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The Public Lands

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Malheur-National-Wildlife-Refuge

So the Bundys are in jail, the dude who relied on free labor from foster children on his ranch is dead, and the FBI is pressuring the remaining occupants of the Malheur to leave peacefully. While the death is obviously unfortunate, outside of that, it certainly seems to me that the FBI may have taken too long to act but when they did, they did it in the most appropriate way–off the reserve, away from the offices where everyone was held up. Given that these people believed they could travel freely wherever they wanted and advertised themselves doing it, it wasn’t too hard to find them. Hopefully this stops this “movement” from spreading, as ranchers start getting convinced to tear up their grazing contracts and just let their cows raise hell all over the landscape.

For the rest of us, maybe this is an opportunity to understand what actually happens at a National Wildlife Refuge. What good it is other than a place for birders to go? We know from the recent stories that a lot of these places are multi-use, with cattle grazing on them at very low prices. That this happens at all is unfortunate, but if the ranchers follow the rules, it’s an acceptable compromise. These refuges also undertake all sorts of conservation projects, especially given they are often pretty underfunded by Congress. One major project at the Malheur is ridding public waters of invasive Asian carp, a major problem. Experimenting with what works out here could help this problem nationally. Of course, if the occupiers don’t get out of there and people can’t get back to work, the project could be set back years.

Over the years, the refuge has doused the lake with Rotenone, an aquatic poison, five times. None of the treatments have worked for more than a few years. By the time Beck arrived in Burns in 2009 — she’d moved there from Montana with her husband, who’d returned to work on his father’s ranch — the problem had come to seem intractable. Beck, a longtime federal fisheries biologist who’d researched aquatic invasive species like New Zealand mud snails and whirling disease, had quit her job to relocate to Oregon. Soon after, she turned up at the refuge to volunteer. Two days later, she was hired. Now the carp were her problem.

In the years since, Beck and her colleagues have developed an ambitious carp control playbook. They have installed a bevy of screens and traps to prevent the creatures from moving between water bodies, tracked down their spawning aggregations using telemetry, and experimented with grids that blast eggs and larvae with deadly electrical currents. In 2013, Beck drained 717-acre Boca Lake, creating a smorgasbord of dying carp for pelicans and coyotes, then screened off the lake to prevent future infiltrations. Aquatic vegetation immediately rebounded, followed by bugs, birds and native fish.

Even Malheur Lake, where carp run so thick that their backs create wind-like ripples across the glassy surface, is not beyond hope. A few years back, Beck and other biologists proposed an elegant solution: opening up the lake to commercial fishermen. Hired netters would haul out the carp, which have little market value as human food, and turn them over to Silver Sage Fisheries, a subsidiary separate sister company of Tualatin-based Pacific Foods. The fish would be trucked to Burns, processed into fertilizer, and spread across fields owned by Chuck Eggert, Pacific Foods’ founder. The dead fish would nourish organic hayfields, feed for dairy cows.

“From our perspective, it’s a win-win,” Tim Greseth, executive director of the Oregon Wildlife Heritage Foundation, the nonprofit that helped broker the deal, told me. “We’re restoring the ecology of the lake, putting people to work, and benefiting private enterprise.”

We need way more creative thinking like this that brings together different stakeholders to create a better managed environment. Congress should double the budget for the public lands, precisely so that these programs can be expanded.

Meanwhile, away from the Malheur, the hard work toward unifying public opinion on protecting public lands continues. Here’s a good story on Utah, where environmentalists, local residents, land managers, and politicians are slowly, block by block, moving toward a compromise on protecting some land as wilderness while allowing various forms on access on other lands. I can’t stress enough how hard this is to do, with greens wanting to lock most of this down as wilderness, oil and gas and mining companies wanting it all open to drilling and exploration, and local residents really distrusting those big city liberals who visit their backyards. This is a story from last year, but gets at the point:

Yet for a while, it looked like the Grand Bargain might fall victim to Western politics as usual. Deadlines came and went, and counties remained locked in the same tired battles. Wayne County dropped out of negotiations. A sparsely-populated corner of northeastern Utah called Daggett County was briefly touted as a “model for the nation,” after it became the first to submit an agreement, but then the commissioners who drafted the plan were voted out of office and their replacements reneged. Things were not looking good.

But Bishop remained patient. Now, more than two years after sending the letter, his efforts are paying off. San Juan and Duchesne counties have jumped on-board and are working on proposals. Emery, Summit and Uintah counties have either submitted or are close to submitting proposals. And on April 10, the Grand Bargain got a big boost when Grand County, Utah, submitted its proposal.

Grand County surrounds Arches National Park and the Moab area, spanning 3,694 square miles of mountain-biking, climbing, backpacking, ATVing, desert rat paradise. It’s also one of the most hotly contested parts of the state: Though its economy over the last 30 years has largely shifted from resource extraction to recreation, the county currently has almost no designated wilderness and some 800,000 acres of land open to oil and gas leasing. If a deal can be struck here, where old-school, conservative Utah butts up against more liberal newcomers, then perhaps a Grand Bargain for the rest of the state — and even elsewhere in the West — is also possible.

So what’s in store for Grand County’s famed red rock landscapes? The final package calls for the creation of up to 514,000 acres of wilderness, mostly in the Book Cliffs area, which county council member Chris Baird calls “one of the best examples of what Utah looked like before it was settled by Europeans.” (The final amount of wilderness depends on land swaps with the state. Areas near the Book Cliffs, in Uintah County, could be opened to limited drilling in exchange for wilderness protection in Desolation Canyon.)

None of this is easy. Idiots calling for the end of public control over these lands do not make it easier. Right now, with fireeating Republicans controlling Congress, neofascism dominating the Republican primary, and Republican governors ruling over the majority of states, all of our environmental law and regulatory agencies are under real threat, as Pierce notes here on issues on the EPA and water regulation. Trying to patch together coalitions has to be part of the solution to fight for our environment in all its facets.

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