PUBLIC LANDS:

Wildlife takes top priority under new land management blueprint

A sweeping bill introduced last week in Congress would mandate that wildlife habitat preservation "should guide the stewardship of America's public lands," a policy that, if implemented, could upend current land management policies and create new challenges for renewable energy development across the West.

The bill, sponsored by Reps. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) and Walter Jones (R-N.C.), is aimed at the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service, which must adhere to a "multiple-use" principle of land management that makes room for oil and gas drilling, minerals mining and timber harvesting alongside recreation and habitat protection.

"This legislation is badly needed to put wildlife on an equal footing with other sustainable uses of our federal lands," said Kind, the seven-term lawmaker from western Wisconsin, in a statement. "Unfortunately, in recent years we have seen an increasing emphasis on extractive uses to the detriment of wildlife species."

Environmentalists hailed the "America's Wildlife Heritage Act" as a landmark bill and the first comprehensive conservation legislation in 30 years. Among other things, they said it could steer wind farms and solar arrays away from sensitive wildlife habitat, and assist federal land managers developing wildlife corridors through which plants and animals could migrate north as the climate warms.

One of the bill's boldest provisions -- and one sure to draw fire from opponents -- is a measure requiring federal land managers to identify as many as 20 "focal species" for each land unit that would act as proverbial canaries in the coal mine with respect to potentially harmful activities.

"Fish and wildlife have taken a back seat to oil and gas leasing and other uses of federal lands for too long," and Kind's bill would "level the playing field as our nation's multiple-use laws have always intended," said Steve Williams, president of the nonprofit Wildlife Management Institute, which has lobbied Congress on wildlife issues for nearly a century.

BLM spokeswoman Melodie Lloyd said the agency had no comment on the America's Wildlife Heritage Act and how it might affect operations. Forest Service spokesman Joseph Walsh also declined to comment on the bill.

But observers agree the legislation continues a trend of ambitious conservation proposals emerging from the 111th Congress that, if passed, would significantly raise the bar for federal land protection and preservation.

The "Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009," approved by Congress in March, designated 2.1 million acres of federal land as wilderness -- almost as much land as the 2.4 million acres designated during the entire eight years of the Bush presidency. Lands in the National Wilderness Preservation System are off-limits to any kind of energy development and mining activity.

Meanwhile, Congress is considering the "Northern Rockies Ecosystem Preservation Act," which would designate 24 million acres as wilderness in five Western states. That bill, which remains before the House Resources Committee, has attracted 92 cosponsors but has no companion bill in the Senate and no endorsement from the White House.

The America's Wildlife Heritage Act could prove even harder to get past energy-minded Republicans and an Obama administration that remains committed to expanding the nation's renewable energy infrastructure across tens of millions of acres of public lands.

For one, it would remove much of the discretion afforded federal land managers who have traditionally given wildlife preservation equal footing with energy production, mining and recreation as they developed management plans for federal lands. Advocates of the new bill say the curtailment of such discretion will eliminate radical shifts in policy that often come with changes in presidential administrations.

In lieu of open-ended management, BLM and the Forest Service would have to "plan for and manage" their lands in such a manner as to "maintain sustainable populations of native species and desired non-native species within each planning area," according to the bill, which defines a planning area as an individual BLM or Forest Service unit.

Impeding energy development

But the legislation also directs BLM and the Forest Service to "ensure that any activity authorized, funded, or carried out within the planning area does not increase the likelihood" of harming wildlife populations in those areas.

Some fear such language could be interpreted by land managers as a way to stop or slow development of renewable energy projects on federal lands.

"I don't want to be the guy who says energy development is more important than animals," said Mike Olsen, a former Department of Interior senior administrator who now works in the environmental strategies group at the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani. "But we need to get our energy somewhere, and experts are saying that federal lands are going to play an increasing role in energy development in this country. If there's legislation and other steps being taken to place more emphasis on other uses of federal land, I think that's going to be problematic."

Lakeisha Harrison, a spokeswoman for the American Petroleum Institute, said her members are concerned the new legislation would add an additional layer of regulation to an already rigorous permitting process for oil and gas companies.

"There are already regulations in place that are more than adequate for protecting wildlife and wildlife habitat through the Endangered Species Act and the [National Environmental Policy Act] process, and this would be a redundant and unnecessary set of regulations that could create delays for the industry," she said.

To Olsen and others, the bill is the latest in a series of congressional proposals that have left energy officials confused and placed President Obama in the difficult position of having to decide between conservation initiatives and his own administration's push to expand the use of renewable energy.

The $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act signed by Obama in February includes billions of dollars in tax incentives and government loans and grants for renewables. Meanwhile, BLM and the Forest Service last year announced they would open up to 190 million acres to geothermal energy development, with BLM later amending its plans to include solar and wind projects.

In addition, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has made expanding the electric transmission system a top priority. His first secretarial order in March made the production and delivery of renewable energy a top priority for the department, with a key piece being the securing of rights of way for new transmission in the West.

Peter Nelson, federal lands program director for Defenders of Wildlife, said the bill's intent is not to prevent wind farms, solar arrays and geothermal power plants on BLM and Forest Service land from being built. Rather, he said, the legislation calls for energy projects to be designed in a way that sustains wildlife populations.

"That should be everyone's goal," Nelson said. "Not constraining [energy production] activity, but promoting intelligent siting."

Challenge of global warming

Another of the bill's goals is to ensure that federal land managers begin the process of identifying and preserving undeveloped migration corridors that will ease the gradual shift of plants and animals as their traditional habitats become unsuitable due to climate change.

The legislation states that federal land "will play an important role in the ability of fish, plants, and wildlife to adapt to and survive global warming's mounting impacts."

The International Panel on Climate Change estimates average temperatures in the United States could warm 7 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. Scientists have calculated that for every increase of 1.8 degrees, the U.S. vegetation belt shifts 60 miles north or 550 feet higher in elevation.

As the vegetation moves, thousands of species will rely on the nation's remaining undeveloped spaces to seek out new habitat.

But because so much of the nation's 624 million acres of federal land are crossed by highways, transmission lines and other infrastructure, wildlife biologists, environmental groups and some policymakers are promoting more heavily the idea of establishing national wildlife corridors.

The America's Wildlife Heritage Act is one of three legislative efforts before Congress that touch on the issue of wildlife corridors. The others are the "Climate Change Safeguards for Natural Resources Conservation Act" and the "Border Security and Responsibility Act," which among other things discusses restoring wildlife migration routes severed by the controversial U.S.-Mexico border fence (Land Letter, April 30). Rep. Raúl Grijalva, (D-Ariz.), is the chief sponsor of both bills.

Though the "America's Wildlife Heritage Act" lacks specific instructions on how BLM and the Forest Service should meet their mandate to "develop strategies to address the impacts of climate change," Nelson said wildlife corridor development will be a centerpiece of implementing the law, should it pass.

Other influential groups that have endorsed the corridor concept include the Western Governors' Association, which in 2007 passed a resolution urging federal land managers, the energy industry and conservation groups to "identify key wildlife migration corridors and crucial wildlife habitats in the West" and make recommendations on what needs to be done to preserve them. The governors also established the Western Governors' Wildlife Council to identify the corridors and help develop policy options for preserving them.

One model that BLM and the Forest Service could use for establishing such corridors comes from the nonprofit sector.

For more than a decade, the Wildlands Network has coordinated efforts to carefully plot migration corridors that link public lands already protected under state and federal statutes. The group's Western director, Kim Vacariu, said those efforts have involved both BLM and the Forest Service as well as private landowners who have agreed to voluntarily set aside property to aid wildlife migrations (Land Letter, Dec. 18, 2008).

Eventually the network hopes to establish a 5,000-mile wildlife corridor from Mexico to Alaska to be called the "Spine of the Continent Wildway." Passage of the Wildlife Heritage Act will provide an important step toward making that corridor a reality, Vacariu said.

Scott Streater is a freelance journalist based in Colorado Springs, Colo.

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