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Trails Day projects Saturday at Fishtrap, Sunday at Stevens lakes

TRAILS — Volunteers have a choice this weekend of National Trails Day projects ranging from the scablands near Fishtrap lake to alpine lakes near Lookout Pass.

The Spokane Mountaineers already have crews signed up for both venues.

Click here for details on signing up to help the U.S. Bureau of Land Management on Saturday make way for a new loop trail at Fishtrap Lake west of Spokane off Interstate 90.

To sign up for the Mountaineers' work party headed on Sunday to Stevens Lakes, contact volunteer coordinator Lynn Smith, e-mail kslynndeb@hotmail.com.

The group plans selected work on the way to Stevens Lake and then brushing out the user trail from there to Upper Stevens Lake. The lakes fill glacier-carved basins near the Idaho/Montana border. At about 5 miles round trip and quick access off I-90, they are among the most popular alpine lake destinations in the region.

Fishtrap Lake loop trail project needs volunteers

TRAILS – A new 8-mile loop trail planned near Fishtrap Lake by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is the target of a National Public Lands Day volunteer effort on Sept. 26 to get the job started.

The Spokane Mountaineers and Washington Trails Association have committed members to working on the non-motorized trail, said Lynn Smith, a trails project coordinator for the Mountaineers.

Workers will assemble at 8:30 a.m. at BLM’s Folsom Farm area and break into groups for work on the trail between Fishtrap Road south to Farmer’s Landing.

Participants should bring gloves, water, and hand tools such as pulaski, ho-dad, pick, shovel, hoe and wheelbarrow.

T-shirts and public-lands access passes also may be given out to registered helpers.

The trail will provide scenic as well as geological and historic values, said Steve Smith BLM’s outdoor recreation planner.

Planning for the trail started in 2013 with help from hiking, mountain biking and horse groups, he said, noting that the trail likely won’t be completed until next fall.

First phase trail improvements will include tread construction, vegetation removal and installation of trail markers and signs.

The July 2014 Watermelon Hill Fire killed a high percentage of the trees along portions of the proposed trail route, especially along the lake's southern end, Smith said. But much of the landscape is rebounding, a process that will be speeded if the drought breaks.

”The public is still welcome to hike or ride horses or mountain bikes anywhere within the Fishtrap (BLM) area prior to completion of the trail,” Smith said.

Sign-up for the project in advance to be counted in for snacks, lunch and beverages by emailing Smith, sasmith@blm.gov.


Emergency closure of Idaho public lands starts Sunday

Earlier in the day rafters were being pulled off the famous Salmon River as a fast-growing wildfire made a run toward the town of Riggins, Idaho.

The fast-growing Tepee Springs fire forced an unprecedented closure of nearly 18 miles of the river, affecting all recreation there and all uses. Read more.



Wild horses to be temporarily rounded up, as Soda Fire named BLM’s top rehab priority

The national director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is headed to Boise tomorrow to discuss rehabilitation after the Soda Fire; Neil Kornze announced that the huge range fire that burned 285,000 acres in southwestern Idaho is currently the BLM’s highest rehabilitation priority. Meanwhile, BLM officials are planning an emergency roundup of roughly 285 wild horses whose range burned in the fire; 29 died in the fire, and six more had to be killed due to injuries from the blaze. The “emergency wild horse gather,” which will start this week, is designed to reduce the wild horse numbers to match the remaining forage; the rest will be held at the BLM’s Boise Wild Horse Corrals through the winter until the range recovers.

“Throughout the duration of the fire, BLM teams were monitoring the condition and whereabouts of the horses,” said Jenifer Arnold, acting Boise district manager. “A patchwork of unburned islands within the HMAs (herd management areas) provided limited forage, but not at a sustainable level. It is critical that we see to the horses’ nutritional needs by bringing them in to the Boise Wild Horse Corrals until the range recovers.”

The BLM is activating its Burned Area Emergency Response program, or BAER, to address the area burned in the Soda Fire, with the goals of protecting life, property, water quality, and deteriorated ecosystems from further damage. Post-fire effects on fish, wildlife, archaeological sites and endangered species also are concerns.

Photo released of Hog Canyon Lake littering suspect

PUBLIC LANDS – A state wildlife officer is on the trail of the slob who dumped a large amount of trash at a popular Spokane County fishing lake.

Now it’s time for the public to step up and help.

Curt Wood, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife police officer, is trying to identify the subject pictured here.

The image was captured on a surveillance camera as the man was leaving the Walmart store in Airway Heights on June 17, 2015, at 2:22 PM. 

On June 20, the officer discovered a large amount of trash that was left around a fire ring at the WDFW access area at Hog Canyon Lake near the Fishtrap area. 

Wood recovered a receipt from the trash, which led to the discovery of this Walmart surveillance photo. 

One tip would help Wood get to the bottom of this disrespect for public property.

Any tips toward the identity of this suspect should be forwarded to Wood by calling the WDFW office in Spokane Valley, 892-1001. Information also can be left on the state’s poaching hotline, (877) 933-9847 or by email, reportpoaching@dfw.wa.gov

New national seed strategy aims to make burned lands more resilient

Even as fires ravage landscapes across the west, restoration crews already are on the ground amid the smoke, starting work on plans to reseed and rehabilitate the burned wildlands. “There’s an urgent need,” said Tim Murphy, Idaho state director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

That need has prompted an array of federal and state agencies to partner with hundreds of groups, from commercial seed producers to garden clubs, research universities to ranchers, to launch a new “National Seed Strategy for Rehabilitation and Restoration” today, aimed at not only restoring burned landscapes across the west, but making them more resilient before the next fire hits.

“It goes beyond the Great Basin,” said Steve Ellis, deputy director of the BLM in Washington, D.C. “This is for the whole country. It can be applied in areas where we have lost natural vegetation from hurricanes and other natural disasters.” Ellis, who started his career as a forester 36 years ago in Idaho, flew over the giant Soda Fire in southern Idaho yesterday with fire and land management officials. “The conversation in the aircraft immediately went to rehabilitation,” he said. “We want to get on the ground even before the smoke clears.”

But it’s not as simple as just replanting. Invasive species, like cheatgrass and medusa head, move in after fires, and can choke out native plants. Scientists and seed producers are working on identifying just the right native seeds for the specific location, elevation and climate to plant in each location, and when the ideal window is for the native plants to grow instead of giving way to the invaders. “We’ve oftentimes had shortages of certain types of seed,” Ellis said. “You really have a window to get that seed in the ground.”

The new strategy is aimed at coordinating a nationwide network of native seed collectors, farmers and growers, nurseries, seed storage facilities and restoration ecologists. Officials gathered at a giant BLM seed storage warehouse in Boise on Monday to announce the strategy; the warehouse has nearly 800,000 pounds of precisely targeted native seed stacked to the ceiling in huge bags, ready to send out to specific fire locations. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

BLM closes seasonal vehicle access to Towell Falls

PUBLIC LANDS —   Hot, dry weather has forced land managers to impose restrictions on camping, burning and access throughout the Northwest, as we rounded up in a story in Thursday Outdoors.

Since then, more restrictions have come up, including:

  • Weyerhaeuser closing its timberlands in Western Washington and Oregon to the public because of fire concerns.
  • Montana limiting fishing hours in the Clark Fork, Bitterroot and Blackfoot rivers.

On Thursday, the Bureau of Land Management’s Spokane District finally got its act together and began its seasonal closure of Towell Falls Road to motorized traffic.

The route, typically open from April to June, is particularly susceptible to wildfire ignition from vehicle use due to the presence of tall vegetation on the roadway during the summer season.

The Rock Creek Management Area, located 20 miles south of Sprague, Washington, can still be accessed on foot, horseback, and bike.

Info: BLM Spokane District Office at (509) 536-1200 or visit

Report: Federal lands huge economic factor

PUBLIC LANDS — No wonder some people want to take over federal lands for private interests.  Turns out they're damned valuable.

U.S. Interior Department: 1 in 4 jobs in Wyoming tied to federal lands
In a report issued this week, the U.S. Department of Interior said that federal lands in Wyoming supported 81,000 jobs in the Cowboy State, about one in four. The energy sector provided 52,000 of those jobs, and the recreation sector provided 14,500 of those jobs in the last year.
—Wyoming Business Report

Utah lawmaker cashing in on federal land grab movement

UPDATED 12:45 p.m. with news of Montana reaction to American Lands Council revelations.

PUBLIC LANDS — The entire movement to push states into trying to take over federal lands has smelled greedy, underhanded and fishy from the beginning.  Here's some background.

See the Salt Lake Tribune report on Rep. Ken Ivory: Utah legislator's campaign on federal lands misguided, not criminal

Below is yet another insight, from the Associated Press.

And below this story is an interesting reaction from Montana.

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group has asked three state attorneys general to investigate a Utah lawmaker who has led a push for western states to take control of federal public lands.

The Campaign for Accountability sent letters Monday to officials in Utah, Montana and Arizona asking them to investigate Utah Republican state Rep. Ken Ivory and a nonprofit group he runs, the American Lands Council.

In the letters, the Campaign for Accountability says Ivory’s organization is raising money for the federal government to turn over land to the states, a push they argue Ivory knows is unconstitutional. A significant portion of the money raised by the American Lands Council goes to Ivory and his wife.

“By soliciting taxpayer funds for an organization that exists largely to funnel money to both Rep. Ivory and his wife, Rep. Ivory appears to be engaging in fraud,” the Campaign for Accountability said in the letters.

Ivory, of West Jordan, called the complaints shameful and “bullying tactics to stifle legitimate political debate.”

Representatives for the Utah and Arizona attorneys general said they were looking into the letter. John Barnes, a spokesman for the Montana attorney general, said in an email that the office received the letter Monday morning and would review it.

The American Lands Council earned about $228,000 in 2013, according to the group’s most recently filed tax forms. For his role as president of the organization, Ken Ivory was paid $95,000 in salary, and his wife, Rebecca Ivory, received $19,715. In 2012, the American Lands Council raised about $123,000, and Ken Ivory was paid a $40,000 salary. His wife’s salary for that year was not disclosed.

“It’s a fledgling organization that’s devoted to education. I’m the primary educator, and so they pay my salary,” Ivory said.

He said he has set aside his law practice, making his work for the American Lands Council largely his primary job. His pay is a small fraction of the salaries that environmental groups pay their top officers, Ivory said.

The group raises money by offering memberships to individuals, businesses and counties that range from $50 a year to $25,000 a year. Counties in Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Colorado, Nevada, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah have contributed money to the group.

The American Lands Council tells donors that their contribution will help support the transfer of public lands back to local control, a claim the Campaign for Accountability called “completely spurious.”

The Campaign for Accountability notes that when Utah passed a law in 2012 demanding the federal government give up about 31 million acres of public land, the Legislature’s own attorneys warned that the demand and any attempt to enforce it would likely be found unconstitutional.

Ivory said Campaign for Accountability is ignoring legal opinions from several groups that support the argument for state control. “This question has never gone to the Supreme Court, so how can they say it’s unconstitutional?” Ivory said.

The Campaign for Accountability also argues that Ken Ivory appears to be operating as a lobbyist but has not complied with state lobbying requirements.

As a state lawmaker, Ivory is exempt from Utah requirements to register as a lobbyist and disclose lobbying expenditures, said Mark Thomas, the director of elections at the Utah lieutenant governor’s office.

It’s unclear if he’s required to register in Montana and Arizona, but a Colorado ethics group has asked the Colorado secretary of state to investigate if the American Lands Council needs to comply with lobbying laws in that state.

In April, the American Lands Council sent an email to Colorado residents urging them to contact lawmakers in support of a bill to study the transfer of public lands in that state.

Suzanne Staiert, the deputy Secretary of State in Colorado, said in a May 7 letter to Ivory that the office was investigating the complaint and asked for a response to the allegations by June 6.

Ivory said the group isn’t lobbying but has “simply been educating in principles.” He said a Colorado lawmaker asked his group to send the email and he plans to respond to the Colorado complaint.

Utah has led several western states in a renewed push over the past few years to take control of public lands managed by the federal government. Supporters argue the states would be better managers and could make money from taxes and development on the land.

In addition to his work with the American Lands Council, Ivory serves as the executive director of another nonprofit, the Where’s the Line, America? Foundation. Tax records show that in 2013, he was paid $30,000 for his work with that group, which says it educates people about the proper role of state and federal government.

Ivory’s wife founded another nonprofit in December, A Most Sacred Trust, which says it educates people about the realities of sexual abuse in schools.

The organization has not yet had to file disclosures, and Ken Ivory said he does not work for that organization.

At least one county in Idaho and 10 counties in Nevada have also contributed money to the group.


Here's another AP story with reaction from Montana:

Lawmakers turn away from issue of federal land transfer

By ALISON NOON / Associated Press

HELENA, Mont. — In the wake of allegations against the American Lands Council, the state legislative panel that embraced its ideas last session has fallen silent on public land jurisdiction.

Montana’s Environmental Quality Council in 2013 found an “urgent need to correct the way federal public lands are managed.” But newly elected chairman Sen. Gene Vuckovich said the committee has no plans to revisit the subject after subsequent legislative proposals failed this year and he, personally, would not like it on the agenda.

The Anaconda Democrat was on the panel last session, when Republican Sen. Jennifer Fielder spearheaded the effort to study and diminish federal land management.

The committee’s change in heart coincides with Fielder’s absence from it. She is a member of four other interim committees and said she didn’t fight to get on the environmental one this year.

“I hope that they’ll bring something forward that’ll help to improve management on public lands, but if that’s not a priority of the chairman, it’s probably not going to happen,” Fielder, of Thompson Falls, said.

Fielder introduced 20 of about three dozen bills this year aimed at increasing state management of federally owned lands. Hundreds rallied against the proposals in February and the bills were largely shut down. One bill requiring the state to seek reimbursement of money owed to Montana from public lands proceeds became law without the signature of Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.

“Democrats don’t want to allow that discussion to occur, unfortunately,” Fielder said. “I think eventually they’ll realize it’s a really great idea and a benefit to our state, but they’re not there yet.”

American Lands Council President Ken Ivory participated in the Montana committee’s discussion last session. His organization, which pushes for western states to take control of federal public lands, came under fire this week when a watchdog group asked attorneys general in Montana, Utah and Arizona to investigate the council for allegedly pedaling fiction for financial gain.

“There are environmental organizations that have legitimate concerns about what the real agenda is here,” said Anne Weismann, executive director of Campaign for Accountability, the group that brought the complaint.

Ivory has denied any wrongdoing, calling the claim “desperate bullying.”

Montana Department of Justice spokesman John Barnes said Attorney General Tim Fox is reviewing the complaint.

Some public lands reopened as area recovers from wildfire

In a move that illustrates the landscape’s slow but steady recovery from major wildfires, about 54,200 acres of public land north of Mountain Home has been reopened to non-motorized public use, the BLM says, after restrictions that followed the 2013 Pony and Elk fires. After the fires, the BLM closed the areas to protect wintering big game animals and to allow for plant and habitat restoration; it’ll remain closed to motorized use until 2016.

“We are opening the area to human use in stages: first, to non-motorized entry, then to motorized entry after giving existing plants time to continue recovering from the effects of the fire,” said Tate Fischer, Four Rivers field office manager for the BLM. “This approach will enable seeded shrub, forb and grass species to continue to grow; help to slow the spread of noxious weeds; and allow burned areas to continue to re-establish a vegetative cover which protects the soil from erosion and provides for moisture retention, while providing opportunities for non-motorized access to the area.” There’s more info online here.

Some states say no to federal land transfer bills

PUBLIC LANDS — The movement to transfer control of federal lands to the states is hitting a roadblock in some state Capitols.

Sportsman's groups get some of the credit for standing up to this greedy land grab agenda and waste of state taxpayer money.

Some bold politicians are stepping up to look out for the public good in the face of pressure that could see more public lands run by private interests.  For example:

Montana governor vetoes federal lands study bill
On Monday, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock vetoed House Bill 496, which was originally drafted to fund a study of federal lands for potential transfer, but passed only after being heavily amended to study just federal lands management. Gov. Bullock said the study was too broad in scope, and for that reason vetoed the bill.

Colorado federal lands transfer bill dies

Republican-sponsored Colorado legislation — Senate Bill 39 —would have allowed Colorado to exercise authority along with the federal government over federal public lands, but the bill died Monday  in the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee on a party-line vote of 7-6. Sportsmen and conservationists began their opposition to the bill in February with a rally at the Capitol.

Democrats seem to be making a difference in stopping the federal land grabs, not only in Colorado, but also in Idaho as well as in Washington, where two transfer bills were killed this spring.

See a Western state-by-state update on federal lands transfer legislation compiled by High Country News.

Here's a roundup by USA Today: 'New rebels' seek control of federal land


  • Look here for a sampling of how sportsmen's groups have opposed the transfer efforts.
  • With transfer proposals unpopular in Montana, a Missoula Independent report found that support in the state is linked to Utah.
  • Find stories about a report with insight on the motivation for the federal land grabs, plus links to stories looking into the costs to taxpayers.
  • Here's a website that looks into funding for ALEC, which is supporting state takeover campaigns.

Idaho on board with sage grouse conservation plan

THREATENED SPECIES — Idaho officials have approved a plan to protect habitat for greater sage grouse on state endowment lands as part an effort to avoid a federal listing of the bird under the Endangered Species Act.

The Associated Press reports that Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and four other statewide elected officials on the Idaho Land Board on Tuesday voted 5-0 to adopt the 82-page Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation Plan that details conservation measures developed by the Idaho Department of Lands.

The document now goes to federal authorities who face a Sept. 30 deadline to decide whether to propose greater sage grouse as needing protections that could limit ranching and other activities in 11 Western states.

Important sage grouse habitat is found on 700,000 acres of Idaho endowment lands, about 44 percent of endowment rangeland in Idaho.

Federal land transfer proposals still alive in region

PUBLIC LANDS — Despite being largely opposed and proven wastes of taxpayer money, right-wing efforts to transfer Western federal lands to state control continue in some states, including Idaho and Washington.

In Idaho, the Idaho Statesman reports:

Idaho’s three-year campaign to force the government to transfer most of the 35 million acres of federal land to the state ended when a state Senate committee voted April 1 against joining Utah and Arizona in a compact to study legal action.

The vote was a victory for sportsmen and conservation groups, who have fought vigorously against an idea they worry could lead to the sale of places they hunt, fish, hike, camp and ride. It also was an affirmation of U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo’s 25-year campaign to shift public land policy away from confrontation to collaboration between conservationists, ranchers, loggers and local officials.

“It’s going to take a cooperative effort of all of the stakeholders to get to solutions,” said State Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, a co-chair of the interim legislative committee that studied the public lands issue at the direction of the 2014 Legislature.

But just as Idaho legislators were moving away from the land transfer idea, the U.S. Senate approved a budget resolution that would establish a procedure for selling, exchanging or transferring to the states federal lands that aren’t national parks, monuments or reserves. The amendment, sponsored by Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, passed 51-49 on March 26, with Idaho Republicans Crapo and Sen. Jim Risch both voting yes.

In Washington, Mitch Friedman of Conservation Northwest reports:

The Washington House Capital Budget Bill includes this:

SECTION. Sec. 7023. RESEARCH ON TRANSFER OF FEDERAL LANDS TO WASHINGTON STATE. Staff from the appropriate legislative16committees shall use existing studies and available literature to research the potential costs, revenues, and policy impacts of transferring federal lands to state ownership…”

  • Look here for a sampling of how sportsmen's groups have opposed the transfer efforts.
  • With transfer proposals unpopular in Montana, a Missoula Independent report found that support in the state is linked to Utah.
  • Find stories about a report with insight on the motivation for the federal land grabs, plus links to stories looking into the costs to taxpayers.
  • Here's a website that looks into funding for ALEC, which is supporting state takeover campaigns.

CdA students sprouting native plant garden on Blackwell Island

PUBLIC LANDS — Lake City High School students will be helping restore native plants to Blackwell Island Recreation Area this week in a project coordinated by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Coeur d'Alene District.

Students in the school's advanced placement Environmental Science course helped sow the seeds in January for the new native plant and pollinator garden at the popular Lake Coeur d'Alene recreation site. 

BLM botanist LeAnn Abell and Jasmine Williams of the Coeur d’Alene Forest Nursery helped the students start a variety of native north Idaho plants such as blanket flower, Idaho fescue, and yarrow.  Through the winter, the students tended the small plants and prepared them for their future home at the native plant garden.

On Thursday, March 26, about 35 students from Lake City High, along with volunteers from Kootenai County Master Gardeners, the Idaho Native Plant Society, The Lands Council and the University of Idaho’s Confluence Project, will join for a day-long planting event.

A grant the WREN Foundation received from the Idaho Botanical Garden will help provide funding for interpretive signs at the area.  Benches and other amenities will be added later this spring.   

“The creation of this interpretive garden brings a long-time vision together”, said Abell, noting that some of the work started last summer. 

All shrubs and plants established in the garden will be representative of inland northwest species. 

Blackwell Island Recreation Site opens for the season on May 21.

Sage grouse protections falling short, biologists say

THREATENED SPECIES — The government is preparing insufficient protections for a ground-dwelling bird that has declined significantly over the past century and soon will face a possible endangered species listing, according to 11 biologists who have studied the greater sage grouse.

Federal agencies have abandoned science-based conservation measures in favor of “more elastic, subjective measures” inadequate to address threats to the species, the scientists wrote Thursday to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Here's more from the story moved by the Associated Press:

“We strongly encourage you to direct federal planners to finalize conservation plans that prescribe objective, measureable and robust conservation measures based on the best available science,” the letter said.

Federal agencies including the U.S. Bureau of Land Management have adopted sufficient protection for the bird, an Interior Department spokeswoman said.

“Interior believes strong protections in the BLM management plan are an important part of successful conservation of the greater sage grouse, and the Fish and Wildlife Service is working in close collaboration with them to ensure the best outcome for both the bird and the Western landscape it embodies,” said the spokeswoman, Jessica Kershaw.

The Agriculture Department did not respond to a request for comment.

Greater sage grouse inhabit 11 states. Their numbers have declined from perhaps well over 1 million in pre-settlement times to no more than 500,000 today.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to decide by Sept. 30 whether the bird warrants protection as a threatened or endangered species, though Congress has withheld spending to implement any such protection.

In the meantime, the Bureau of Land Management continues to amend local-level planning documents to include protections for the greater sage grouse. Those changes fail to incorporate science-based recommendations for regulating oil and gas drilling, mining, livestock grazing, prescribed burns and other activity near sage grouse breeding areas, the scientists wrote.

Those signing included William Baker and Jeffrey Beck at the University of Wyoming and Edward Garton and Kerry Reese at the University of Idaho.

“We support the federal planning process and are prepared to assist your departments in developing measures to conserve and recover greater sage grouse, but federal planners must commit to science-based planning to achieve this goal,” the scientists wrote.

Mineral Ridge Trail to close for hazardous tree removal

HIKING — The Mineral Ridge Scenic Area off the northeast portion of Lake Coeur d'Alene, including the popular Mineral Ridge Trail, will be temporarily closed next week for hazardous tree removal, U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials say. 

The Beauty Bay-area closure is scheduled for Monday, March 16, through Thursday, March 19. 

The temporary closure applies to the parking area, picnic shelter, hiking trails and surrounding BLM-managed lands within the recreation area.

As an alternative hiking and recreation area, the Coeur d’Alene Field Office suggests visitors check out the Blue Creek Bay area, which is a short drive north of Mineral Ridge and offers several hiking options, a day use picnic area and fishing docks. 

See more information on BLM recreation areas in the Coeur d'Alene region.

Portage required to cross Coffeepot Lake

WATERSPORTS — Although the boat launch is closed because of low water at Coffeepot Lake east of Harrington, paddlers and anglers with small boats can still get on the water.

But to get through to the west end of the lake, be ready for a long portage across the dry divide, as the photo above indicates.

Idaho plan seeks to protect sage grouse habitat

THREATENED SPECIES —  The effort continues to avoid the restrictions that would go along with having an endangered native bird on western prairies.

The Idaho Department of Lands has put forward a draft plan to protect sage grouse habitat on state endowment land as part an effort to avoid a federal listing of the bird under the Endangered Species Act.

The state agency that manages more than 2.4 million acres last week released the 33-page document that’s intended to guide activities on the nearly 700,000 acres of state land deemed important habitat for the football-sized bird, according to the Associated Press.

The plan has critics, especially regarding its guidelines for grazing.

The state agency is taking comments on its Proposed Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation Plan through March 2. Later in March, the Idaho Land Board and the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission will vote on whether to approve the plan.

According to the AP:

The plan aims to protect habitat by creating enforceable stipulations in state leases, permits and easements. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will likely take Idaho’s plan into consideration when the agency makes a decision about listing sage grouse. That decision is expected in the fall.

“What the Service is looking for is mechanisms that provide certainty,” said Tom Schultz, director of the Idaho Department of Lands. “Just saying we’re going to do something without having mechanisms to make sure they get done won’t work.”

Idaho’s plan covers an array of activities that occur on state lands. Those include solar, wind and geothermal energy projects as well as oil and gas exploration and development. Mining and grazing are also covered as is the granting of rights of way. Also included are fire prevention and mitigation efforts to minimize loss of sage grouse habitat.

Agency officials said the plan complements Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s sage grouse plan he submitted for federal officials to consider as the government eyes protections. A listing could have ramifications for agriculture and energy, possibly damaging the economies of the 11 Western states where the bird resides.

In Idaho, about 10.5 million acres are designated either core or important sage grouse habitat. Of those 10.5 million acres, about 700,000 acres are Idaho endowment lands, or about 6.5 percent.

While Idaho endowment land with sage grouse habitat represents a small percentage of sage grouse habitat overall, the 700,000 acres nonetheless represent 44 percent of endowment rangeland in Idaho. So a sage grouse listing would likely decrease how much money the state can produce from its endowment rangelands.

The money generated from endowment land mostly goes to public schools. The Idaho Department of Lands is tasked with producing the most amount of money from the endowment land over the long run. That means the state agency is now trying to find a way to meet its mandate while also protecting sage grouse habitat.

“It’s a balance,” Schultz said, “but we think in the long run avoiding a listing is a good thing. If the bird gets listed, we will still have to have a strategy where we do not take birds.”

Schultz said his agency doesn’t have authority over private land but the agency’s plan contains conservation measures for private landholders that will be voluntary. A listing of sage grouse would also require private land owners to avoid activities that harm the bird or its habitat.

Travis Bruner of Western Watersheds Project, a conservation group based in central Idaho, said the plan lacks credibility when it comes to cattle grazing.

The plan states that, “Grazing has been determined to not be a primary threat to sage-grouse in Idaho.” The plan also calls for targeted grazing to reduce fire fuels and the use of grazing to help restore areas burned in rangeland fires.

“They seem to deny that there are any negative impacts at all on sage grouse due to grazing,” Bruner said. “That’s contrary to science.”

The state agency is taking comments on its Proposed Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation Plan through March 2. Later in March, the Idaho Land Board and the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission will vote on whether to approve the plan.

Coffeepot Lake boat launch closed by low water

BOATING — Low water levels will prevent the boat launch at Coffeepot Lake from being opened to anglers when the lake's fishing season opens March 1.

U.S. Bureau of Land management officials say the unusually low water levels would lead to boat trailers getting stuck in the deep mud.

Small boats not requiring trailers can still be launched from the shoreline but larger boats will not be able to access the ramp. Recreation managers at the BLM’s Spokane District will reopen the boat launch when conditions improve.

“We want to get the word out to those who might be planning a fishing trip that the launch is closed so they can make alternative plans,” said Steve Smith, outdoor recreation planner for BLM’s Spokane District.  “Right now we need Mother Nature’s help in order to get the water levels back up!”

Low precipitation levels may be a factor as well as the lowering of the area's water table by deep-well irrigation, a practice that's become controversial in the region.

An alternative fishing site is the BLM’s nearby Upper Twin Lake just northeast of Coffeepot, where water levels are higher and the boat launch is open for trailered boats.  Both sites are located west of Harrington, Washington.

Both lake's have perch fishing, but Coffeepot — a quality fishing lake with special regulations and a ban on bait — is especially popular with fly fishers who cast for the lake's rainbow trout.

  • Click here for more information on Coffeepot Lake and Upper Twin Lake.

Sportsmen rally against public land transfers

Updated with note about new Washington legislation.

PUBLIC LANDS — Sportsman's groups are organizing a voice against efforts in Western states to eliminate federal control of public land.

Lawmakers in Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming — and most recently, Washington — are spending considerable money and effort in attempts to get state control of federal public lands within their borders.

Read a few recent stories on these efforts:

I've contended this movement is more about political gain and corporate greed than it is about doing what's best for the wildlife, the land and the public. State governments are much more vulnerable to succumbing to special interests than federal land managers.

Last week at the SHOT Show in Las Vegas, a campaign was launched against efforts by special interests to transfer or sell America’s federal public lands.

The growing coalition of groups and businesses includes the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, National Wild Turkey Federation, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, Pheasants Forever, Quail Forever, Trout Unlimited, Dallas Safari Club, Mystery Ranch Backpacks, Sitka Gear, First Lite, Costa, Simms Fishing Products and Sage.

The coalition supports a grassroots effort by sportsmen to urge lawmakers to reject any actions that would deprive citizens of their public lands.

Most recently, a bill has been introduced in Washington — SB 5405 — that would form a task force to look into federal land ownership in Washington, with an eye to “to study the risks, options, and benefits of transferring certain federal lands in the state to an alternative ownership.”

Within Washington are 12.7 million acres of federal land, including 9.3 million acres of national forests, 1.8 million acres of national parks, 429,000 acres of BLM ground, and 182,000 acres of national wildlife refuges.

A new report, “Locked Out: Public Lands Transfers Threaten Sportsmen’s Access,” released by the campaign, details takeover attempts in some Western states that would jeopardize public access to the rich hunting, fishing and outdoor traditions provided by the nation’s public lands.

“America’s 640 million acres of federal public lands provide irreplaceable fish and wildlife habitat and public access for hunting and fishing,” said Joel Webster, director of the TRCP Center for Western Lands. “More than 72 percent of Western sportsmen depend on these lands for access to hunting."

The management of America’s vast system of public lands carries an enormous price tag, and state budgets could be stretched beyond their ability should they take over their ownership, with widespread industrial development and the eventual sale of these lands to private interests being the expected result, the campaign outlines. "If privatized, millions of acres of the nation’s most valuable lands and waters would be closed to public access, and an American birthright would be lost."  

Federal lands transfer could cost Idaho $111 million a year

PUBLIC LANDS — Aside from probably being unconstitutional, and certainly being stupid and greedy, Idaho's effort to take over federal lands within the state's borders also would probably be unaffordable.  Of course, unless the state sold off the lands to corporations.

Here's the report posted before today's meeting in Boise:

By KIMBERLEE KRUESI/Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho  — Taking control of federal public lands in Idaho could cost the state $111 million a year, a new report shows.

The study by the University of Idaho’s Policy Analysis Group found the state could lose millions of dollars in eight of nine different scenarios involving such a transfer.

Researchers compared various financial benefits for the state’s timber industry to increased costs connected with management of the land.

The report was requested by a legislative committee tasked under a resolution known as HR22 with studying a state takeover of federal lands in Idaho. The panel will finalize its recommendation today (Dec. 9, 2014).

Supporters of a land transfer claim timber harvests would boom under state management. Meanwhile, opponents say the boost in revenue would do little to offset the millions of dollars needed for land management expenses.

Researchers only saw a profit of $24 million a year in one scenario. In that case, Idaho would have to boost its harvest by 1 billion board-feet of timber a year and sell it at $250 per 1,000 board-feet of lumber.

Under the worst-case scenario, Idaho would increase its harvest sales by half a billion board-feet and would sell it at $150 per 1,000 board-feet. This would result in $35 million of revenue a year and $146 million of costs, resulting a loss of $111 million a year.

In 2012, the Idaho Forest Group reported that Idaho harvested roughly 145,000 board-feet of timber.

“The question becomes, after you consider the timber markets, is how are these lands going to be managed?” said Jay O’Laughlin, who wrote the report shortly after retiring as director of the research group. “That’s going to determine the cost structure and the revenues.”

O’Laughlin said the state would face steep wildfire prevention and suppression costs if it takes control of federal lands.

Currently, Idaho relies on federal firefighters to put out wildfires on state lands. By taking control of the federal lands, Idaho would be in charge of providing enough staffing and equipment to suppress the state’s largest wildfires.

Idaho would also be responsible for payments the federal government now doles out to help offset losses in property taxes from nontaxable federal land within their boundaries.

“The question whether payments to counties should continue is likely to spark lively debate,” O’Laughlin wrote in the report.

O’Laughlin and his researchers only studied the cost of managing 16.4 million acres of the 34 million acres of public lands in Idaho now managed by the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The group chose not to include Idaho’s legally protected roadless areas and wild river corridors.

The exclusion sparked criticism from the Idaho Conservation League.

Economist Evan Hjerpe, working on behalf of the conservation group, said that HR 22 does not explicitly outline which federal lands should or should not be transferred. Instead, the conservation group believes the resolution requires the state to manage 28 million acres of public lands.

Hjerpe also wrote that O’Laughlin’s report failed to include the transition costs of taking over federal lands.

“The initial costs have been estimated elsewhere at almost $2 billion dollars of loss to the state of Idaho,” Hjerpe wrote in his review. “In conclusion, the PAG report suffers from a number of deficiencies and has only quantified part of the fiscal cost to the state of Idaho.”

O’Laughlin responded that his direction from the committee was to only study the costs once the transfer was completed. Anything else, he said, would be too confusing.

The legislative committee was formed after Idaho lawmakers passed the resolution in 2013 demanding that the federal government cede most of the public lands it oversees in Idaho to the state.

Soon after, two contradictory reports were published offering different estimates on how much the endeavor would cost. The Idaho Conservation League declared the state would lose money, while the Idaho Department of Lands said Idaho would gain money.

Report: sage grouse need large buffer from drilling

WILDLIFE — A government study with significant implications for the U.S. energy industry says the breeding grounds of a struggling bird species need a 3-mile or larger buffer from oil and gas drilling, wind farms and solar projects.

The Associated Press reports that’s a much larger protective zone for the greater sage grouse than some states and federal agencies have adopted as the Obama administration weighs new protections for the bird.

The ground-dwelling bird ranges across 11 Western states. Its population dropped sharply in recent decades due to disease, pressure from the energy industry, wildfires and other factors.

Here's the rest of a still-evolving story by AP writer Matthew Brown:

Monday’s finding from the U.S. Geological Survey comes as state and federal officials scramble to come up with conservation measures to protect the grouse ahead of a court-ordered September 2015 decision on protections.

The USGS report represents a compilation of scientific studies aimed at seeing what it takes to protect the bird.

It was requested by the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency that oversees millions of acres of sage grouse habitat and also regulates the energy industry across much of the West.

It said a buffer of at least a 3.1-mile radius around sage grouse breeding sites known as leks would provide considerable protections for the bird. That radius would equal a circle around the leks covering 30 square miles.

By comparison, Montana and Wyoming have adopted management plans for the bird that call for a buffer of six-tenths of a mile around leks in key sage grouse habitat. That’s an area of less than 4 square miles.

The USGS did not recommend specific management recommendations. But survey scientists said it should help the Interior Department as it crafts a conservation strategy for the birds.

Carol Schuler, USGS senior science adviser, said that land managers also need to take into consideration local conditions across the grouse’s sprawling, 257,000-square-mile habitat.

“The buffer distances in this report can be useful in developing conservation measures, but should be used in conjunction with conservation planning that considers other factors,” she said.

A related bird, the Gunnison sage grouse of Utah and Colorado, received federal protection as a threatened species on Nov. 12.

Texas brothers building fences in Montana

PUBLIC LANDS — They've captured some spectacular hunting country near the Snowy Mountains. They arrive in their personal jets. They're used to getting what they want.  They're not a great fit in Montana, but what the heck when you have that much money to spend.

Texas brothers expand their Montana land holdings
Farris and Dan Wilks, who now own 341,845 acres in Montana, primarily in the area of the state where Fergus, Musselshell and Golden Valley counties join, have moved up to 22nd in the nation for private land ownership, and after the Texas brothers' proposal for a land swap with the Bureau of Land Management near Lewistown was rejected, they proceeded to build a fence around the BLM's Durfee Hills, and the BLM plans to survey the location of the fence to ensure it's on the property boundary.

Conference seeks sage grouse solutions

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Some of the nation's top public lands officials and rangeland scientists have gathered in Boise to try to figure out what can be done to avoid an Endangered Species Act listing of sage grouse. The three-day Sage Grouse and Rangeland Wildfire in the Great Basin Conference opened Wednesday with remarks from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe and U.S. Bureau of Land Management Director Neil Kornze. Mike Connor, Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, also attended the opening. Early remarks focused on finding collaboration among federal, state and private entities as massive wildfires and invasive species threaten a fragmented sage grouse habitat. The conference is playing out as the Fish and Wildlife Service faces a deadline next year on whether the chicken-sized bird needs federal protection.

Plan ahead for free entry to federal lands Nov. 9-11

PUBLIC LANDS — Federal and state land managers offer fee-free entry days to parks, forests, U.S. Bureau of Land management lands, refuges and other national interest lands where fees are charged on certain holidays scattered through the year.

  • The last big freebie of the year is Nov. 8-11 — Veterans Day Weekend — with free entry to virtually all the federal public lands.  NOTE: National Parks are offering free entry only on Nov. 11.
  • Washington State Parks will waive the Discover Pass requirement on Nov. 11.

The fee waivers do not cover expanded amenity or user fees for things such as camping, boat launches, transportation or special tours.

Public has obligation to pick up tab for environmental lawsuits?

PUBLIC LANDS — At first, it sounds as though we should be outraged:

Three conservation groups in Montana have been involved in more than 200 court cases nationwide against federal agencies, primarily the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service.

In the last five fiscal years, $617,058.40 in attorney fees has been awarded to the three groups and their co-plaintiffs in lawsuits against the Forest Service alone.

The groups in the story — the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, the Montana Ecosystems Defense Council and the Native Ecosystems Council — are just three three groups in Montana, with many more in the nation following suit, so to speak, on issues such as timber sales and the Endangered Species Act. The ecosystems groups are so small they don't even have websites.

Opponents of the lawsuits cite the Equal Access to Justice Act, which they say is unfairly rewarding lawyers of environmental groups by often awarding attorney fees paid for with tax dollars.

Environmental groups say the law holds the federal government accountable, and that attorney fees play a critical role in their efforts to protect wildlife and habitat.

“We could never afford to pay that (attorney fees) on our own,” said Mike Garrity, executive director for the alliance. “I’m not going to apologize for successfully suing the government. How come no one is asking why the Forest Service has such a big problem following the law?”

Idaho sage grouse ruling eyed for lawsuits elsewhere

PUBLIC LANDS — Sage grouse are generating considerable interest throughout the West as groups see their dwindling numbers as ways to address a wide range of public lands topics such as mining, oil drilling and livestock grazing.

A small portion of a federal judge’s ruling in Idaho against the U.S. Bureau of Land Management concerning grazing permits in sage grouse habitat is being eyed as a potential lever by environmental groups considering similar lawsuits in other states, the Associated Press reports today.

Most of U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill’s 21-page decision late last month involved his ruling that the agency violated environmental laws in issuing permits on four grazing allotments in south-central Idaho, considered test cases for about 600 other permits.

But he used three pages near the end of his decision to rule on a separate matter that the agency incorrectly used a congressional budget rider to issue additional grazing permits in south-central Idaho with no environmental analysis at all.

“This is a clear shot across the bow of the BLM,” said Todd Tucci, an attorney for Advocates for the West that represented Western Watersheds Project in the lawsuit. “I will bring this argument to any federal court in the country and feel very comfortable about my likelihood of success,” he told the AP.

Ken Cole of Western Watersheds Project said the BLM has used the rider to issue hundreds of grazing permits across the West. Winmill’s decision only pertains to Idaho, but conservation groups in other states are viewing the winning lawsuit as a possible template.

“This is a legal victory that is certainly going to get a lot of scrutiny from environmental groups moving forward,” Erik Molvar of WildEarth Guardians says in the AP report

Idaho BLM spokeswoman Jessica Gardetto said the agency would do the environmental assessments on the four allotments as instructed by Winmill. But attorneys with the BLM said that because the ruling didn’t address the other 600 permits, there was no final judgment.

The BLM attorneys, in a statement sent to The Associated Press by Gardetto, said, “What this means, for practical purposes, is that Judge Winmill’s latest order is not immediately appealable, and there is currently no time frame for BLM to appeal.”

On the other part of the ruling, Gardetto said the agency is analyzing how it will affect the BLM’s grazing permit renewal process.

Plan ahead for free entry at federal, state lands

PUBLIC LANDS — Federal land managers offer free entry to parks, forests, U.S. Bureau of Land management lands, refuges and other national interest lands where fees are charged on certain holidays scattered through the year.  

  • Washington State Parks also sets dates for fee-free entry. 

The first freebie date of the year links to National Wildlife Refuge Week.

Following is a list of other free-entry dates and participating federal agencies, which vary by holiday: 

  • Presidents Day weekend, Feb. 15-17 — National Park Service, National wildlife refuges, national forests. 
  • National Park Week opening weekend, April 19-20 — National Park Service.
  • National Get Outdoors Day, June 14 — national forests.
  • National Park Service Birthday, Aug. 25 — National Park Service.
  • National Public Lands Day, Sept. 27 — National Park Service, National wildlife refuges, national forests. 
  • National Wildlife Refuge Week, first day, Oct 12 — National wildlife refuges. 
  • Veterans Day, Nov. 11 — National Park Service, National wildlife refuges, national forests.

Washington State Parks also offer 11 days in which the Discover Pass is not needed for entry in 2014:

  • Jan. 19 and 20 – Martin Luther King holiday.
  • March 19 – Washington State Parks birthday.
  • April 19 – Spring Saturday Free Day.
  • April 22 – Earth Day.
  • May 11 – Spring Sunday Free Day.
  • June 7 and 8 – National Trails Day and WDFW Free Fishing Weekend.
  • June 14 – National Get Outdoors Day.
  • Aug. 25 – In honor of National Park Service’s birthday.
  • Sept. 27 –National Public Lands Day.
  • Nov. 11 – Veterans Day holiday.

Read on for details about year-round free or discounted passes for military, disabled and seniors.

Judge: BLM violated grazing laws in SW Idaho — again

THREATENED SPECIES — The U.S. Bureau of Land Management once again violated federal laws when it issued grazing permits instead of analyzing how grazing could harm sage grouse in four allotments in south-central Idaho, a federal judge ruled today.

According to the Associated Press, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill found that the BLM failed to consider stopping grazing in any of the proposed management plans in the agency’s Burley Field Office.

The BLM failed to analyze existing sage grouse habitat conditions in the four allotments, Winmill wrote, which he described as “particularly troubling” because the species is a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

He also wrote that the four allotments are degraded by livestock grazing.

“In this case, the (environmental assessment) failed to identify reasonable alternatives,” the ruling said. “The existing grazing levels were contributing to sage grouse habitat degradation and yet the EA evaluated no alternative that would have reduced grazing levels and/or increased restrictions on grazing.”

The decision is round two of a lawsuit led by conservation group Western Watersheds Project that is challenging nearly 600 BLM grazing allotments spread across southern Idaho.

“It is very clear the BLM especially is not doing what’s right for sage grouse and not reversing the decline of sage grouse habitat,” said Ken Cole, National Environmental Policy Act coordinator at the Boise office of Western Watersheds Project. “We have declining sage grouse populations. We didn’t get there because of oil and gas, we got there because of grazing. Grazing is the biggest impact on sage grouse, at least in Idaho and many other places.”

Winmill agreed that the BLM is allowed to automatically renew grazing permits without conducting lengthy environmental reviews. However, it must still comply with federal laws requiring the agency to consider ongoing rangeland degradation and observe the Fundamental of Rangeland Health regulations during allotment renewal.

The BLM is currently reviewing the decision, agency spokeswoman Jessica Gardetto said.

“The BLM wants to manage livestock consistent with our standards and our multiple-use mission,” she said. “We’ll follow his decision accordingly.”

Sage grouse are a chicken-sized bird known for its elaborate mating display. Besides Idaho, the bird is found in 10 other Western states.

Sage grouse ruling finds BLM improperly issued grazing permits

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A federal judge has ruled that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management once again violated federal laws when it issued grazing permits instead of analyzing how grazing could harm sage grouse in four allotments in south-central Idaho. In a ruling released Monday, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill found that the BLM failed to consider stopping grazing in any of the proposed management plans in the agency's Burley Field Office. The decision is round two of a lawsuit led by conservation group Western Watersheds Project that is challenging nearly 600 BLM grazing allotments spread across southern Idaho. Winmill agreed that the BLM is allowed to automatically renew grazing permits without conducting lengthy environmental reviews. However, it must still comply with federal laws requiring the agency to study rangeland degradation.