U.S. Interior Dept. changes stance on climate

Photo By TAMI HEILEMANN On Sept. 14, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed an order that climate change become a part of his cabinet department’s planning and operation.

Mike Pellant, an ecologist with the Bureau of Land
Management’s Great Basin Restoration Initiative, recalls the time
he was in Ely helping a local group with a sagebrush restoration
project.

“We were driving back to Ely from down south,” he said.
“About 10 miles south of Ely a roadrunner went across the road in
front of us.”

A wildlife biologist in the car commented, “That’s the
furthest north that I’ve every heard of a roadrunner
being.”

Pellant said, “That’s just one case, but it’s kind
of an example that things are happening, even now.”

He said changes in the Great Basin’s flora and fauna are
visible everywhere, with plants and animals that are not suitable to
the region moving in and driving natives out—even sagebrush,
which is so much a part of Nevada’s identity.

Last month, Pellant and other ecologists got some high ranking
support. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar issued an order
coordinating Interior Department efforts on climate change and forming
a Climate Change Response Council to bring global warming concerns into
policy making. The order represents a sharp break from the Bush years,
when both science and climate change were deemphasized.

Congressional Republicans, including Nevada’s U.S. Rep. Dean
Heller, are objecting to the Interior initiative.

In the Great Basin area, one of the results of Salazar’s order
will be augmentation of federal efforts to stamp out nuisance weeds
that have been choking out native plants, causing wildfires, damaging
grazing land and generating carbon dioxide—cheatgrass, in
particular.

Centers in the eight Interior Department regions will serve as
headquarters, but this will apparently not result in the creation of
new bureaucracy or buildings. Centers already in place in the U.S.
Geological Survey will become department-wide centers.

The Salazar order states as policy that departmental action will
seek to encourage on the public’s land not just traditional
industries like oil and gas, ranching and agriculture, but also rising
new economic activities like “environmentally responsible
renewable energy development.”

“Sun, wind, biomass, and geothermal energy from our public and
tribal lands is creating new jobs and will power millions of American
homes and electric vehicles,” the order reads.

The order also directs department officials to incorporate climate
change concerns into operations and policies: “Each bureau and
office of the Department must consider and analyze potential climate
change impacts when undertaking long-range planning exercises, setting
priorities for scientific research and investigations, developing
multi-year management plans, and making major decisions regarding
potential use of resources under the Department’s
purview.”

Officials will also be expected to coordinate with other cabinet
departments and local governments. Interior includes many agencies
familiar to Nevadans, such as the Bureau of Land Management, the
National Park Service and the Forest Service.

Invasion

Cheatgrass was first identified in Nevada near Elko in the early
20th century. For such a troublesome weed, its appearance is
fragile—it is feathery and light, with seeds at the head. (The
foxtails produced by it and its cousins make pets and their owners
crazy.) It initially appeared in areas that were eroded by human
activities, such as roadsides and railroad right-of-ways. And in a
mining state where the land was regularly torn up and with grazing
practices in the livestock industry that similarly fostered its spread,
cheatgrass quickly marched through areas that previously had been
dominated by sagebrush.

“It’s invasive, it crowds out the plants, it has limited
wildlife value … it has no predators, it comes in early—you
know, it’s growing right now [in autumn]—it steals all the
water and prevents other more suitable plants from growing … then
it dies off and turns into a great fire hazard,” said University
of Nevada scientist Glenn Miller.

Cheatgrass has spread so widely and reduced the sagebrush steppe
(plain) so much that it has already converted the Great Basin from an
absorber into a producer of carbon dioxide. Nevada lies almost entirely
within the Basin and constitutes most of the Basin’s acreage. The
Great Basin also includes smaller sections of Utah, Idaho, Oregon and
California.

Pellant said the nature of the Basin is changing from the way
Nevadans have known it for generations, from the decline of sagebrush
to lower quality grazing on public lands to longer fire seasons.

“We’re losing our sagebrush plant communities, which are
carbon sinks—they store carbon—and when it converts to
cheatgrass, it’s a carbon source, which means we’re losing
more carbon from the system than we’re putting back in,”
Pellant said. “Cheatgrass has always been a problem for us, from
the wildfire standpoint, from a loss of habitat, from economic
impacts—the livestock permittees—you can go on and
on.”

Healthy shrub lands are important to ranchers who graze on public
lands. The loss of carbon in the soil means Great Basin soils become
less fertile, and the combination of cheatgrass and other invasive
plants could leave Nevada looking very different.

Pellant said, “Some of the climate change models are
predicting that a lot of the sagebrush in Nevada will be replaced by
the Mojave Desert vegetation because of the warmer temperatures, and
once you lose sagebrush, then these plants from further south are going
to be more adapted. … Sagebrush may be limited to the northern
part of the Great Basin, which is Idaho, Oregon and parts of Northern
Nevada.”

Cheatgrass provides ground cover that causes wildfires to spread
more quickly and burn more hotly, helping account for the
longerdeadlier fire seasons Nevada has experienced recently. A U.S.
Department of Agriculture paper reads, “Cheatgrass, native to
Central Asia, is an increasing focal point of range management issues
in the Great Basin. … Cheatgrass truncates plant succession by
out-competing native perennial grass seedlings for moisture, thus
providing a fine textured, early maturing fuel that increases the
chance, rate, and spread of wildfires. This fuel has sparked large
wildfire storms that have increased from thousands of acres to over a
million and a half acres in recent times. With each cheatgrass
wildfire… native plant communities are burned and often converted to
cheatgrass dominated ranges. The loss of these habitats have severe
impacts on neighboring habitats and [their] wildlife …”

Salazar’s order calls for quantifying “the amount of
carbon stored in our forests, wetlands, and grasslands, identifying
areas where carbon dioxide can be safely stored
underground.”

GOP objections

Six weeks after Salazar’s order was issued, on Oct. 28, 14
House Republicans cent a letter to Salazar complaining about the order.
Heller is one of the signatories.

The GOP letter reads in part, “The new order could potentially
cost the American taxpayer millions of dollars and have a far reaching
impact on our nation’s energy supply. At a time when we are all
working to make America energy independent, we cannot put into question
all our current and future domestic energy activities on federal
land.

“These regulations will hit the Western United States the
hardest. This is where the bulk of federal land is located. Western
businesses will be forced to raise prices to cover increasing
regulatory costs. Businesses will close their doors and move to other
countries where energy extraction is allowed. Westerners will suffer
from higher energy and fuel costs or simply be put out of
work.”

Heller and his colleagues seem to object just as much to Salazar
acting administratively, without waiting for climate legislation now
wending its way through Congress.

“By moving forward without the passage of a climate change
bill passed in Congress [sic], you are creating a number of unanswered
questions,” the letter reads. “These questions include, but
are not limited to, how this initiative will place strains on the
current DOI bureaucracy, how land use planners on the ground will
implement this order, and what mechanisms will provide transparency in
your department’s decision making process.”

The Salazar order also directs a good deal of attention to water
issues—always an important issue in the West. It says that new
water management strategies may be needed for “restoration of
natural systems and construction of new infrastructure to reduce new
flood risks or to capture early run-off.”

Such strategies are needed, the order said, “to address the
possibility of shrinking water supplies and more frequent and extended
droughts.”

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About Dennis Myers 1397 Articles
Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely Nevada, a children’s history textbook, and a contributor to the books The Mythical West and Covering the Courts in Nevada. In September, 2020, he was inducted into the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame.