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On Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives will hold a hearing on at least one bill to address the expiration of the Secure Rural Schools Act (SRS), which supplies rural counties with federal cash to counterbalance declining forest products revenues. As it turns out, the federal government is out of money.

The imminent end of SRS is of some serious concern to North Idaho counties which have received millions of dollars in direct annual payments which may no longer arrive. Recently, several Idaho counties floated a trial balloon for a “Community Forest Trust” in which the federal government would set aside some 200,000 acres of federal forest lands in Idaho for local management under local laws for local revenues.

While we’re sincerely sympathetic to the plight of the rural counties, we’re concerned that some of the solutions proposed so far are ill-advised, and would likely compound the problem of funding local government services. In a letter sent today to the Shoshone County Commissioners who solicited our input on the counties’ proposal, KEA noted:

The proposal would essentially transfer land out of public control and established multiple-use management and would eliminate environmental and procedural protections that have served to improve our forests, watersheds, and wildlife resources.  Moreover, ultimately, we don’t know that such a proposal would solve the structural economic problems the SRS was intended to bridge.

Our letter described major concerns with the environmental protections, the selection of the trust lands, the accountability of the trust and trustees, the value lost to the federal taxpayer, and the legal difficulties posed by federal ownership but local control.  But our letter was also concerned about the failure to see handwriting on the wall:

While we absolutely concur that rural Idaho counties need a long-term solution for schools and roads funding, ultimately, coupling a solution to federal lands management may be too constrictive. For example, broadband, health care, education, and clean energy are economic sectors we’d emphasize for more sustained growth, and we’d certainly hope Congress would focus on those opportunities in the SRS reauthorization debate.

Indeed, this proposal of a Community Forest Trust appears to be a doubling-down on a bet that forest resources will be an economic engine like it was several decades ago.  Unfortunately, there’s just no evidence that it’ll work. Currently on the Idaho Panhandle National Forest, there is a huge backlog inventory of timber “sold” by the federal government but not yet actually cut. And mills continue to close — not for lack of timber supply, but for lack of product demand. A Community Forest Trust, which would presumably put more timber onto the market to generate revenue for the Trust, would only compound the current supply and demand imbalance.

This is a tough spot for counties, which will have immediate financial needs that will go unmet if SRS isn’t reauthorized. There are lots of ideas on how to do things better. But the counties shouldn’t be clamoring for Congress to make things worse.

Update 9/21: Here’s a statement from Congressman Labrador. “Congressman Labrador and the county commissioners from throughout Idaho were unanimous in their desire to find a solution that would increase the revenue stream from our federal forests.”  Why? “Diseased forests on a colossal scale in immediate danger of catastrophic wildfire.”  No risk of understatement by our Congressman.

 

 

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As the economic crisis in Europe gets closer to the brink of disaster, as the housing and mortgage mess shows no sign of resolution, as political gridlock messes with the country’s credit rating, this is what we get from leadership in Congress:

Which is, of course, nonsense.

Indeed, the rhetoric about EPA regulation from our Idaho representation is increasingly over the top. (Really, Senator Risch? The EPA is like the Gestapo?) We get that there are ideological differences. We are perfectly aware of the onslaught of anti-environment legislation being proposed in this Congress. We’d just prefer that the debate remain fact-based and on the merits, however.

 

 

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Always busy at KEA, it seems even busier lately.  Some things going on that we care about:

The megaloads controversy remains as muddled as ever. Idaho has given a go-ahead to trips up Highway 95 from Lewiston, through Moscow and Coeur d’Alene, and then along I-90 through Montana to Canada’s tar sands.  Two were permitted, but only one smaller load has traveled through town. The permit for the second, larger one has expired, but ITD has indicated a willingness to issue permits on demand and could come any time. Meanwhile, a Montana court has halted trips along the Highway 12 corridor due to a failure to do a proper environmental analysis. That case is likely to be appealed by the oil companies.  And finally, as a reminder that highway transport is not without accidents, there’s a huge roll of toilet paper sitting in the Lochsa River at the moment. – Missoulian

We knew it was going to be a problem, and sure enough, the Sierra Club and the Center for Environmental Law and Policy have filed a lawsuit over PCB pollution in the Spokane River. According to the lawsuit, the Washington Department of Ecology is violating the law by failing to prepare a plan for cleaning up PCBs in the River. – Spokane Riverkeeper at Center for Justice

The debt ceiling debate may be getting all the attention in Washington DC, but Congress is still causing environmental mischief.  Perhaps having learned a lesson in allowing environmental riders in the continuing resolution battle months ago, the administration has recently issued several clear veto threats on anti-environmental bills and budget riders. — The Wildlife News

Finally, we’re still very much Woodsy the Owl aficionados, and we came across this lament recently. Has Smokey the Bear completely overtaken Woodsy as the charismatic mega-mascot for conservation?  Give a hoot. Environmental Law Prof Blog

 

 

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We meant to get back to our brief mention of potential Congressional action to destroy the Clean Water Act. The cynically named “Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act,” HB 2018, turns the long-standing successful structure of the Clean Water Act on its head, stripping EPA oversight over water quality programs in the states.

The Clean Water Act has been a prime example of “cooperative federalism” common to environmental (and other federal) laws. Generally, the federal enabling legislation sets a basic structure and sets minimum standards and allows states do the implementation. NRDC explains it in this way:

The federal Clean Water Act provides a safety net for waterways across the country, where states must implement minimum provisions to protect water quality.  States can always do more if they so choose, but the law recognizes that Americans deserve a minimum standard of protection no matter where they live, and the Clean Water Act is designed to prevent a “race to the bottom” in places where the benefits of clean water may be ignored for short term economic or political gain.  

Now, Congress is preparing to eliminate the safety net. The opening statement of EPA’s “Technical Assessment H.R. 2018” says it bluntly:  “The bill would overturn almost 40 years of federal legislation by preventing EPA from protecting public health and water quality.”  Furthermore, EPA’s assessment of HB 2018 says:

  • “The bill would prevent EPA from providing its views on whether a proposed project that pollutes or even destroys lakes, streams, or wetlands would violate Clean Water Act standards.”
  • “The bill would remove EPA’s existing state coordination role and eliminate the careful Federal/State balance established in the current Clean Water Act.”
  • “The bill would prevent EPA from protecting communities from unacceptable adverse impacts to their water supplies and the environment caused by Federal permits.”
  • “The bill would substantively eliminate the opportunity for EPA, the federal government’s expert on water quality, to comment on Federal permits impacting water quality and public health.

Ironically, Idaho is one of very few states that have not claimed control of Clean Water Act permitting, so some of the provisions would not “benefit” Idaho’s fiercely anti-federal attitudes.

Much of this congressional activity is rooted in the new politics in the U.S. House of Representatives, and simmering controversies over cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay and lakes in Florida, and over EPA’s skepticism over mountaintop removal coal mining in West Virginia. Notwithstanding the specific regional concerns, it seems that forces in Congress seem bent on destroying the whole Clean Water Act for the whole of the country.  By all accounts, this is the most serious attack on clean water in a long long time.

We’ve posted one link to take action via our local Waterkeepers. Here’s another one to take action via NRDC. Representatives — even the ones in Idaho — should hear from constituents who think that our water quality protections should be improved – not sacrificed on behalf of polluting industries in the service of some phony “federalism.”

UPDATE 7/12: The White House today issued a very rare veto threat on HB 2018. (A pdf) We hope it works.

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Idaho and Montana wolves have had a pretty tough week. First, the wolf-panicked Idaho legislature authorized the Governor to take “disaster emergency” actions.  Then, the wolves were a subject of one of the few “policy riders” to survive the government shutdown budget brinksmanship. And on Saturday, even though it may not matter anymore, Judge Malloy in Montana tossed the proposed settlement of the continuing litigation over delisting the wolves from Endangered Species Act protections in the Northern Rockies.

What does it all mean? It’s maybe too early to say, but odds on a wolf hunt this fall are certainly not as long as they were a couple of days ago.

Here’s some of what we’ve been reading about it all:

Idaho legislature passes “wolf disaster emergency” legislation, making westerners look like wimps — Idaho Mountain Express

An editorial about the legislature’s not-exactly-scientific approach to wolves  — Idaho Statesman

Judge Malloy declines to accept the proposed settlement. — Idaho Statesman

The actual Malloy opinion, linked here,  is well-written and fascinating reading. (All the legal arguments, from all the parties, are linked here.)  — via Wildlife News

All that work by Judge Malloy may soon be moot.  The wolf rider is still attached to the federal budget resolution.  — Spokesman Review

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In a move that may, or may not, resolve the federal lawsuit over the delisting of wolves from Endangered Species Act protections, 10 of the 14 conservation and wildlife organizations that filed the lawsuit have agreed to a tentative settlement. Also, the tentative agreement may, or may not, cause Congress to reconsider efforts to delist wolves legislatively.

The agreement would be subject to approval by Judge Malloy in the federal courtroom in Montana, and subject to a number of procedural niceties. The basics of the agreement would return wolves to state management in Idaho and Montana, but not Wyoming or other bordering states with still-recovering populations of wolves. The agreement would also set up a scientific panel within two years to evaluate wolf recovery numbers in the region.

The deal, theoretically, eliminates any need for Congressional action, and notably, the settlement agreement states that it is “null and void” if Congress acts to delist wolves. Still, it appears as if Idaho’s Congressional delegation, all Republicans, are not backing off. However, the deal does have support from Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat. And Senator Max Baucus, a Democrat critical in Congressional budget negotiations, was non-committal.

We’re still parsing the words of the settlement, the words from congressional and political leaders, and words of the organizations involved in the lawsuit. Here’s what we’re reading:

Here’s the actual proposed settlement agreement (pdf)

Clear-eyed reporting and analysis from Idaho Statesman’s Rocky Barker.  And Montana reporting from the Missoulian.

Statements from Rep. Mike Simpson, Sen. Mike Crapo, Sen. Jim Risch, and Sen. Max Baucus.

The statement from the Interior Department regarding the settlement.

Statements from WildEarth Guardians (one of the groups not agreeing to the settlement), Defenders of Wildlife (and the other groups signing on to the settlement) and EarthJustice (formerly attorneys for all the groups, but now, because of the split, not attorneys for any of them).

UPDATE 3/20: More analysis from the Statesman’s Rocky Barker.

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Many of you got the franked mailing from Raul Labrador announcing tonight’s first public town meeting in Coeur d’Alene since being elected to Congress last fall. The meeting comes just as the U.S. House of Representatives, under new GOP leadership, passed a contentious version of a continuing resolution to keep funding the government.

We’re looking forward to the meeting, because we think there’s some explanation that Raul owes his Northern Idaho constituents. We certainly understand the need to cut the budget, and we understand the mood of the electorate last fall signaled that direction for Congress. What we don’t understand is the collateral attacks on environmental protection that have very little to do with the budget deficit.

For example, how is the budget deficit served by refusing to enforce the Clean Air Act for mercury pollution from cement kilns? Most of Idaho’s waterways have a mercury pollution problem severe enough that deserve fish consumption advisories are probably warranted. With Idaho leadership, we recently took a step forward by regulating mercury emissions in gold-processing facilities, now, nationally, we take two steps back.

More broadly, how is the budget deficit served by not enforcing the Clean Water Act in the Chesapeake Bay? Or in Florida? Or allowing coal burning power plants to dump into waterways? Or allowing arctic drilling without any environmental oversight? Or prohibiting enforcement of the Travel Management Rule in National Forests? Blocking stream buffer rules in the Office of Surface Mining? Applying the Clean Water Act in mining permits?

Like we said, we get the need to cut the budget. We don’t get the need to deregulate industry by budget votes in the middle of the night. We wonder if Congressman Labrador will provide an explanation.

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