WildEarth Guardians

A Force for Nature

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Trump’s Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue flew into Missoula on June 12 to sign a memorandum directing the U.S. Forest Service to essentially double-down on its continued push to prioritize logging, mining, drilling and grazing, all while limiting environmental reviews. During the campaign-style signing event, Secretary Perdue—a former agribusiness CEO whose previous political campaigns were bankrolled by Monsanto and Big Ag interests—not only bragged that “we see trees as a crop,” but also ironically compared America’s bedrock environmental laws to “bubble wrap.” Apparently it was lost on Secretary Perdue that bubble wrap protects valuable things from being destroyed.

Missing from the secretary’s statements was any recognition that America’s national forests, 193 million acres in all, are actually diverse ecosystems that are home to hundreds of imperiled fish and wildlife species, and contain the last remnants of wildlands in this country that millions of people cherish. The secretary failed to mention how numerous communities rely on national forests to provide clean drinking water, or the fact that intact forests do more to remove atmospheric carbon than do stumps. In fact, national forests have a crucial role to play as part of global, natural climate change solutions.

Returning to the past, when resource extraction and exploitation ruled the land is hardly a blueprint for the future. Yet, this is exactly what the secretary ordered and what the Trump administration has been pursuing from Day One. In fact, Perdue’s memorandum comes on the heels of two recent Trump Executive Orders allowing industry and federal agencies to waive compliance with long-standing environmental laws that safeguard fish and wildlife. These orders follow Trump’s wholesale rolling back of rules requiring federal agencies to involve the public, take a hard look at the environmental consequences of its actions, and consider alternatives.

A recent Journal of Forestry article demonstrates the rationale for these rollbacks and attacks is baseless. Even without further “streamlining processes,” the Forest Service approved over 80% of projects between 2005-2018 by categorically excluding them from environmental analysis. The same study also showed that less than 1% of all projects were challenged in court.

Of course, this administration and industry proponents would never let facts change their story, especially when it plays on people’s fears and hopes. For years, those opposed to public land protection keep weaving nostalgic hints of returning to the good ole days when the mills were humming and the logging trucks filled with big trees, all the while knowing economics and automation make this impossible. At the same time, they use fear of wildfires as cover for industrial logging, sidestepping the reality that climate change and the historic drought gripping much of the West increases wildfire risks far more than cutting trees will ever address. The wildfires we see today matches what climate science tells us. If we truly want to see fewer large-scale wildfires, then we need to stop burning fossil fuels and do more to preserve intact, mature forests. Further, it is hubris to believe, and irresponsible to purport, that timber harvest will prevent wildfires. No one talks about hurricane-proofing the Gulf Coast, or tornado-proofing Oklahoma, but the Forest Service suggests if given enough latitude it can reduce forest fires – though the degree of which is left to the public’s imagination and that’s the point.

Ultimately, Secretary Perdue and the Trump administration believe national forests are little more than crops and the best, highest use for public lands is to exploit them with more logging, grazing, mining and drilling. The fact is, national forests and public lands are complex, living ecosystems with inherent value that deserves our moral consideration. These public lands are homes to grizzly bears, mountain goats, elk, trout, salmon and a whole host of other iconic wildlife species. Their survival depends on us, and we need to be better environmental citizens with our non-human neighbors.

America does need a “modernization blueprint” for the future of national forests, one that re-envisions their purpose so we can move beyond viewing forests simply as sources of lumber. In the 21st century, we need to strengthen forest protection, maximize the ability of national forests to serve as part of natural climate change solutions, and heal the scars left from decades of exploitation through true restoration, which cannot be done with a chainsaw.

TAKE ACTION! Tell Secretary Sonny Perdue to protect, not destroy, National Forests.

On August 17, a federal judge ruled that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) failed to take necessary steps to ensure survival and recovery of Upper Willamette River wild spring Chinook salmon and winter steelhead in violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

This ground-breaking decision came in response to a lawsuit filed by WildEarth Guardians, Northwest Environmental Defense Center, Native Fish Society, and Advocates for the West in 2018.

Western rivers, including Oregon’s Willamette, are strangled by dams that generate unnatural flows, block fish migration, and impact water quality. Dams on four key tributaries of the Willamette River block 40 to 90 percent of fish spawning habitat leading to a perilous decline in wild fish. Modifying dam operations to prioritize fish passage is vital to ensuring native fish and ecosystems can thrive.

The judge’s ruling holds the Corps responsible for the destruction caused by a century of dam building. The court affirmed what we knew all along—the Corps and NMFS must act to protect a living Willamette River and ensure wild fish recover and persist for generations to come.

Stay tuned for a ruling on the remedy to these egregious violations of the ESA. Briefing is to commence in the coming weeks and we will be back in touch with an update soon.

Your actions and financial support are vital to our work protecting living rivers and stopping extinction. You helped make this victory possible. Your continued support and partnership will enable Guardians to keep defending the wild fish and wild rivers of the American West.

WildEarth Guardians and allies have filed our opening brief in a lawsuit to require the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore proven safeguards for the protection and recovery of imperiled grizzly bears, Canada lynx, wolverine, and bull trout on the Flathead National Forest in northwest Montana. Our lawsuit claims that the recently revised Forest Plan for the Flathead National Forest violates the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act by favoring destructive activities such as logging, grazing, road building, and motorized use over protection and restoration of these species and their habitats.

The new Forest Plan is critical because it will govern all future activities on the 2.4 million-acre Flathead National Forest for the next 15 years or more. As part of the “Crown of the Continent,” the Flathead is a haven of rugged mountain peaks, rich, thick forests, and cool, clean mountain streams, with some of the last remaining intact wilderness and free-flowing rivers on the continent. Unfortunately, outside of protected wilderness, this national forest suffers from a long history of unsustainable logging, an excessive road system, and motorized use, including ATVs and snowmobiles, that harm and harass wildlife, fragment fish and wildlife habitat, and degrade sensitive riparian areas and water quality.

“The Flathead National Forest plays an essential role in the long-term recovery of grizzly bears and other imperiled species,” explained Adam Rissien, ReWilding Advocate for WildEarth Guardians. “In its recent decision overturning the de-listing of the Yellowstone grizzly bear population, the Ninth Circuit recognized the importance of inter-population connectivity and genetic exchange to ensure the grizzly bear’s long-term health and recovery. The Flathead’s revised Forest Plan fails to ensure this connectivity and thus threatens grizzly bear recovery as well as other species such as threatened bull trout and lynx.”

Read the press release.

On June 29, WildEarth Guardians joined over 200 wildlife, conservation, and environmental justice groups in supporting several provisions of The Moving Forward Act, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives on July 1, 2020. The $1.5 trillion infrastructure package includes a number of provisions identified in the groups’ recent $25 billion Restoring Work, Restoring Wild request to Congress. That request urged Congress to use the opportunity of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic to “revive the United States economy by investing $25 billion in new and existing conservation programs that will create hundreds of thousands of direct jobs and provide benefits to people, communities and the environment.”

Specific components of the Restoring Work, Restoring Wild request that are incorporated into The Moving Forward Act include:

An impassible culvert on the Mount Hood National Forest, Oregon. Funding for the Legacy Roads and Trails Remediation Program will enable the U.S. Forest Service to restore streams and repair or replace culverts to ensure fish passage.

  • $300 million from the National Highway Performance Program for wildlife crossing project such as the construction of overpasses and underpasses for wildlife to safely cross highways to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions.
  • The bipartisan Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act, which provides critical funding for states, tribes, landowners and federal agencies to identify and protect wildlife corridors.
  • A $3 billion grant program for coastal and Great Lakes resilience and restoration, as well as a separate grant program to build living shorelines to support flood resilience.
  • $50 million per year for the Legacy Roads and Trails Remediation Program, which has a proven history of success and has created many thousands of jobs while restoring fish and wildlife habitat.
  • principles of environmental justice and generally maintains the integrity of our nation’s bedrock environmental laws.

The Moving Forward Act is a forward-looking effort to revive the economy and create good jobs while also addressing climate change, improving drinking water and air quality, and protecting fish and wildlife habitat. Instead of returning to “normal,” Congress has an opportunity—indeed a duty—to step up to safeguard the environment, workers and the public, and create more resilient ecosystems, public health benefits, and quality of life improvements in communities throughout the United States. The Moving Forward Act is a good first step.

Read the press release.

The U.S House of Representatives announced this week that the Moving Forward Act designed to improve green infrastructure and reduce climate impacts includes a provision called “The Forest Service Legacy Roads and Trails Remediation Program.” Incorporated from legislation previously introduced by U.S. Representatives Kim Schrier and Derek Kilmer from Washington state, this much-needed program will address aging and obsolete Forest Service transportation infrastructure to improve fish migration, water quality, imperiled species habitat, and future resilience to storms.

The U.S. Forest Service manages a massive road and trail system, including more than 370,000 miles of roads, 159,000 miles of trails, hundreds of thousands of culverts and more than 13,000 bridges. Twice as many miles as the national highway system, the Forest Service road system demands considerably more maintenance attention than current funding allows and every year the deferred maintenance backlog grows. The Forest Service currently reports an astounding $3.2 billion road maintenance backlog. In addition to the official road system, the National Forests are haunted by a ghost system of tens of thousands of miles of abandoned and obsolete roads, a legacy of the big timber era.

“The Forest Service not only has a responsibility to uphold Clean Water Act standards set by the states, but also for the 3,400 communities that rely on national forests as drinking water sources,” said Marlies Wierenga, Pacific Northwest conservation manager for WildEarth Guardians. “This program gives the Forest Service a real tool to meet this responsibility. We thank Representatives Schrier and Kilmer for leading this effort to protect clean water.”

Read the press release.

The small crew of women met in the parking lot of Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge at 9:00 AM sharp. They were armed with gloves, buckets, and trowels. Their mission: removing invasive plants from a newly established prairie dog colony.

The crew consisted of Lindsey Sterling-Krank and Jenny Bryant from the Prairie Dog Coalition; their volunteer Hannah Reeves; Pam Wanek, a prairie dog relocator; and Taylor Jones with WildEarth Guardians. The prairie dogs were recent transplants from a construction site in Parker, Colorado. The newly established colony was thriving; pups were up and about, and sentries chirped warning calls at the approach of humans. But the prairie dogs still needed a little help transforming their section of Rocky Flats back to healthy native prairie. And the crew was here to provide that help.

Dalmatian toadflax is very pretty, with yellow flowers resembling snapdragons. It was imported from Eurasia for its looks—then it went wild. It is one of the many nonnative plants crowding out natives in grasslands hammered by livestock grazing and other human uses.

The best way to get rid of Dalmation toadflax is simple hand-weeding. The crew waited until after a spring rain, and then quickly sprang into action to remove the weeds before they went to seed and spread. Removing this invasive plant makes room for native plants and flowers, restoring the grassland to its natural state.

Prairie dogs are a keystone species of the grassland—they trim vegetation, providing habitat patches for flowering plants and ground-nesting birds like mountain plovers. They turn the soil, increase water absorption, and redistribute nutrients. Their burrows are home to many other species including burrowing owls, snakes, salamanders, rabbits, and insects. And as a prey species, they provide sustenance to a wide variety of animals including black-footed ferrets, coyotes, badgers, swift foxes, bald and golden eagles, and ferruginous hawks.

But sadly, there are few places left where prairie dogs truly fulfill their keystone role. Human-caused threats stemming from crop agriculture, livestock grazing, energy development, residential and commercial development, prairie dog shooting, poisoning campaigns, and plague (an introduced disease) have caused the five species of prairie dogs to disappear from an estimated 87 to 99 percent of their historic range, depending on the species. With them went the black-footed ferret, now one of the most endangered animals in North America.

Restoring prairie dogs to their keystone role is a long-standing goal of both Prairie Dog Coalition and WildEarth Guardians, though the two groups work toward that goal in different ways. WildEarth Guardians has focused mainly on policy and law. The group tried for many years to get black-tailed prairie dogs listed under the Endangered Species Act. They also analyzed and graded state policies regarding prairie dogs for a decade. Prairie Dog Coalition’s main focus has been relocation of prairie dogs away from sites where they are in danger of being poisoned or bulldozed to protected sites like wildlife refuges or national grasslands. The two groups recently came together to create a guidance document for communities interested in implementing humane prairie dog management plans. Since most species of prairie dog are not protected under federal or state law, cities, towns, and municipalities can play an important role in prairie dog conservation and avoid unnecessary killing of prairie dogs by including prairie dogs in their planning processes. Good planning facilitates relocation projects like the one that saved the prairie dogs now thriving on Rocky Flats.

The project was a success—the crew removed a truckload of Dalmation toadflax. Weeding the vast expanse of prairie by hand may seem like a daunting task, but every bit of work is a step closer to a healthy, whole native grassland. With the prairie dogs keeping vigil behind them, the crew left at the end of the day with the satisfaction of knowing they’d made a tangible difference, even just for a small patch of prairie. Sometimes you have to be like a prairie dog; pick your small patch of ground, nurture and defend it, and know that together, you make up a great ecosystem of helping hands making it easier for nature to heal itself.

The entrance to the prairie dog relocation site on Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Taylor Jones, WildEarth Guardians.


A few examples of the subtle beauty of prairie wildflowers. Photo by Taylor Jones, WildEarth Guardians.


This baby rattlesnake is just one of the many animals that call the prairie dog colony home. Photo by Pam Wanek.


Dalmatian toadflax, the invasive Eurasian plant we were focused on removing. Photo by Taylor Jones, WildEarth Guardians.

Lindsey Sterling-Krank of the Prairie Dog Coalition with a truck full of invasive Dalmatian toadflax. Note the COVID-19 safety procedures in place. Photo by Jenny Bryant.

National forests and grasslands spread across almost 10% of the United States. They are held in trust for the American people—but are managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Unlike national parks, extractive activities like logging, mining, drilling, and livestock grazing are allowed on national forests. Yet these activities have left a legacy of deep scars on the landscape, pollution in the air and water, and continue to cause harm. Some of the biggest problems across these lands and waters stem from a crumbling road infrastructure—built for the logging boom in the 1970’s and now a disastrous liability, particularly under a changing climate.

It is critical that changes be made now to restore national forests and ensure they are more resilient. WildEarth Guardians developed this handout to share with all, which provides an abbreviated summary of the impacts from climate change related to transportation infrastructure as well as recommendations for adaptation. More details, as well as all references can be found in Section II of “Environmental Consequences of Forest Roads and Achieving a Sustainable Road System.”

I can’t help but steal the epigraph from Greg Grandin’s new book The End of the Myth (2019) to roll us into this week’s post. Award winning Canadian essayist and poet Anne Carson hits the mother of the All-American nail on the head with this quote, as if tolling the bell for the exceptionalism-fueled frontierism that has been propelling us deeper and deeper into denial and factionalism for decades, centuries even.

Last week we exchanged niceties with Turner’s Frontier Thesis. This week we’re going to accept Grandin’s premise, that we’ve reached the end of the “Western” frontier, and all the mythologies that have been buoyed up by it since the birth of this country. But instead of speculating about the further division and fear that has been wrought by this expiration of false frontier narratives, as Grandin does, I’d like to think instead about what this national “turning inward” could mean for large landscape conservation. If the duality of the emergent and constraining properties of the idea of the frontier were entirely a product of the American imagination, how can we harness the power of that social construction and use it now as the foundation for a new way of being together, with each other and with the world of wild around us.

But first, after last week’s ramble, I realized I’d failed to engage in one of the most important processes taught to me as a former student of linguistic anthropology: define your terms! Typically, I start by consulting my 1984 edition of the Compact Oxford English Dictionary, Volume I, A-O. (The “compactness of this set of two 10 pound tomes that require a magnifying glass to read each entry continues to elude me.) I then researched any etymological historical essays that had been published regarding the word “frontier.” Both exercises proved to be fruitful and further fodder for my hypothesis of “reimagining the frontier for good.”  

So now you know, I’m a word nerd. Judge me as you will. But stick with me here, friends. For, as the persecuted early 20th century Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin noted, “The word in language is half someone else’s.” In other words (no pun intended), each word carries a whole history of meaning that has preceded its current use. But it also holds a whole future potential of individual intention and expression. Each word undergoes a small metamorphosis with each new utterance. 

The other fascinating piece of etymological history came from a JSTOR (which is generously offering FREE access right now because of COVID, check it out!) April 1948 edition of Agricultural History in an article by Fulmer Mood (no joke, that’s his name) titled, “Notes on the History of the Word Frontier.” Besides some amusingly anachronistic quotes from stodgy 19th century college presidents re: frontierism, my big takeaway was that the word frontier didn’t start to appear in popular vocabulary reference manuals with consistency until the 1920s and 30s, which is more than a few decades past when “the West was being won.” Not unlike the critique issued by Bernard DeVoto that was referenced in last week’s post, it seems likely that the idea of “the frontier” was a retrospective, romantic, myth-making device used to refashion American history in a way that justified bad behavior and rapacious appetites. But the word should not be discarded and its meaning written off as antediluvian. 

Russian philosophy and out-dated academic publications aside, what I propose is that we take what the OED lists as the second definition of “frontier” as a verb: 1. To be a frontier, or as a frontier; to border on or upon, and 2. To look upon the frontier, boundary, or coast of; to face, and declare ourselves Frontierspeople. Let us rally around bold initiatives like Campaign for Nature’s 30X30 (sign the petition!), which insists that we must conserve 30% of our global lands and seas by 2030 in order to sustain life on Earth, including human life. Or Senator Tom Udall (NM) and Senator Michael Bennet’s (CO) 30X30 Resolution, which essentially sets a similar goal but focuses on US large landscape conservation. And support WildEarth Guardian’s Wild Places program, with campaigns like Rewild Lands and Waters, that endeavors to create healthy lands and waters for all the communities that depend upon them. We are actively frontiering. We are looking upon the frontier, facing the boundary of the human experience. And we are choosing a new way of defining ourselves, one that reckons with our dark past of settler colonialism, our self-entitled, self-interested exceptionalism, our inexcusable domination and oppression of the Other, in all its human and more-than-human incarnations. And now we reimagine the frontier of our own obligations, to one another and to our world, and we plant ourselves firmly on the side of responsible stewards of the land and advocates for health, for our environment, our community and the dynamic, coexistent relationship between the two.

Each week, the Greater Gila Campaign Team of Leia Barnett and Madeleine Carey will share what they are reading, listening to, and watching and how it shapes the connections they draw between the current crisis and their work to conserve large landscapes.

The Forest Service faces many challenges with its vastly oversized, under-maintained, and unaffordable transportation system. With over 370,000 miles of system roads and more than 137,000 miles of system trails, the network extends broadly across every national forest and grassland and through a variety of habitats, ecosystems and terrains. An impressive body of evidence demonstrates the harmful environmental consequences to water, fish, wildlife, and ecosystems as a whole from the agency’s vast road and trail system.

In 2014, The Wilderness Society conducted a comprehensive literature review of published articles documenting the impacts from forest roads and trails in a report titled, Transportation Infrastructure and Access on National Forests and Grasslands: A Literature Review. Since its release, the report’s findings and supporting documentation have been an invaluable tool for the conservation community helping bolster comments on Forest Service projects and plans, and by providing supporting evidence in efforts to help educate the public and decision makers.

Road failure on the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington. Photo by WildEarth Guardians.

Since the literature review’s initial release, the body of evidence demonstrating the harm from forest roads and motorized use continued to expand. Most notable is the list of reports and articles demonstrating that not only is the Forest Service’s transportation infrastructure highly vulnerable to climate change, but also that roads exacerbate climate change’s harmful effects to other resources. In addition, recent articles explain that protecting and expanding intact forests could be an important part of global efforts to promote natural climate change solutions. Returning roads to nature would restore the soil’s ability to sequester carbon. Expanding roadless areas would increase the ability of forests to remove excess carbon from the air. In addition, the intersection between forest roads and wildfires is an important dynamic, and several reports find a correlation between human ignitions and road access.

In order to capture the evolving science, WildEarth Guardians updated and revised The Wilderness Society’s 2014 report. Our paper, now titled The Environmental Consequences of Forest Roads and Achieving a Sustainable Road System, adds fifty-nine citations to the original review and features several new sections. Notably, our report discusses the agency’s failed efforts to reduce road impacts and how the Forest Service can make the system more sustainable.

The full report is available on the WildEarth Guardians website.

As “Stay Home-Stay Safe” orders have shrunk many of our worlds to the footprint of our house, apartment, or bedroom, I find myself noticing the smaller world of fresh blossoms on the red flowering currant or the new bird song that was added to this week’s chorus. I also notice the dirt in the corners of my home, the water stains on the windows, the peeling paint, and, and, and….

Yet, what I really start dreaming about are the wild places in the national parks, forests, state lands, and beaches that are currently closed to public access. I feel an overwhelming longing to get to a trail I love or camp along a river. The draw to those places and being outside, especially during this time of stress, is intense.

Maybe that urge to access what is closed is also driven by the Forest Service project that I’m currently reading and evaluating during the “public comment period,” which is required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). NEPA provides all of us the opportunity to speak our mind about what happens on public lands. The key components of this “restoration” project that I’m most focused on are related to improving the streams, stream habitat, and overall watershed condition. And the component that has the biggest impact is the forest road system—those paved or dirt or gravel roads that deliver us to trailheads, campgrounds, and swimming holes—which also harms wildlife and waterways. This particular project is proposing to “close” or decommission 30% of the current road system.

Most often, Mother Nature dictates which Forest Service roads end up closed. Photo by WildEarth Guardians.

That feels like a lot. Closure has finality to it. Synonyms include: end, conclusion, finish, shutting. But, I read more. Apparently, 130 of the 223 miles of roads in this forest are technically already closed, either because the roads are falling apart, overgrown with vegetation, or simply aren’t used. With too many roads and too little money, the Forest Service loses miles and miles just because they degrade. Decommissioning, which means reclaiming the road and turning it back to a more natural state, is often proposed for roads that are mostly already closed, overgrown, and/or undriveable.

Portions of this road eroded away because of storms, undersized culverts, lack of maintenance funds and now costly repairs to reconstruct. Photo by USFS.

The antonym of closure is opening. I see that happening here. With every mile that is decommissioned, we get habitat for black bears, Pacific fisher, or salmon stitched back together—reconnected. For every truckload of sediment that is prevented from entering a stream, we get clear water that is cleaner for drinking water suppliers. For every dispersed camping site moved, we get less wildfire, since in this forest, 90% of the fires have been human-caused at dispersed campsites along roadways. And for every dollar not spent on band-aiding a piece of road that keeps failing, we can spend that dollar on a road that most people use frequently.

This decommissioned road is being reclaimed by nature while still providing access to hiking trails. Photo by WildEarth Guardians.

I understand that some people consider road decommissioning by the Forest Service a “loss of access.” I am relating to this perception now as I wrestle with my own perceived loss of access to my local wild places. But those places are still there and maybe having a chance to rejuvenate a little, while I’m just trying to shift my focus simply on the wild by my house. Perhaps, too, as we emerge from “staying at home” and open up to the outdoors again, we can think of this proposed project as a renewed opening for the people and wildlife that access this corner of the forest.

Healthy humans and healthy watersheds have a synergy. Let’s consider shedding what doesn’t serve us and working towards what does.