State makes progress in challenging sage grouse rules

Nevada won a temporary reprieve from the Interior Department’s plans to enforce sweeping restrictions on land use as a means of protecting greater sage grouse habitat, but failed to convince a federal judge to put those plans on hold entirely.

In a recent opinion, Nevada federal Judge Miranda Du ruled Interior agencies erred in preparing environmental impact statements for 2.8 million acres of land primarily in Eureka and Humboldt counties and must prepare a supplemental statement, but she denied a request to issue an injunction that would have blocked the federal land agencies from implementing burdensome resource management plans.

The suit was brought by the state of Nevada, nine counties, several mining companies and a ranch.

Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who filed the suit on behalf of the state, said of Du’s ruling, “The federal government’s greater sage-grouse land-use plan obstructs Nevada’s growth and development, and harms our ranchers, miners and recreation workers. The court’s decision demonstrates the importance of the state joining this lawsuit, which affords us the opportunity to represent Nevada’s interests in court and at the negotiating table. We are encouraged by the fact that the court accepted our argument that the greater sage-grouse plan was fatally flawed in one of its central respects — namely, the court’s finding that the sagebrush focal areas violated that National Environmental Policy Act. We will continue to study the opinion and evaluate next steps.”

In denying the sweeping injunction, Du fell back on an old Catch-22 that has foiled other challenges to federal public land policies, saying there has been no “final agency action” and therefore the legal challenge is not ripe. The problem with that is the agencies never take final action, because they deem every decision to be appealable and changeable at some point in the future even though their current enforcement is already hampering economic development.

In the past the order to rework the environmental impact paperwork would have been a futile gesture because the final outcome under the Obama administration would have ended in the same paperwork, but President Trump’s Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke might make a difference. As a Montana congressman Zinke strongly opposed the Obama administration plan to protect the grouse without formally listing it under the Endangered Species Act.

At a 2015 hearing, he asked why “would Washington, the bureaucracy, given there are no sage grouse here … decide what is best for Montana or the western states, that have a deep, traditional concern for wildlife management?”

Just a month ago, Zinke told a gathering of Western ranchers that the Interior Department “hasn’t been the best neighbor,” adding that they would probably like changes he is planning for those sage grouse protection plans.

“We’re going to manage our properties just like you [ranchers] would manage your private lands,” Zinke said, according to published reports. “Washington, D.C., needs to understand that we work for the people, not the other way around.”

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service must rework their maps because they were severely flawed.

Judge Du noted, for example, that in Eureka County the agencies “incorrectly designated the town of Eureka, US Highway 50, State Route 278, County landfill, power lines, multiple subdivisions of homes, farms with alfalfa field and irrigations systems, and hay barns” as priority habitat management areas for grouse.

There is much at stake for Nevada and the other Western states facing land use restrictions for mining, grazing, oil and gas exploration, recreation and other beneficial uses.

In Humboldt, Judge Du noted that livestock grazing would be reduced by 25 percent. The county’s landfill also was labeled priority habitat.

The Interior’s sage grouse draft environmental impact statement for just Nevada and five other states issued in December estimated that its proposed restrictions would reduce economic output in Nevada each year by $373.5 million, cost $11.3 million in lost state and local tax revenue and reduce employment by 739 jobs every year for the next 20 years.

For the 20-year life of the land restrictions, the six states would lose $16 billion in economic output and 38,700 jobs, as well as $520 million in tax revenue.

Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may email him at thomasmnv@yahoo.com. He also blogs at http://4thst8.wordpress.com/.

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