic impact of public lands, especially National Parks, the budget for which has been slashed 13% in the last three years, despite their value and increasing visitation. He also calls on Congress and the Administration to protect more lands, citing the alarming fact that the last Congress was the first Congress since WWII to permanently protect exactly ZERO acres of public land.

Idaho Federal Lands Committee Meets Again
On Monday, Idaho’s Federal Lands Interim Committee held its second meeting. The Committee is considering if and how the state should take over all Federal public land within its borders, as demanded by the Legislature. This meeting featured 8 hours of testimony from a huge range of interests, the summation of all of which could be, “Who thinks this is a good idea anyways?” With panels on Tribes, wildlife, grazing, conservation and timber, most were openly opposed to state ownership. One tribal representative made the point that if the Feds were going to give the land to anyone, it should be the Tribes. The grazing interests did support the idea – provided they did not have to pay higher fees to use the newly acquired state land (which would almost certainly happen) and that there was no competitive bidding (which doesn’t sound like capitalism). Hopefully the committee recognized that there are some serious questions about all this. For those that love the outdoors, the top questions are, how much public land will have to be sold when the state cannot match what the Federal government pays? And what will happen to some of the best places in Idaho, like the Sawtooths, the Middle Fork of the Salmon or even the Boise Foothills, when they are managed by the state, and therefore no longer public lands? 

Secretary Jewell Delivers a Challenge
Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell gave one of the first major speeches of her term on Thursday, talking about protected places and drilling. She showed that she understands what the outdoors mean to all of us and our economy, saying that public land “drives the economy and feeds the soul.” Crucially, she threw down something of a challenge: Congress should work to protect places, but if they won’t, the Administration will. All of this is an effort to restore some sort of balance between lands leased for energy development and lands permanently protected. Her speech is the latest example of hopeful momentum for consensus-based land protection bills, like that for Hermosa Creek in Colorado, and for National Monument designations, like the Boulder-White Clouds.