Environmental news from around the state and the West.
Leaked Zinke memo snubs public input on Monuments
Last month The Washington Post obtained a leaked memo from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke that recommends drastically reducing the size of both Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase National Monument (GSENM) in Utah, as well as shrinking or altering eight other National Monuments that were on Trump’s Executive Order 13792 hit list.
The White House had been refusing to release the memo which Zinke submitted in August, despite Earthjustice’s Freedom of Information Act request on behalf of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and Natural Resources Defense Council.
Even though 99.2% of 2,836,268 public comments received by the U.S. Department of the interior support keeping national monument boundaries where they are, Zinke claims that “public comments can be divided into two principal groups.” In several places, Zinke’s memo appears to be referencing a lie that participants at town-hall meetings and other events were paid, as when he states, “meetings were not always adequately noticed to all stakeholders and instead were filled with advocates organized by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to promote monument designations. It is worth noting that this dynamic is similarly reflected in the public comment process.”
The obvious intent of this language is to try to discredit pro-monument comments by asserting that they are not representing their own views.
Zinke is also wrong when he asserts, ”Proponents tended to promote monument designation as a mechanism to prevent sale or transfer of public lands. This narrative is false and has no basis in fact.”
In fact, the Utah Legislature’s 2012 “Transfer of Public Lands Act” does require transfer of federal public lands to Utah ownership (albeit with no legal basis), and transfer of public lands is also included in the Republican 2016 Platform which further recommends that Congress let state regulators manage energy resources on federally controlled public lands.
Zinke’s memo says that “areas encompassed within GSENM contain an estimated several billion tons of coal and large oil deposits,” which validates the concern that opening national monuments to fossil fuel development is a primary reason for reducing the boundaries.
Zinke tells another blatant lie when he claims that National Monument status is unnecessary because Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) are already protected. In fact, Wilderness Study Areas are under consideration for addition to the National Wilderness Preservation System, but they have not been officially designated as Wilderness Areas and are highly vulnerable to being “undone.” Environmental groups have been fighting for true Wilderness designation for WSAs in Utah since 1982.
All in all, the Zinke memo shows outright contempt for the U.S. public who clearly stand in strong support of national monuments and contempt for the public process which he dismisses because it contradicts a pre-determined outcome.
Utah proposal to decimate Bears Ears
In September the State of Utah submitted its own proposal asking the U.S. Department of the Interior to literally decimate Bears Ears National Monument, reducing it to a tenth of its current size. Despite hollow promises that the State of Utah would be more responsive than federal agencies for public land management, there was no public process whatsoever behind the Utah proposal. The Salt Lake Tribune had to file a records request to obtain maps of the plan developed by Governor Gary Herbert’s office. The Tribune also obtained a completely different plan for reducing Bears Ears developed by San Juan County two months prior to Zinke’s review of national monuments.
Zinke attacks sage grouse
Trump’s Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke isn’t just bad for national monuments, he’s bad for wildlife habitat, too.
In 2015, the Obama administration hammered out plans to keep sage grouse off of the Endangered Species list by establishing recovery plans in 11 Western states. This past August Zinke issued an order that shifts the focus from habitat conservation to “population objectives” which means if there are a lot of sage grouse in one place, then habitat in other places could be developed for fossil fuels or grazing.
The idea that it is possible to conserve a species without conserving habitat is quite simply contrary to science.
Water conservation strategies from the Utah Rivers Council
Utah Rivers Council (URC) has initiated a new water conservation campaign for Utah called 40 by 30—the goal is to reduce daily water consumption per person 40% by 2030.
Water conservation is necessary to save Utah’s lakes and streams from development and dewatering, and a blueprint for how to do that is detailed in a new report “Alternatives to Bear River Water Development.” The report shows the faulty math that has led to overestimating Utah’s future water needs and describes negative impacts of diverting the Bear River on air quality, wildlife, farming and fishing.
According to the report, the goal can be reached through eight alternatives to big water projects which include conservation pricing, phasing out property taxes that encourage water waste, converting agricultural water, changing landscape ordinances that require grass, metering secondary water, harvesting rain and letting grass turn brown (Don’t worry. It’s only dormant and will turn green again in the spring).
Alternatives to Bear River Water Development utahrivers.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Bear-River-Alternatives.pdf
Trump’s EPA: dirty coal power, dirty air
In 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a Regional Haze Ruling that required Rocky Mountain Power to install pollution controls on coal-fired power plants at Hunter and Huntington. The ruling was a big win for Utah’s chronic air quality problems.
Nevertheless EPA head Scott Pruitt has reversed the requirement claiming that the State of Utah can do better than the federal government writing its own regional haze plan.
The problem is, Utah had a regional haze plan and it was no good. EPA imposed the Regional Haze Ruling in the first place after a lawsuit by WildEarth Guardians challenged Utah’s plan.
What’s more, Utah law says that the State Air Quality Board can’t adopt rules more stringent than federal regulations, so Utah’s air quality standards are the same as federal standards.
HEAL Utah: healutah.org
Wasatch Canyons planning
Salt Lake County is updating the Wasatch Canyons General Plan, last updated in 1989. The Plan is an official statement of county policy on the future use of the Wasatch Mountains and it guides future development and preservation in the canyons.
So far the County has gathered public comments. The next step is to host workshops and develop a draft plan. This is expected to take two years to complete, with various opportunities for public input along the way and a final plan ready in 2019. Save Our Canyons is tracking the process.
Wasatch Canyons General Plan (SLCo) slco.org/planning-transportation/wasatch-canyons-general-plan-update/; Save Our Canyons: saveourcanyons.org
RMP rooftop solar settlement
In the transition to renewable energy, the biggest obstacles are challenges to the business model of existing utility companies. As rooftop solar has become more popular in Utah, Rocky Mountain Power has been trying to charge customers with solar installations an extra monthly fee for access to the energy grid. If successful, this would have undermined Utah’s growing solar energy industry and made rooftop solar unaffordable.
However, due to an agreement between Rocky Mountain Power and the Utah Public Service Commission, the threat to rooftop solar has been stopped, at least temporarily. Net metering under the current program will be grandfathered in until 2036, for those who submit a net metering application before November 15. After November 15, rooftop solar owners will be part of a transition program and receive a fixed credit for the solar energy they generate.
There is a cap on the transition program, and what happens after the cap is reached is still unknown. In a statement to the Utah Public Service Commission, Western Resource Advocates expressed worry that “the Settlement preserves profitability for Utah’s solar industry in the short-term by jeopardizing the long-term sustainability of solar distributed generation in Utah.”
Submit net metering application to RMP Utah Net Metering: rockymountainpower.net/env/nmcg/nm/utah.html
Fires impact Utah’s air quality, damage forests
In summer 2017, The Utah Division of Air Quality reported an astonishing 32 “red air” days, mostly due to smoke from regional forest fires.
We can expect more bad air days next summer since scientists say that human-caused climate change is driving a trend towards a longer fire season with hotter, longer burning fires.
Unfortunately the intense 2017 fire season has also led the Trump administration to push a fake solution to wildfires—a plan to waive environmental regulations and promote “salvage logging” which creates further damage to forest ecosystems without providing fire protection since fires don’t usually start in the kind of large trees with economically valuable timber.
Fire prevention strategies that do work are creating buffer zones of defensible space around buildings and enacting regulations to require that buildings meet fire-safety standards. Utah State University offers a list of “Firewise Plants for Utah Landscapes.” Policies to address human-caused climate change are also necessary.
DEQ Choose Clean Air Program: airmonitoring.utah.gov/ dataarchive/choosecleanair.htm; Union of Concerned Scientists: Is Global Warming Fueling Increased Wildfire Risks? www.ucsusa.org/global_warming/science_and_impacts/impacts/global-warming-and-wildfire.html#.WcWY_duPKUl; USU Firewise Plants for Utah Landscapes: utahfireinfo. gov/prevention/preventionFiles/firewiseplants.pdf