Reno Gazette-Journal Op-Ed: Don’t Toss Out Cooperation in the West’s Sage Country

by Dan Rohlf

December 12, 2017

This op-ed originally ran in the Reno Gazette-Journal.

During the holiday season, many people put significant effort into plans for getting along with one another at family gatherings. Seating plans are carefully strategized and touchy subjects avoided. We’ve learned that enjoying our shared holiday demands that we all compromise a little.

Plans for cooperation in managing the vast shrub-steppe plains of the American West – including thousands of acres in Nevada – are no different.

A few years ago, conflict there seemed inevitable. Environmental organizations asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list sage grouse – a bellwether for declining ecological conditions of the Intermountain West – as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. On the other hand, private landowners, industry groups and grazing permittees on federal land managed by the Bureau of Land Management worried that protections for the birds could eliminate their already-thin profit margins and independent way of life in a difficult rural landscape.

Amid these uncertainties, regional stakeholders launched an unprecedented effort to develop a plan – if not for outright harmony, at least toward a workable outline for coexistence. Western states, federal agencies, environmental organizations, landowners, sportsmen and women, and industry representatives worked together for many months to develop a management strategy to improve protections for sage grouse habitat while allowing our public lands to stay open for multiple uses. It was a truly cooperative and collaborative process.

Underlining the federal government’s commitment to the resulting strategy, BLM integrated these protections into the agency’s land management plans. The drive for a cooperative solution on the range succeeded; FWS decided it was not necessary to add sage grouse to the ESA’s protected rolls in light of the compromises placed into in BLM’s and others’ plans.

Enter the Trump administration. Like a grumpy uncle who arrives late for dinner and wants his way no matter what, the new president instructed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to identify federal policies across the West that “burden” fossil fuel development. Zinke’s resulting report identified the negotiated protections in BLM’s land management plans as standing in the way of maximum oil and gas development on federal lands. In October, Interior took the next step by launching a public process to consider eliminating the agreed-upon protections for sage grouse habitat, the basis for the decision not to list the birds. Secretary Zinke could act soon revise BLM’s plans.

Read the full op-ed on the Reno Gazette-Journal website.

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Daniel Rohlf is a Professor of Law and Of Counsel, Earthrise Law Center at the Lewis and Clark Law School.

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