San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area Threatened

San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area
San Pedro River near U.S. 90, August 2017 (Jeff Burgess)

Arizona’s Gila District Office of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued a draft resource management plan  on June 29, 2018, that proposes to increase permitted cattle grazing in the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area (SPRNCA) by about 375%.

The SPRNCA is a special place and was the BLM’s first nature preserve, a product of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) of 1976 passed by Congress with the support of President Jimmy Carter. The passage of FLPMA was a historic environmental achievement because it changed the BLM from an agency focused on commodity production into one that is required to administer the public lands under their jurisdiction according to the multiple use doctrine, like the U.S Forest Service.

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What Did The Tonto National Forest Do With The Money?

Roosevelt Lake, Arizona
Roosevelt Lake, Arizona (Jeff Burgess)

In 1996 the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) completed a $430 million construction project to increase the height of Theodore Roosevelt Dam  by 77 feet to increase water storage in Theodore Roosevelt Lake and decrease the danger of catastrophic downstream flooding in the Phoenix metro area. The modifications to the dam, which is operated by the Salt River Project (SRP), were part of the larger Plan 6 alternative for the Regulatory Storage Division of the Central Arizona Project (CAP).

The approval of Plan 6 required the inclusion of a variety of environmental mitigation measures, including compensation for about 460 acres of Sonoran Desert riparian habitat and about 8,290 acres of upland desert habitat that would be flooded by the higher water levels at Roosevelt Lake.

The BOR’s 1990 Theodore Roosevelt Dam Modifications Environmental Assessment described how the BOR gave the Tonto National Forest, which manages most of the land surrounding Roosevelt Lake, money to create the Tonto Creek Riparian Unit. The Tonto used it to fence cattle out of lower Tonto Creek in the Tonto Basin, thereby resulting in a dramatic improvement in the condition of the stream’s desert riparian habitat.

The BOR also made about $650,000 available to the Tonto to accelerate the implementation of improved livestock grazing allotment management plans on 11 allotments around Roosevelt Lake. The stated purpose of the money was to “control access to the lake by livestock and reduce impacts to native vegetation associated with uncontrolled grazing.” The environmental impact statement (EIS) for the 1985 Tonto National Forest Plan had listed the condition of the Roosevelt Lake watershed as “unsatisfactory”. This was defined as “the vegetation protecting the soil surface has been removed to the point that accelerated erosion is occurring.” The grazing allotments identified as needing new management plans were the the 7/K, Roosevelt, Schoolhouse, Bar V Bar, Poison Springs, Sierra Ancha, A-Cross, Armer Mountain, Dutchwoman, Tonto Basin, and Del Shay allotments.

The Tonto began working on new management plans for these allotments in 1991. The plans, however, had skewed objectives. The 1992 environmental assessment (EA) of a new plan for the Roosevelt allotment, for example, failed to mention that its primary purpose was supposed to be mitigation for the loss of wildlife habitat. Instead, it said that “range improvements need to be relocated and the grazing system needs to be adjusted to offset the land lost to the higher lake level.”

In the spring of 1996 the forest’s Tonto Basin Ranger District initiated the Eastern Roosevelt Lake Watershed Analysis Area project. They prepared a draft EIS to analyze livestock management alternatives for five grazing allotments, including the Armer Mountain, A Cross, Dagger, Poison Springs and Sierra Ancha allotments. All of them, except the Dagger allotment, were among the 11 allotments for which the forest had received money from the BOR in order to implement new management plans.

But when the district ranger announced the final version of the project’s EIS in August of 1997, it was accompanied by decision notices for just three of the five allotments. Decisions for the Poison Springs and Sierra Ancha allotments were deferred. (The Poison Springs and Sierra Ancha allotments had the same grazing permittee and were managed together.)  The district ranger explained in her decision notice that a new management alternative had been identified for these two allotments, so the public would be given more time to submit further comments. Subsequently, in the spring of 1998 she issued a decision memo for the Poison Springs allotment. The memo called for rebuilding 1.5 miles of existing fence and and constructing 1.5 miles of new fence to prevent cattle from accessing the Salt River. This was a good thing, but that much fence work couldn’t have cost more than a few thousand dollars, and it fell far short of implementing a new allotment management plan. In fact, her memo explained that the decision notice for the implementation of a management plan for the Poison Springs/Sierra Ancha allotments was expected later that year. But it never happened.

The Tonto National Forest proposed new livestock management plans for the Poison Springs and Sierra Ancha allotments again in the summer of 2011 when it announced the initiation of the Salt River Allotments Vegetative Management project. Despite its name, this project was a grazing authorization project. Livestock grazing in all of the Tonto’s pastures along the Salt River in the Salt River Canyon Wilderness above Roosevelt Lake had been suspended several years earlier as part of a legal settlement to protect desert riparian habitat used by endangered species. The affected grazing permittees had been pressuring the forest to conduct NEPA analyses on their grazing allotments in order to get authorization to resume grazing along the river. In addition to the Poison Springs and Sierra Ancha allotments, the project included the Chrysotile, Haystack Butte, Dagger, Sedow, and Hicks-Pikes Peak allotments.

The Tonto released the project’s draft EIS in early 2013 and the preferred alternative proposed to allow livestock grazing to resume in the river pastures during the cool season, from November 15th to February 15th. This important change was presented in the draft EIS in a deceptive manner. The existing prohibition of grazing along the river described in the “current management” alternative was simply deleted from their preferred alternative, with no mention of its removal. There was just a short reference to an Appendix C added to the end of draft EIS wherein the details of this important difference were spelled out.

The draft EIS also explained that the Sierra Ancha allotment had been divided in 2009 between the adjacent Poison Springs and Dagger allotments. Its lower elevation pastures were incorporated into the Poison Springs allotment, and the upper pastures into the Dagger allotment. This meant the Dagger allotment had replaced the Sierra Ancha allotment on the list of 11 allotments for which the Tonto had received money from the BOR.

The descriptions in the draft EIS of the existing management situations on these allotments revealed that 5 of the Dagger allotment’s 11 pastures weren’t being grazed because they lacked water or had unprotected riparian areas. And 7 out of 17 pastures on the Poison Springs allotment, including its Klondike pasture, weren’t being grazed because they were in poor shape. The Tonto had ordered the removal of cattle from both of these allotments in 2000 due to a severe drought, and large portions of both allotments are Sonoran Desert, inherently unsuited for grazing.

The Tonto never issued a final EIS or any associated decision notices for the Salt River Allotments Vegetative Management project because in February of 2015 they announced they were abandoning it. Their retraction explained, “through discussions with term-grazing permittees, it was determined that if livestock were allowed to graze along river that neither Forest Service nor term-grazing permittees had time or money to conduct monitoring necessary to determine appropriateness of this proposed action along river corridor.”

The forest also said in their announcement that they would continue the implementation of new livestock management plans on these allotments, and comply with NEPA requirements by issuing individual  environmental assessments for each allotment, instead of using the more complicated EIS process for all of them.

The Tonto broke this promise in the spring of 2016, however, by implementing new “trial” management plans for the Sedow and Haystack Butte allotments without issuing public notices. The authorization letters increased permitted cattle numbers on the Sedow allotment by about 37% and on the Haystack Butte by about 49%. The trial periods were also arbitrarily extended beyond the normal 1 or 2 years to 5 years because of “varied southwest climatic conditions.” This was done during an ongoing long-term drought.

They broke their promise again in August of 2017 when the forest’s Tonto Basin Ranger District sent out a letter announcing their Klondike Water System Project for the Poison Springs allotment. It explained that they were going to install a water pump on a well located on an adjacent allotment that would send water through a new pipeline to a new 10,000 gallon storage tank on the Poison Springs allotment, where it would feed three new watering troughs, including two in the Klondike pasture. The total length of the water pipelines necessary to complete the project would exceed 3 miles.

The Tonto’s letter also explained that they were not going to complete an EA for this project. Instead, they were going to use a NEPA categorical exclusion to get the new livestock waters approved. The Forest Service’s categorical exclusion rules in the Forest Service Handbook, FSH 1909.15,32.2(9), state that categorical exclusions can be used for:

Implementation or modification of minor management practices to improve allotment condition or animal distribution when an allotment management plan is not yet in place.  Examples include but are not limited to:

(i) Rebuilding a fence to improve animal distribution;

(ii) Adding a stock watering facility to an existing water line; and

(iii) Spot seeding native species of grass or applying lime to maintain forage condition.

Obviously, the construction of a large new storage tank, miles of new water pipeline, and three new watering troughs doesn’t comply with the spirit of these rules. But a big difference between a decision resulting from an EIS or an EA, and one from a NEPA categorical exclusion, is that decisions resulting from categorical exclusions cannot be appealed by the public. Another difference is that the description of the agency’s proposal doesn’t have to include as much information. For this project, that meant the public had no idea who was going to pay the several hundred thousand dollars needed to finance it. According to the range analysis that was completed for the 2013 draft EIS, the Poison Springs allotment is only permitted for 102 head of cattle yearlong. If the cost of the new livestock watering system is $200,000, and that’s a conservative estimate, it works out to an investment of almost $2,000 a head. It’s a good bet that the U.S. taxpayers are picking up the tab in the form of an Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) grant.

The Tonto Basin District Ranger justified the construction of this expensive new livestock watering system by explaining that they had permitted grazing to resume on the allotment, and there weren’t any reliable watering sites in the Klondike pasture, so new ones were needed, “to deter livestock from concentrating at a few water sources.” But this pasture is comprised of Sonoran Desert and has a history of poor resource conditions due to overgrazing. An easy argument could be made that livestock shouldn’t have been allowed to resume grazing it in the first place. Furthermore, recent research published in Rangelands, a periodical of the Society for Range Management (SRM), titled Upland Water and Deferred Rotation Effects on Cattle Use in Riparian and Upland Areas  found that building upland livestock watering sites doesn’t improve natural resource conditions, it just facilitates more grazing on the uplands. In other words, the only thing this new livestock watering system will likely accomplish is to allow more cattle to graze on the Poison Springs allotment.

These livestock management issues could have been publicly analyzed if an EA had been completed for the Poison Springs allotment. According to the 2013 range analysis, the Tonto drafted a livestock management plan for the allotment in 1987 in response to chronically poor range conditions. But it wasn’t successfully implemented due to permittee noncompliance, and then the cattle were removed in 2000 due to the drought. As far as I know, a comprehensive NEPA process resulting in the successful implementation of an adequate livestock management plan has never been completed for this allotment. In other words, the Tonto used a NEPA categorical exclusion to implement a controversial decision on an allotment that’s never had a real management plan.

The 2013 range analysis also revealed that no NEPA analysis of any sort has ever been completed for the Dagger allotment. It explains that the allotment’s grazing permit was revoked for permittee noncompliance in the 1990s, and the allotment wasn’t grazed from 2000 until 2009. Then in 2009 grazing was resumed by a new permittee. But instead of finally conducting a NEPA analysis, the Tonto has relied on monitoring by the Reading the Range program of the University of Arizona’s Cooperative Extension Service. This program has certainly helped to improve range conditions on the Tonto, but it’s reports aren’t subject to public review unless they are  included in NEPA analyses. Furthermore, it focuses on monitoring the condition of livestock forage on the uplands, and not the more important issue of protecting desert riparian areas from cattle, as shown by its inability to provide the monitoring needed to permit grazing to resume along the Salt River.

The bottom line is that new allotment management plans with the primary objective of improving wildlife habitat weren’t implemented on all of the 11 allotments for which the Tonto National Forest received the money from the BOR.  In 2001 I was concerned about the Tonto’s lack of progress and sent a letter to the Phoenix office of the BOR asking them for a report on the results of the $650,000 they’d given the forest. But I never received any information, despite the fact that their Plan 6 promised that, “Reclamation will monitor the effects of the project and the success of all the mitigation efforts.”

Dakota Access Pipeline Victory May Only Be Temporary

Dakota Access Pipeline
Oil Pipeline Construction (Wikipedia)

Protestors trying to stop construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota were victorious on December 4, 2016, when the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers refused to permit the pipeline to carry dirty Canadian tar sands oil beneath Lake Oahe.  The U.S. State Department had previously approved the pipeline with a controversial determination that it wouldn’t substantially increase greenhouse gas emissions.

The protests against the DAPL began in April when members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe established the Sacred Stone Camp to accommodate pipeline protestors near the mouth of the Cannonball River, where it empties into the lake. The primary objective of the protestors was to protect the lake from oil spills because it’s the source of the tribe’s water supply.

They used the slogan, “Water is Life.” But their protest soon grew into much more, and became a worldwide focal point for indigenous rights and climate change activists. Thousands of people joined the camp, including representatives from hundreds of tribes, making it the largest gathering of Native Americans in more than a century. About 2,000 veterans of the U.S. military also traveled to the camp intent on forming a human shield to protect the protestors from police attacks.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)

The Corp of Engineers explained they were denying a pipeline easement beneath the lake so they could conduct a full-blown environmental impact statement (EIS) in which alternative routes would be explored. An EIS is the most rigorous type of environmental study mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which was signed into law by Republican President Richard Nixon in 1970. NEPA requires federal agencies to complete environmental studies of all their projects, using a public participation process that analyzes the environmental effects of various alternatives.

The Corp of Engineers has a say in whether a pipeline can be permitted beneath Lake Oahe because it has jurisdiction over public waterways and the lake is a reservoir on the Missouri River. The Corp had already completed an environmental assessment (EA) for the DAPL, a less rigorous type of NEPA study that’s typically used for projects with fewer significant issues. But the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of the Interior, and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation considered an EA to be inadequate for this project, and asked the Corp to complete an EIS.

The incoming Trump administration, however, will probably try to make the Corp reverse their decision to conduct an EIS, or even worse, work with the Republican-controlled Congress to revoke or eviscerate NEPA. This would have serious consequences on U.S. public lands administered under the multiple use doctrine by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The Forest Service, an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, manages the nation’s 154 national forests and 20 national grasslands – comprising about 193 million acres. The BLM, an agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior, manages about 30 million acres, including 221 wilderness areas and 23 national monuments. NEPA is the primary mechanism by which Americans participate in the management of these lands because it requires federal land management agencies to conduct publicly reviewed environmental studies for their plans and projects. Without NEPA, the public would have little or no effective input on proposed mining operations, drilling operations, timber cuts, recreational activities, or livestock grazing schemes.

The scope of the potential danger is best illustrated by taking a closer look at the situation in regards to livestock grazing on public lands. The BLM administers more than 21,000 public lands grazing allotments, while the Forest Service has almost 6,000 grazing permittees. Public lands grazing is, by far, the most ubiquitous use of U.S. public lands, occurring on more than 200 million acres, mostly in the West. Subsequently, it’s also the commercial activity that inflicts the most widespread ecological damage on public lands. Even with NEPA, the public typically gets to review and comment on a grazing operation just once every 10 years – the term of a federal grazing permit. Without NEPA, even that modest opportunity would be gone.

But death of NEPA as we know it would do more than threaten the ecological health of hundreds of millions of acres of public lands. As mentioned above, a NEPA study must also be conducted when a proposed project might adversely affect a public waterway, even when the project is located on private land.

These are just some of the examples of the importance of the National Environmental Policy Act. It’s often been referred to as the environmental Magna Carta because its stated purpose is to “encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment; to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man; to enrich the understanding of the ecological systems and natural resources important to the Nation.” If the Trump administration and the Republican Congress are allowed to neutralize NEPA, the U.S. will have crossed over an ideological threshold to a dark domain where the only thing that really matters is money.

Update

In January of 2017 newly elected President Donald Trump issued an executive order to make the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers reverse their decision under the Obama administration to complete a full-blown environmental impact statement (EIS) of alternative routes for the DAPL, and then had them issue a permit to allow the pipeline to be drilled beneath Lake Oahe.

On June 14, 2017, federal judge James Boasberg ruled that the Corp of Engineers was, indeed, required to complete an EIS for the DAPL on the Standing Rock reservation. The pipeline, however, had already been built and the judge didn’t order it to be shut down while the EIS is completed.

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