Judge Saves Christmas Tree but Larger Issues Remain

Friday, November 15, 2019

Judge Saves Christmas Tree but Larger Issues Remain

By Bruce Ward


The dispute between federal agencies and Wild Earth Guardians takes place against a backdrop of larger issues that extend beyond their on-going lawsuit and should deeply concern the public. A U.S. District Court this week resolved part of the uncertainty by approving an agreement that will, among other things, let the U.S. Forest Service harvest the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree. My organization, Choose Outdoors, the primary non-profit partner in the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree project, is grateful for the common-sense clarification.


But as a neutral party to the lawsuit, I believe that while both sides in the case make good points, they’re failing to remind the public of the enormous troubles facing national forests – issues that really should unite people who care about our natural place our public lands.

For decades, I’ve traveled to Washington, D.C. and advocated for several forest-related policies such as supporting outdoor recreation and reducing wildfire hazards. Repeatedly, I’ve seen well-intentioned people dive so deeply into the weeds that they fail to resolve the more serious issues that led to the disputes in the first place. Two key problems in particular stalk this court dispute:

  • All U.S. public lands agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service, have been unconscionably underfunded for decades.
  • Catastrophic wildfires have become more common and have grown in both frequency and intensity across the region, requiring the U.S. Forest Service and other public lands agencies to spend more of their already limited resources (both money and staff) on fighting the flames.Climate change unfortunately is very real and already may be drying out the Southwest’s ecosystems, worsening the fire dangers.

The lawsuit in question illustrates what happens when forest advocates look at only part of the overall problem – a variation on the law of unintended consequences.

Twenty years ago, the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said their scientists would conduct studies to determine how many Mexican spotted owls (a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act) live in the Southwest’s national forests. The research also was supposed to determine if commercial timber cutting and even prescribed burns hurt or help the owls’ populations. More than six years ago, Wild Earth Guardians sued the agencies because the feds never finished those studies. This September, a federal judge excoriated the agencies and issued a sweeping order that seemed to halt any timber-related project on national forests in the region.

Yet the U.S. Forest Service’s response – that it lacks funds to do the studies properly – also has merit. For decades, Congress and several presidential administrations have given short shrift to the U.S. Forest Service, and other public land management agencies. The extra burden of coping with climate change means all the agencies are falling further behind on their legally obligated jobs -- including forest health and endangered species. Some facts:

  • For more than 10 years, the U.S. Forest Service’s inflation-adjusted budget essentially has stayed flat; for 2017, it was about $5.67 billion. But last year, Congress cut the agency’s funds to $4.7 billion – a $938 million drop (or roughly 17 percent).And this year, the administration’s budget envisions cutting the 2019 Forest Service discretionary funding (which covers items like campgrounds and wildlife studies) by another $486 million from 2018 levels.
  • That decrease would mean the agency’s multi-billion-dollar list of deferred maintenance projects will just grow longer. For example, if Congress restores just the amount that the administration wants to slash this year, the sum could cover the $264 million the administration seeks to cut from the U.S. Forest Service’s capital and maintenance fund and enable the agency to address its enormous backlog of poorly maintained roads, bridges and other structures. In addition, the sum would replenish the $15 million for wildlife habitat management that the administration also wants to cut.
  • Meanwhile, the costs of fighting wildfires now consume more than half the Forest Service’s entire budget. Yet in 2018, the agency’s Wildland Fire Management budget (to pay for forest fire prevention) fell to $2.495 billion, a decrease of $708 million (or about 28 percent) below what Congress gave it in 2017.
  • Most scientists expect that the number and intensity of forest fires will worsen as the climate warms, too. On that point, green groups and most scientists likely agree.

I believe Wild Earth Guardians’ supporters want to protect threatened and endangered species but I also know the U.S. Forest Service really is cash-strapped and struggling with competing priorities. Regardless of the lawsuit’s outcome, it’s critical that both sides work together for a greater good.

What our national forests truly need are our combined voices to call attention to the increasingly troubled future of all our public lands.

Bruce Ward is president of Choose Outdoors. https://www.chooseoutdoors.org/

 


Land and Water Conservation Fund Passage Helps States

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

LWCF Passage Helps States – and Offers Blueprint for Outdoor Community Success

 

By: Bruce Ward, President of Choose Outdoors

President Trump is expected to sign a major conservation bill soon after it arrives at the White House, most likely on or after March 5. In February 2019, the U.S. House and Senate passed permanent authorization for the Land and Water Conservation Fund by such large margins that both chambers easily could override a veto – and, political observers say, Trump isn’t likely to use his first veto on such a popular measure especially when he faces other, more contentious matters.

By contrast, the successful passage of permanent authorization for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) eliminates what has been, in years past, an annual political squabble over whether to continue paying for important wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation projects at both the federal and state level. Congress created the LWCF in 1965 by setting aside a percentage of federal royalties earned on offshore oil and natural gas production. Too often, though, those dollars instead disappeared into the massive maw of Uncle Sam’s overall budget because Congress rarely funded the program at its full authorized level of $900 million per year – and in 2015 money for the LWCF ran out entirely. But in February, supporters convinced Congress to permanently reauthorize the measure at its full strength.

The unusually amiable, bipartisan passage of the LWCF happened largely because of nearly continuous hard work by thousands of public leaders and citizen advocates nationwide. A broad coalition of groups and individuals representing hunters, anglers, environmentalists and state officials made permanent authorization for the LWCF a high priority, finally convincing a congressional supermajority that the LWCF’s work was incredibly popular for a wide spectrum of voters.

This point is important: many different kinds of people enjoy the great outdoors in diverse ways, but sometimes the bickering among specific interests -- hikers vs. mountain bikers, for example, or anglers vs. river rafters -- fractures what otherwise should be a unified voice seeking greater support for our national and state parks, forests, wildlife refuges and other public lands and waterways. When outdoor groups unite we can achieve remarkable, positive outcomes – a lesson that we all need to absorb.

Among the states leaders who supported the LWCF’s permanent passage were Luis Benitez who captains Colorado’s Office of Outdoor Recreation (and who has worked for two Democratic governors), and Montana U.S. Senator Steve Daines, a Republican who several times spoke passionately about the issue.

They could point to the economic as well as environmental benefits of doing so: Colorado’s outdoor recreation economy generates $28 billion in consumer spending annually, and contributes 229,000 direct jobs, with collective annual wages and salaries of $9.7 billion, and $2 billion in state and local tax revenue. The Outdoor Industry Association has found that active outdoor recreation generates $7.1 billion annually in consumer spending in Montana, supports 71,000 jobs statewide, generating $2.2 billion in wages and salaries and producing $286 million annually in state and local tax revenue. About 950,000 people hunt, fish or watch wildlife in Montana each year, spending over $1.1 billion on wildlife-related recreation.

Montana offers a good example of how state governments also benefit from the LWCF through a program called Forest Legacy Program (FLP) grants. The grants not only support timber-sector jobs – still a big part of Montana’s economy – but also pays for sustainable forest operations and enhances wildlife habitat, water quality and recreation.

The LWCF’s state grant program also contributed to conserving places in Big Sky Country such as Kootenai River watershed in northwest Montana and the North Swan River Valley. Further, the FLP helps states and private forest owners maintain working forest lands through matching grants for permanent conservation easement and fee acquisitions. FLP also has leveraged some $73 million in federal funds to invest in Montana’s forests, while protecting air and water quality, wildlife habitat, access for recreation and other public benefits provided by forests. LWCF state assistance grants further have supported hundreds of projects across Montana’s state and local parks including Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park, Lone Pine State Park in Flathead County and hundreds of fishing access sites across the state.

Further evidence of the grant program’s importance can be found in Colorado, too, where “from parks to playgrounds, wilderness to wetlands, bicycle paths to hiking trails, LWCF has helped communities nationwide acquire nearly seven million acres of parkland, water resources and open space.” The grants require a 50 percent state match of the total project costs allowed by rules governing use of LWCF money. Since 1965, nearly 1,000 LWCF grants totaling more than $61 million have leveraged over $147 million for local government and state park outdoor recreational investments in Colorado.


Here are two key takeaways from 2019’s LWCF success:

  1. Wild animals, birds and fish don’t know whether they’re on federal or state lands, and sometimes even people who enjoy the great outdoors may forget whether they’re working or recreating on property managed at the national or state level. Programs like the LWCF are especially important – and prove particularly popular – precisely because they enhance both the state and federal lands, rivers and wildlife.
  2. The outdoor community must come together as a unified whole more often, because we share many goals and aspirations. When we speak as one voice, Congress and other public leaders will hear us.

Congratulations to all the many citizens who worked so hard to secure a permanent future for the LWCF, and a hearty thank you to the many U.S. senators and representatives who, regardless of political party, overwhelmingly voted for the measure.

 

America’s Forests with Chuck Leavell Goes to South Carolina to film the Third PBS Episode

Friday, November 30, 2018

America’s Forests with Chuck Leavell is proud to bring you a third PBS Episode sharing the landowners of the Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention ( SFLR) program is a partnership of the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities (Endowment), USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and USDA Forest Service (USFS). We filmed the success of African American landowners across the southeast in South Carolina this Fall. A glimpse into the life of landowners through film is just what is what we captured with tree plantings, forest cruising, personal stories of family land, and Chuck Leavell even played piano at the local church to create church choir music. You do not want to miss this premier episode.

We watched three landowners tell their stories of family land and forestry focus. On the first set, of America's Forests with Chuck Leavell, certified tree planter Mary Hill, was interviewed. The property her family owns has been handed down and her late husband's great, great grandfather received 43 acres and a mule after the Civil War. Now the land is cultivated as a tree farm for the benefit of future generations.

Chuck enjoyed showing future generations how to plant pine trees on the property and even had his wife Rose Lane get a behind the scenes picture with him.

Next, he could not help but get in on some gospel music with the choir of Greater Emanuel A.M.E Church in Moncks Corner, South Carolina.

A natural tree farmer from Georgia, Chuck Leavell is always wanting to hear from the people. He listens patiently and hears the voices of the land like here in South Carolina on the steps of the historic Cherry Hill Classroom with landowners. The Cherry Hill Community Center is a place where visitors can go in search of African-American history.

At the register of deeds in Colleton County, South Carolina, Chuck talks with tree farmer Joe Hamilton. They explored his family history in the basement of the county seat to understand land ownership dating back to the Civil War. On our last stop, Chuck interviewed the Acting Chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service Leonard Jordan at Francis Marion National Forest.

We hope you are as excited about the premiere of our third episode in South Carolina and the SFLR program, as are we. The inspiring and life-changing stories of these landowners won’t be found anywhere else. When the episode premiers this Spring, call into your local PBS station request it!

For more information on the series, to host a showing of an episode or to get involved in future episodes, visit americasforestswithchuckleavell.com, follow along on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, or email us.






Award Winning Program in the South to be Filmed by America’s Forests

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

America’s Forests with Chuck Leavell noticed a program that needed to be documented called the Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention program (SFLR). As the Forbes article that came out on July 26, 2018 saidthe U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development(HUD) and the Council on Foundations announced the 2018 winners of the sixth annual Secretary’s Award for Public-Philanthropic Partnerships, recognizing excellence among the two sectors which improves quality of life for low- and moderate-income residents across the country.”

“It’s this collaborative approach to service that will lead us to find solutions to help the most vulnerable,” HUD Secretary Dr. Ben Carson said when presenting awards to the ten recipients in Washington, D.C. The goal of the SFLR is to help promote intergenerational forestland retention and wealth creation for African-American landowners. In many cases, the programs work is helping black farmers to climb back from a negative tide that has been going on for decades. By comparison, African-American farmland peaked in 1910 at 15 million acres to just 2.4 million acres in 1997. By 1999, only 1% of all privately-owned rural lands were black-owned.” Ryan Velez wrote for the Your Black World article about SFLR.

The SFLR program currently supports eight project sites across seven states and more than 800 landowners, who own a combined 68,423 acres. The goal is to help connect landowners to specialized networks of forestry and legal services providers. These networks are coordinated by trusted community-based organizations (CBOs), which combine different resources and connections including non-profits, universities, and the private sector. The eight CBOs are as follows:

Black Family Land Trust (VA)

Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation (SC)

Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund (AL)

Limited Resources Landowner Education Assistance Network (AL)

McIntosh Sustainable Environment and Economic Development (GA)

Roanoke Electric Cooperative (NC)

University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (AR)

Winston County Self Help Cooperative (MS)

“Working forests benefit us all. Many public benefits flow from private lands. They are essential in providing clean air and water, habitat for fish and wildlife, forest products and recreational opportunities.”- USDA U.S. Forest Service (USFS)

For more information on the series, to host a showing of an episode or to get involved in future episodes, visit americasforestswithchuckleavell.com, follow along on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, or email us.