Editorial: BLM proposes firebreaks to reduce size of wildfires

The Bureau of Land Management is currently conducting a series of public hearings across the West to get input on an audacious proposal to limit the unchecked spread of rangeland wildfires.

The BLM says wildfires have increased dramatically in size and frequency in the past decade in six Western states — Nevada, Utah, California, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. During that time, 21 fires have exceed 100,000 acres. A total of 13.5 million acres have burned. Efforts to suppress wildfires by the BLM alone have cost $373 million over the past decade

“These wildfires result in increased destruction of private property, degradation and loss of rangelands, loss of recreational opportunities, and habitat loss for a variety of species, including the conversion of native habitats to invasive annual grasses,” the BLM reports. “The conversion of rangeland habitats to invasive annual grasslands further impedes rangeland health and productivity by slowing or preventing recovery of sagebrush communities.”

To counter this, the federal land agency is proposing to create up to 11,000 miles of firebreaks as a way to keep the fires from spreading into mammoth infernos, like the Martin Fire in northern Nevada this past year, which consumed nearly half a million acres of rangeland.

The draft proposal calls for fuel breaks being created along roads and rights-of-way by mowing, grazing, mechanical and chemical clearing, as well as prescribed burns. Some of the breaks could be brown strips — areas where all vegetation has been removed. Others could be green strips — areas where vegetation that is more flammable has been replaced with less flammable vegetation.

In some areas invasive cheatgrass — a perennial that grows knee high in the spring but dries out in the summer — would be replaced with native plants less susceptible to fire. Also, grazing permits could be adjusted to allow for spring time clearing of cheatgrass.

Cheatgrass and wildfires create a vicious cycle. Cheatgrass recovers more quickly than native species after a fire. Thus the more fires, the more cheatgrass. The more cheatgrass, the more fires.

John Ruhs, once the head of the BLM in Nevada and now the head of BLM operations in Idaho, was quoted in an agency press release as saying, “Fuel breaks have proven to be very effective in slowing rangeland wildfires, making them easier and safer for wildland firefighters to control. We believe that creating a system of fuel breaks will help us enhance and improve our working landscapes.”

The BLM’s principal deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management, Casey Hammond, was quoted as saying, “Wildfires devastate forests, rangeland and communities across Idaho and throughout the West, and without strategic planning they’re likely to continue in the years ahead. With this initiative and others like it, we’re working proactively to curb wildfires’ destruction and make it safer and more effective for firefighters to protect people and property.”

Environmentalists have expressed concerns that firebreaks may fragment wildlife habitats, including that of the threatened greater sage grouse, but the fragmentation should be less threatening than a wall of flames threatening the animals’ very lives and food source.

Brian Rutledge, a vice president of the National Audubon Society, notes, “The safety of a sage-grouse is utterly dependent on its cryptic coloring and cover from overhead predators. If the birds didn’t get burned up in the fire, there’s nowhere to hide eggs in cheatgrass.” Additionally, unlike soft sage leaves, cheatgrass provides little nutrition for the species.

The BLM is accepting comments on the proposal through Aug. 5.

Scoping meetings are scheduled for 5 to 7 p.m. on July 16 at the Red Lion Inn in Elko and July 17 at the Bristlecone Convention Center in Ely.

Firebreaks would be a valuable tool in the effort to cut down the size of rangeland wildfires.

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.
BLM proposes firebreaks along 11,000 miles of roads and rights-of-way.

Source: Editorial: BLM proposes firebreaks to reduce size of wildfires


With towns in Northern Nevada growing, the BLM reports more unauthorized uses of federal public land

It’s common to hear about property disputes among neighbors. But what happens when your neighbor is the federal government?

This is a question that occupies an increasing amount of time for Victoria Wilkins, an acting field manager for the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Sierra Front division. From a BLM district office tucked away in Carson City, Wilkins says the agency is seeing more issues in the region — from Reno to Gardnerville — over where the federal domain begins and private land ends.

The BLM is charged with managing vast stretches of public land — about 67 percent of Nevada — for a variety of activities, including grazing, recreation, mining, wild horses and conservation. Although much of the agency’s landholdings are expansive ranges located in faraway valleys, many BLM parcels encircle private land or sit adjacent to it. As towns around the region grow, Wilkins said her office has seen more unauthorized uses of BLM land. The intrusions into the federal domain are often accidental (BLM land is not always marked), but they are still illegal.

“The more people we get concentrated in an area, the more these issues seem to be surfacing,” Wilkins said during an interview at the Carson City District before Memorial Day weekend.

Three weeks earlier, Wilkins said the district office caught someone blading a road into public land. Wilkins said the office gets a report like that at least once a month. There are other types of realty trespass too. She pointed to cases where landowners have accidentally built parts of their homes or sheds on public land, often because of faulty surveying. Or there are cases where private landowners will use a public road for private access without proper right-of-ways. A more recent form of trespass has been the construction of fuel breaks, areas of land where vegetation has been strategically removed to stunt runaway fires.

The BLM district has also seen an inexplicable uptick in abandoned vehicles. Where the local BLM officers used to see five or 10 abandoned vehicles, they have reported 47 this fiscal year.

“We don’t know [why],” Wilkins said. “We’re trying to figure that out.”

Across the Mountain West, more and more residents are purchasing homes near undeveloped land, especially as cities and even rural towns push the rural interface outward toward wildland. The trend has often placed more pressure on land managed by the agency. And in some cases, the ownership divide is unclear without a survey or map. In other cases, newcomers to the area can be unfamiliar with the rules governing public land, which can vary between regions.

Bret Birdsong, a UNLV law professor and a former deputy solicitor for the Department of Interior, said that the issues are especially prevalent in areas where human development abuts wildland.

“Part of the big picture is there are a lot of border lands where BLM land is bordering private land,” Birdsong said. “And just as with private land, it’s not all that unusual for there to be disputes or encroachments that occur because boundaries are not always clearly marked.”

The BLM deals with a variety of trespass issues that are not limited to land ownership. In fact, the concept of trespassing on public land is at the heart of the agency’s ongoing legal dispute with Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy. After Bundy stopped paying fees to graze his cattle on public land — the BLM requires ranchers to operate under 10-year grazing permits — a court order found that he was trespassing on the federal domain by illegally running his cattle.

Other cases of trespass include the unlawful removal of minerals, which are managed by the BLM. In April, the U.S. Department of Justice reached a settlement with a Colorado oil and gas company over drilling in a railroad right-of-way without permission from the land agency.

Those cases are different. Those trespasses were willful. The trespasses reported to the BLM’s Carson City District, which includes the growing region around Reno, are often accidental.

Boris Poff, an acting assistant field manager in the BLM’s Las Vegas Field Office, said that more people are reporting trespass because more people are using public land. But Poff, who works in the lands division, said he is not sure that’s correlated to an overall increase in trespass.

“[For] most people we deal with,” he said, “it’s an honest mistake.”

Poff said the agency tries to settle many of the land issues amicably. Still, the BLM’s Southern Nevada division opened up 13 trespass cases over the last year and has 21 ongoing cases.

On May 7, the Carson City District Office sent out a news release reminding residents to check land ownership rules before they build a road, fuel break, fence or other structure. But the news release also cautioned that trespassing could come with consequences, including fines. In some cases, such as when part of a house is built on federal land, the agency can require a property owner to pay the fair market value for the land. When a trespass is willful, the penalty can be twice or three times the market value for the land or the charges for using a public road.

One or two land trespasses might seem benign, but they can add up. Birdsong said there are several issues at stake for the BLM, especially if the trespass occurs in sensitive habitat, like riparian areas. He said the agency also has a responsibility to manage the land for the public. And if the agency does not enforce its rules, it could signal to bad actors that it’s open season.

Wilkins said that she suspects that many trespasses result from a lack of understanding around public land, access and right-of-ways. But it’s becoming such a problem that title companies are aware of the issue, she said. And the office is now considering educating real estate agents.

“[One] thing that we’ve been talking about is doing some educational workshops with real estate agents so that they can help their clients identify potential pitfalls,” Wilkins said. “A lot of people want to live next to public lands, but they don’t always think about the things that can happen on the adjacent public lands — dirt biking, hiking, the horse use, vegetation removal projects, fire.”

Source: With towns in Northern Nevada growing, the BLM reports more unauthorized uses of federal public land


Interior secretary releases disputed Nevada public land funds

WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary David Bernhardt reversed Trump administration efforts to slash a Nevada public lands program Wednesday and released nearly $106 million for recreation and wildfire programs in the state.

Forty-seven new projects will be funded as a result through the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act, established by former Sens. Richard Bryan and Harry Reid, both Nevada Democrats, and then-Rep. John Ensign, R-Nev., in 1998.

The funding comes from the sale of public lands in the Las Vegas Valley, with the proceeds earmarked for improvement and conservation programs in the state and in the Lake Tahoe Basin of California.

“This program is a concrete example of the department’s continued commitment to being a good neighbor through increased recreation opportunities and access,” Bernhardt said in a statement.

Program targeted for years

The Trump administration and former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke tried to slash the program in past years.

Trump’s first two budget blueprints called for cuts to the program. The administration then sought to take the funds, but that move was blocked by Congress.

Bernhardt’s announcement that funds would be released to Nevada entities or U.S. agencies to spend on projects in the state marks a significant turnabout for the administration, said Rep. Dina Titus, the dean of the state’s congressional delegation.

Titus had demanded that Zinke and Bernhardt release the funds collected under the program, which is administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

She called Bernhardt’s announcement “good news.”

“I fought the Trump administration for two years to give us this money that is rightfully ours,” Titus said.

Titus said she would continue to defend the program for Southern Nevada “residents and visitors who chose to hike, swim and play in our parks and open spaces.”

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., hailed the decision. “I’m glad these long-overdue funds are finally being returned to the state and invested in projects that will make Nevada healthier and more sustainable,” she said.

Bernhardt called the announcement an example of the Interior Department “creating a legacy of conservation stewardship.”

The funds from land sales in the Las Vegas Valley will be used for a variety of programs and projects that include trail and habitat restoration, conservation, capital improvements and the purchase of environmentally sensitive lands.

Where the money will go

Entities that will receive money for projects include Clark County, the cities of Henderson, Las Vegas and North Las Vegas; Lincoln County, White Pine County, the Tahoe Douglas Fire Protection District, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service.

The Interior Department noted that BLM will use $4.45 million of the funds to buy 419 acres of agriculture conservation easement on the historic Van Sickle Station Ranch near Genoa in Douglas County.

The purchase will protect local wildlife, migratory bird habitat, groundwater recharge and open space. In addition, the owner will donate two multi-use trail easements to provide the public with additional recreation opportunities, according to the Interior Department.

The BLM also will use $1.45 million in program funds to build between 40 and 65 miles of multi-use trails, trail heads, parking and campgrounds and camping areas in the Highland Range area of Lincoln County.

Lincoln County, the city of Caliente, the Nevada Division of State Parks, the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, the Back Country Horsemen of America and the Wilderness Society and regional and local proprietors are part of the collaborative project.

Since the Act passed in 1998, the program has generated $3.6 billion for projects in the state that include the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area visitor center, renovation of Lorenzi Park in Las Vegas, public areas at Lake Mead National Recreation Area and landscape restoration in Eastern Nevada.

By law, the state of Nevada General Education Fund gets 5 percent of proceeds and the Southern Nevada Water Authority receives 10 percent, according to BLM.

Breakdown of the funding
The Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act has provided $3.6 billion in project funds in the state of Nevada since 1998, according to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt announced and additional $106 million in projects.
• Parks, trails, and natural areas, $26.7 million.
• Capital improvements, $27.7 million.
• Conservation initiatives, $13.2 million.
• Environmentally sensitive land acquisitions, $21.6 million.
• Hazardous fuels reduction and wildfire prevention, $5 million.
• Eastern Nevada landscape restoration project, $6. 1 million.
• Special account reserve, $5 million.
Source: U.S. Bureau of Land Management

 

Source: Interior secretary releases disputed Nevada public land funds