Merits over malarkey 

Revisiting BLM's Treasured Landscapes Initiative

Having just returned from a week on a climbing trip to Wyoming's stunning Cloud Peak Wilderness, I was pleasantly surprised to open an e-mail containing a copy of the Discussion Paper on the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) Treasured Landscapes Initiative. Many will recall the hoopla that arose over the issue of expanding federal land holdings earlier this summer and the head-knocking and finger-pointing that took place between Montana's lone congressional representative, Denny Rehberg, and our junior U.S. senator, Jon Tester. If questions or confusion about the Department of Interior's plans for Montana and the West persist, the Discussion Paper provides significant clarification instead of political jive.

Much to his credit, Tester has decided to post the 22-page document on his website. Oddly enough, the document has no date or author and is clearly marked "Internal Draft—NOT FOR RELEASE" on every page, but it's readily available for the public to download or read at http://tester.senate.gov/Legislation/upload/DOI_Treasured_Landscapes_Memo.pdf

During the previous dust-up between our battling politicos, this column looked not so much at the content of the BLM's proposal, but at the use of DocumentCloud, a new investigative journalism tool that allowed reporters to wade through and analyze hundreds of pages of individual documents in a comprehensive, searchable manner (see "Cloud nine," July 8, 2010). Now, however, it's time to take a harder look at the proposal itself.

As stated in the paper's "Introduction," it's intended to outline "BLM's vision for Treasured Landscapes in the 21st Century," and opens with a straightforward estimate that out of the 264 million acres the agency manages, "some 130–140 million acres are worthy of consideration as treasured landscapes." In a comparison that will make opponents of further federal lands acquisition or preservation gulp hard, that area, as noted by the BLM, is "roughly equivalent in size to Colorado and Wyoming combined."

Yet, as also noted, the BLM very realistically acknowledges that: "We now know that these large-scale ecosystems, watersheds, airsheds, and migratory pathways exist and function only at their natural scales, regardless of jurisdictional boundaries. Therefore, in order to facilitate the transition from the current land management system, which is based on jurisdictional boundaries, to a modern landscape-level management system, the BLM proposes to 'designate, rationalize, and manage-at-scale' its treasured landscape holdings."

It is good news that federal agencies such as the BLM are finally, after decades of resistance, realizing the connectivity of natural systems that cannot and will not function sustainably into the future if defined by the geopolitical and/or bureaucratic boxes into which they have been stuffed for so long.

Ironically, in relation to Tester's dormant Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, it is exactly this truth that the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA) was based upon when it was introduced nearly 20 years ago. Unfortunately, it is not the model Tester used in his bill, with its many fragmented wilderness boundaries and extraction-targeted forest lands, but may explain in part why Tester's bill, with its mandated logging levels and Wilderness Act exemptions, goes against the grain of current ecosystem management science.

The document goes on to explain exactly how the BLM, over the course of the next 25 years, will achieve the goals of preserving treasured landscapes and their operating ecosystems. First, the agency intends to "finalize appropriate conservation designations and fully account for the ecosystem services values of its lands." This, of course, is one of the points of contention in the political arena between Tester and Rehberg. To "finalize" the designations, President Obama will likely have to use the Antiquities Act to designate National Monuments, as President Clinton didfor some 4 million acres nationally. Additionally, the document discusses in some detail the desired acreage, its location, and the methods that may or may not be used to achieve the designations.

In a move similar to the land banking programs in Montana and other states, the BLM would "consolidate and rationalize its fragmented landholdings." Simply put, this means land swaps and/or outright purchases of inholdings with states, individuals or corporations to lump smaller, disparate holdings into larger parcels to both facilitate management and sustain ecosystem functions. Contrary to assertions by opponents of increased federal land holdings, there is nothing underhanded or shady about openly negotiating with willing sellers who may well find off-loading isolated parcels in their best financial and management interests. Prime examples would be the railroad land grants from more than a century ago, which are checkerboarded in unmanageable units with federal lands—or Montana's 39,000 acres of inholdings in the Missouri Breaks.

Finally, the agency envisions a serious commitment to "planning and allocating resources and resource uses at their natural scales, in effective coordination with Federal, State, and Tribal governments." To this end, the Obama administration would seek to end siphoning funds from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which was horrifically depleted under Bush. Further, using its authority to sell off certain lands, it would seek to retain those funds for purchases of conservation easements and outright acquisitions instead of simply funneling the money into the black hole of the Treasury as has been done for years. Again, this exactly emulates Montana's Land Banking program, which sells isolated parcels to raise funds for acquisition of inholdings on state lands or acreage to add to state lands.

But the hurdles to accomplish such an ambitious plan are high, indeed. The agency acknowledges that it may have to find other methods, such as the Antiquities Act, to achieve its goals since Congress may not find the political will to designate critical lands. And some may be surprised to find that both Alaska and Wyoming have already been specifically exempted by Congress from further designations under the Antiquities Act.

Nonetheless, looking through the document and studying the sound reasoning behind the proposed land acquisitions and consolidations, it makes a great deal of fiscal, environmental and social sense to debate the proposal on its merits—not just drown it in all-too-typical, politically motivated generalizations.

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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