August 1, 2007

Western wildfires stir embers of 'Sagebrush Rebellion

Officials call for more grazing on federal land

By John Miller

BOISE, Idaho – Wildfires in several western states have stirred embers of the “Sagebrush Rebellion,” as ranchers and politicians have criticized federal agencies, the courts and environmentalists over policies they say are contributing to the fires.

In July 2006, then-Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., told federal firefighters they'd done a “piss-poor job” on an eastern Montana blaze. He called Boise a ridiculous site from which to coordinate national firefighting strategy at the National Interagency Fire Center.

This year, Nevada's Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons and U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., claimed environmental groups and federal bureaucracy have contributed to fires, including one at Lake Tahoe that burned more than 250 homes.

And this week, Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, a rancher, and the state's two senators, Larry Craig and Mike Crapo, joined ranchers in blaming federal safety rules for crippling early efforts to douse a 1,000-square-mile wildfire near the town of Murphy Hot Springs.

The criticism hearkens back to the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and '80s, when a coalition of mining and grazing interests pressured federal policymakers to cede greater control of federal lands to state and local authorities. Fire seasons often result in a resurgence of such criticism among Westerners, many of whom have spent generations on the land and bristle at being told what to do by the courts or government.

“There is and has been and probably always will be friction between a sovereign state and the federal government, in a state (like Idaho) where the federal government owns two-thirds of the land,” said Idaho Lt. Gov. Jim Risch, a rancher and lawyer. “It's always there, it's always under the surface, and it's something that's a fact of the geography.”

This week, Republicans Otter, Craig and Crapo laid out a litany of complaints: When a July 16 lightning storm rolled through Idaho and Nevada's remote border country, locals with bulldozers stood ready to help build fire lines – only to be told by Bureau of Land Management officials to stay put.

And they blame a 2005 federal court ruling in a lawsuit brought by the Idaho-based environmental group Western Watersheds Project for reducing cattle grazing and allowing fuel buildup, conditions they contend fed the flames that burned an area the size of Rhode Island and cost $9 million to fight.

“The current (federal) management practices helped contribute to this devastation,” Craig said.

Otter demanded a suspension of federal rules governing the circumstances under which firefighting equipment can be deployed, including a requirement that qualified bulldozer supervisors be present to coordinate safety and fire communication.

“For lack of a decision going forward, we lost 700,000 acres,” Otter said.

But environmental groups say the ranchers and politicians want to exploit the fires to expand cattle grazing land, and that allowing that to happen would reduce habitat for species such as sage grouse.

“Ranchers have a sense of entitlement, and it comes in some ways from being able to push the BLM around in the past,” said Katie Fite of the Western Watersheds Project, which aims to end grazing on public lands in the region. “All of a sudden, there's somebody that's not letting them run over the BLM and letting them put more cows out there.”

Singling out grazing reductions as the major cause of the fire near Murphy Hot Springs obscures the complexity of the situation, said BLM spokesman Barry Rose. Years of drought, climate change, high temperatures and other factors, coupled with a storm that in 24 hours blanketed the landscape with 2,600 documented lightning strikes, created an environment where wildfire could spread out of control, he said.

Rose said it's unrealistic to believe that a fire as intense as the one near Murphy Hot Springs could have been stopped cold: The initial flames were 13 feet high and moving at 8½ mph – faster than the 2 to 3 miles of fire line that can be constructed by a bulldozer in an hour.

“People have gotten hurt and killed doing it on their own,” he said.

With the quickly expanding populations in many Western states, these conflicts are likely to continue, especially if wildfires keep their current pace. Wildfires burned nearly 10 million acres last year, a record. Halfway through 2007, 4.92 million acres have burned.