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Secretary of Interior Zinke & Congressman Tipton aggressively pursuing privatization of public lands

by Christine Canaly, Director, 

SLV Ecosystem Council

It’s called the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017 or HB (House Bill) 2936, co-sponsored by our very own Representative from Congressional District 3, Scott Tipton, and Rep. Bruce Westerman, from Arkansas. A toned-down version of this proposed bill passed the House of Representatives in 2015, but didn’t get further. President Obama would have vetoed it.

The Rollback of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) 

Background of NEPA

The San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council (SLVEC), is a public lands advocacy organization (www.slvec.org), and has participated in hundreds of NEPA processes since 1995. NEPA is the nexus for public involvement.  NEPA structures how the public gets involved with responding to a proposed project by soliciting public comment.  NEPA uses formalized timelines, which in turn, obligates government agencies to respond with a range of alternatives (usually three or four) to provide options for various paths of decision making.  Ultimately, by enjoining public scrutiny, a rational, coherent decision can be reached for a given project. This public inclusion is structured through formal analysis called Environmental

Assessments (EAs) or, to deal with complex project proposals, Environmental Impact Statements (EISs).

To give examples and bring this “use of NEPA” process very close to home, the Lexam oil and gas exploratory drilling proposal, the Village at Wolf Creek development and the San Francisco Creek exploratory drilling proposal, were able to be challenged and ultimately stopped because of this public participation.  One of the reasons the NEPA process is in place is to redirect ill-conceived projects that impact public interest and the environment.

Of the hundreds of NEPA processes that SLVEC has been involved with, we have only had to litigate five, which shows that the current system is working well. Most public processes are resolved through this “range of alternatives” selection, when a Record of Decision (ROD) can be reached and implemented. Public agencies need public scrutiny, after all, these lands belong to us, the American public. “More eyes on the land” provide better insight and ultimately a better project is fomented, that encompasses the complexities of managing landscapes that include the protection of wildlife, biodiversity and ecosystem services—clean air, water, healthy soils and carbon sequestering—the unquantifiable values.

NEPA also provided us with the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve Management Plan, the SLV Wildlife Refuge Management Plan and the current Rio Grande National Forest Management Plan revision. Why shouldn’t the public be involved with how these public lands will be managed over the next twenty years? This is a proactive, healthy approach to protecting lands for future generations. So why is it now under ATTACK?

The Republican agenda is about the privatization of our collective public assets, which include: Education, Medicare, the Military, and of course, our beloved public lands. There is nothing creative being currently proposed, this is just a bully wholesale taking of our assets.

So how does self-interest go about structuring such an undertaking? By passing bills like HB 2936 and creating a Zinke “Made In America Recreation Advisory Committee.”

The 2936 bill is divided into ten different titles, including a range of forest management “streamlining” and funding provisions aimed at increasing timber production in the national forests and other federal lands.  The Secretary of the Interior oversees National Parks, Wildlife Refuges and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands.

So, what will HB 2936 do?

• Undermine NEPA alternative analysis by requiring only (2) action/no-action alternatives, instead of providing a “range of alternatives.”

• Drastically cramp NEPA review and the public input timeline after broadly-defined “catastrophic” (weather events and storms) events.

• Further shortens NEPA review to only 2 months—requires the EA to be completed within 60 days after the conclusion of the catastrophic event. (Currently, most EA’s take between 6 months to a year).

• Creates NEPA “Categorical Exclusion” (CA) for a broad range of forest management activities, which means it exempts (removes) NEPA public process entirely by creating a “categorical exclusion” for a broad range of “forest management activities,” specifically, forest management activities that produce timber, with no other benefits.

• In some cases, this categorical exclusion could reach up to 30,000 acres, allowing a categorical exclusion up to nearly 429 times larger than the current 70-acre limitation for timber harvesting.

Just to provide some perspective, 30,000 acres is the same as 47 square miles. As a local comparison, the Baca Mountain Tract (acquired by the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve Act of 2000) is 13,500 acres. So, we are looking at a potential “categorical exclusion” that is almost three times the size of the Baca mountain tract which contains South Crestone, Willow, Spanish, Cottonwood and Deadman’s Creek watersheds.

• Prevents NEPA review on every stage of forest planning by redefining it as not a major federal action.

Limitations on Judicial Review

• Removes citizen ability to challenge projects motivated by self-interest by replacing judicial review of many forest management activities on both national forest and BLM lands with a binding arbitration process.

• The bill would authorize the Forest Service to designate up to 90 projects per year (10 projects in each of the 9 Forest Service regions) for a “discretionary arbitration pilot program.”

• The chosen project would not be subject to judicial review, even if it clearly violated the law.

Eviscerating the Endangered Species Act (ESA)

• Exempts the Forest Service or BLM from consulting with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regarding a forest management activity if the Forest Service or BLM determines that its action is not likely to adversely affect an endangered or threatened species or their designated critical habitat.

• For any forest management activity that is subject to consultation, the bill imposes a 90-day deadline to conclude the consultation, after which the activity is legislatively deemed to be in compliance with the ESA.

• Broadly exempts most forest management activities from compliance with the ESA by stipulating that any such activity “shall be considered a non-discretionary action.”

Undermines protection of Roadless Areas

• Includes convoluted language about roadless area management that could be interpreted to eliminate current regulatory protection of Inventoried Roadless Areas under the 2001 national Roadless Area Conservation Rule and the Idaho and Colorado roadless rules.

Simultaneously, Secretary of the Interior Zinke has just announced a Made In America Recreation Advisory Committee. This committee “will focus on expanding public-private partnerships on America’s public lands with the goal of expanding access to and improving the infrastructure on public lands.”

Zinke’s roundtable participants gave specific examples about how public-private partnerships can make the outdoor recreation experience even better, and how the economy can be impacted by the tens of thousands of American manufacturing jobs that these products support.

“Not everyone can get to the backcountry and sleep in a hammock tethered to a rock wall. We need to encourage families and folks of all interest levels to enjoy our parks and other outdoor areas, making our land accessible to them,” said Zinke. “We have wonderful partners who proudly make their outdoor products in America. We can leverage these partners to help address the maintenance backlog on things like boat ramps, RV hookups, campgrounds, and cafeterias as long as the government is a willing collaborator.”

Coming soon: Public lands open for business; visit your favorite theme park, driving your fossil fuel vehicle

Made in America Partners include: Kirk La – Chairman & CEO – BoatU.S,; Terry MacRae – CEO – Hornblower Cruises; Edward Klim – President – International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association; Tim Buche – President & CEO – Motorcycle Industry Council; Phil Ingrassia – President – Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association; Frank Hugelmeyer – President – Recreation Vehicle Industry Association; Tim Rout – CEO – AccessParks; Thomas Dammrich – President – National Marine Manufacturers Association; Duane Taylor – Exec Director – National Off-Highway Vehicle Conservation Council. We get the picture.

If you combine HB 2936 with whom Secretary Zinke is choosing to surround himself, our public lands are now being opened up for wholesale exploitation. Land grabs for oil and gas leasing, fossil fuel recreation access, coupled with restricting our public input to demand accountability. It’s a recipe for disaster. The public, common sense balance that NEPA has provided since 1969 is now on the chopping block, driven by total ignorance regarding the fragmentation and evisceration of our beloved landscape that contain biodiversity and species that deserve our long-term stewardship and protection.

We need our forests, national parks, wildlife refuges and BLM lands to buffer climate change, not to be curried into a Las Vegas motor show. This creates distraction from the real solution of us as human beings understanding our limitations and developing healthy boundaries.  Isn’t practicing restraint supposed to be the backbone and philosophy of the conservative party?

Please contact Rep. Scott Tipton’s offices and tell him this is a bad bill and his constituency deserves better representation that will not tolerate the undermining of future generations of human, wildlife and biodiverse species.

Send an e-mail: https://tipton.house.gov/contact/email.

Tipton Government offices (contact all of them):

Washington, DC

202-225-4761

Alamosa

719-587-5105

Durango

970-259-1490

Grand Junction

970-241-2499

Pueblo

719-542-1073

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Saguache County Assessor Peterson corrects thousands of property valuations

by Lisa Cyriacks

Some property owners in Saguache County were dismayed when they received the re-evaluation notices for 2017. Some reported that property values declined significantly, others complained about receiving valuations that doubled. Most questioned what was going on.

Saguache County Assessor Peter Peterson advised the Board of County Commissioners shortly after notices were mailed May 1, that his staff had identified a “glitch” in the system. When the conversion to a new system was performed in September 2016 to convert data to a new system, a data glitch added square footage to homes with higher values resulting in the large and inaccurate increases.

To further complicate things, it was discovered that not every property owner received a Notice of Valuation for 2017 in the mail.

The Assessor’s Office has already reviewed the 249 protests filed before June 1. Notices of Determination were mailed to those protestors.  Most accepted the revised valuations provided by the Assessor’s Office, with only a handful expected to appear before the County Board of Equalization.

The Assessor’s Office, under advisement by the State Property Tax Division, reviewed the 13,000+ property records one by one in order to determine the additional properties were affected.

Assessor Peter Peterson: “The error has been corrected and those accounts who protested their Notice of Valuation have been notified of change of value. For those accounts that did not file a protest, they will receive a letter correcting the value of improvements on their property. “

Peterson estimates that as many as 500 additional properties could have been affected by the data glitch, but did not receive protests or complaints. Property owners who are affected by the glitch containing incorrect data and who did not protest their valuation will be sent letters with corrected valuations for improvements on residential properties. No appeal is necessary. If recipients wish to protest the changed valuation and file for an abatement, they can do so when Property Tax Notices are sent in January 2018.

Additionally, Peterson has identified another 2,038 properties with incorrect valuations due to land value data that was omitted when County records were converted from the old appraisal software system to the current Tyler Technologies system (aka EagleWeb).

The County Board of Equalization met in a public hearing late July and approved the changes in valuation based the Assessor’s addition of omitted values to affected properties.  In accordance with statutory requirements, property owners so affected will receive a letter with the changes in property valuation due to adding the omitted values.

If property owners disagree with this action of the County Board, they may file an appeal with the State Board of Assessment Appeals or the District Court, or request a binding arbitration hearing. The appeal must be made within 30 days of the date of the County Board’s mailed decision.

Cleanup of Saguache County property assessment rolls has been an ongoing process instigated by the State Property Tax Division issuing reappraisal orders in 2013.

Curt Settle, Deputy Property Tax Administrator, commends the current Assessor, Peter Peterson, for recognizing the source of the problem and taking steps to correct the problems in the data coding. The State Board of Equalization will receive the audit for Saguache County this fall and it will be reviewed to assure that these corrections were enough.

The Assessor’s Office welcomes any questions and are available at the courthouse from 8am to 4pm or by telephone at 655-2521.

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