Department of the Interior speculates on land conservation in the West
A Department of the Interior (DOI) document labeled “Internal Draft – NOT FOR RELEASE” and detailing prospective conservation designations has caused quite a stir among the 12 western states it names.
A portion of the document proposes lands that could be added to create 17 new national monuments under the American Antiquities Act of 1906.
President Theodore Roosevelt signed the American Antiquities Act of 1906 on June 8, 1906, which was followed in a few months by his first monument designation – Devil’s Tower in northeast Wyoming – on Sept. 24. He declared it a ““lofty and isolated rock… to be a natural wonder and an object of historic and great scientific interest.”
According to the National Park Service (NPS), “The bill’s sponsors originally expected that national monuments would be proclaimed to protect prehistoric cultural features, or antiquities, in the Southwest and that they would be small. Yet the reference in the act to ‘objects of ... scientific interest’ enabled President Theodore Roosevelt to make a natural geological feature, Devils Tower, Wyoming, the first national monument.”
Following Devils Tower several presidents designated over one million acres as national monuments in Alaska and Arizona under the Antiquities Act, but none encountered significant opposition until 1943, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed Jackson Hole National Monument in Wyoming.
According to the NPS, Roosevelt’s proclamation unleashed a storm of criticism about use of the Antiquities Act to circumvent Congress. A bill abolishing Jackson Hole National Monument passed Congress, but was vetoed by Roosevelt, and congressional and court challenges to the proclamation authority were mounted. In 1950 Congress finally incorporated most of the monument into Grand Teton National Park, but the act in doing so barred further use of the proclamation authority in Wyoming.
Because of that 1950 change to the Act, no Wyoming lands are included under the Antiquities Act portion of the document, but two locations are listed under other sections of the draft – the Red Desert, particularly mentioning Adobe Town, and the Upper Green River Valley, from the Wind River Range to the Wyoming Range. The document also proposes consolidating checkerboard land, particularly in Nevada, Oregon, California, Wyoming and Utah.
The Red Desert is listed as an “area worthy of protection that is ineligible for Monument Designation and unlikely to receive legislative protection in the near term.”
“The Red Desert’s rich landscape offers spectacular desert structures and wildlife habitat. The Desert provides world-class pronghorn and elk hunting; the area is home to the largest desert elk herd in North America and the migration path for 50,000 pronghorn antelope,” says the document. “Early explorers, pioneers and Mormon settlers used the unique features in the Red Desert as landmarks to guide them westward. The Pony Express Trail traverses the northern section of the Red Desert. One of the unique features in the Red Desert is Adobe Town, an astonishing and remote set of badlands and geologic formations. Visitors can see fossils of long-extinct mammals, reptiles and invertebrates.”
Regarding the Upper Green River Valley, the document states the initiative would focus on conserving large private ranches that are located at the base of the Wyoming and Wind River Ranges to benefit sage grouse, big game species and the path of the pronghorn antelope.
However, the document does note that the BLM, the State of Wyoming, Conservation Fund, Jonah Interagency Office, Green River Valley Land Trust, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Wyoming Wildlife Foundation, the Bridger Teton National Forest and “a host of other private/public partnerships” are all working cooperatively in the area to provide big game migratory corridors and wildlife habitat improvement through easements and landscape-level improvement projects.
The cost estimate for the Upper Green River Valley projects totals over $2.3 billion, assuming an asking price of $6,000 per acre. The document notes that nearly a quarter of the BLM field office area in the region is state and private land totaling almost 400,000 acres.
For the checkerboard consolidation, the BLM estimates the initiative could be accomplished, “where consistent with BLM land-use plans and in areas where there is a willing seller,” over the next 10 years at an annual expenditure of approximately $5 million.
In early March the Senate Western Caucus, led by Chairman John Barrasso, of Wyoming, sent a letter to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar in opposition to the overhaul of public and private lands in the West.
“Implementing this strategy would break trust with the people of the West,” said the senators. “Americans enjoy a variety of benefits from our public lands, but many westerners rely on public lands for their very livelihoods. For that reason, Congress has ensured that public land management decisions are made in a process that is both public and transparent. Pursuing the strategy outlined in the released documents would threaten western livelihoods and violate the multiple use management framework that is relied upon in western communities. Americans should never live in fear that the stroke of a pen in Washington could forever change their lives.”
“Land management is most successful when built from local consensus and stakeholder involvement,” said the letter. “Grassroots conservation efforts are succeeding in communities across the West. In contrast, top-down land management directives from Washington are recipes for failure.”
The senators pointed out that expansion of federal land holdings is an unsustainable policy.
“The bureaus of the Department of the Interior are already overloaded with acreage and responsibility. The Bureau of Land Management faces budget shortfalls annually, and the National Park Service faces a maintenance backlog on its existing facilities of over $9 billion,” they wrote.
“Unilateral action will not be successful in the West. Western communities have a long, successful history of land stewardship. We urge the Department to defer to local land use decision-making and grassroots conservation efforts,” said the senators.
Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY), Senator Bob Bennett (R-UT), Senator John Ensign (R-NV) and Senator Mike Johanns (R-NE) signed the letter.
“This draft is indicative of the direction this administration would like to go,” says Wyoming Stock Growers Executive Vice President Jim Magagna. “Whatever comes out of the administration may not include everything in the draft, but we need to be very concerned they’re looking at limiting multiple use on more lands in Wyoming.”
Because it’s not a formal proposal there’s little Wyomingites can do at this point other than be aware of the issue and keep in close touch with the Congressional delegation.
“Any special designation gives priority to something other than grazing and mineral development,” notes Magagna. “I would say it wouldn’t prohibit grazing, but it would be a threat.”
Magagna says several other western states, including Utah, which had a bad experience with the Antiquities Act at the end of President Bill Clinton’s term, are seeking an exemption from the Act similar to Wyoming’s. He adds there is some concern an eastern Congressman may bring legislation that would remove Wyoming’s exemption.