It seems in vogue for politicians to propose ever-expansive federal environmental agendas, as if individual freedom and state governance were passe. Witness the one-upmanship on presidential candidates’ environmental agendas or the “Green New Deal,” which massively increases the federal government’s size and scope without doing much to improve the environment.
Lost in all the noise are actions that states and communities are taking to improve the environment around them.
Consider Utah’s success in restoring range lands. Ranching is a deep part of Utah’s heritage and economy, but overgrazed rangeland has been a problem since before World War II, contributing to watershed damage and ultimately federal regulation.
For decades, overgrazing was controlled by reducing herd sizes. Naturally, ranchers didn’t like this, and yet rangeland and watershed damage persisted. This “disconnect” begged for a solution and in 2006, Utah found a better way.
Utah’s voluntary Grazing Improvement Program, taking its cue from actual ranchers who noted that “most rangelands are not overstocked, but they are often undermanaged.” Rather than focusing on herd size, Utah’s approach emphasizes actively managing herds, distribution, and rotation to keep cattle from overusing lands and streams. Installing water systems, fences, and new plants have reduced soil erosion, improved water quality and lessened wildfire damage.
Here’s another example. Wildfires are a routine challenge out West. The U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department routinely bust their budgets fighting them. But the White Mountain Apache Tribe has had great success in keeping fires from raging into catastrophic infernos.
In 2011, the Wallow Fire burned over 500,000 acres, making it the worst fire in Arizona history. Although devastating, the fire would have been worse had it not been slowed by the White Mountain Apaches’ well-maintained forests.
The Apaches manage their forests by mimicking the natural burn-and-growth cycle, clearing logs and brush that could become fuel for fires. Doing so also provides jobs for the tribe, which boasts a healthy logging industry.
Reflecting on the stark contrast between tribal and federally managed lands, Jonathan Brooks, the tribal forest manager, hinted as to why.
“The forests for the White Mountain Apache Tribe, they’re very important for livelihood, for economics, cultural aspects, recreation. There’s so many benefits that the land and that the forests provide for the tribe, and it’s very important for us to actively manage it to keep the forest healthy so that everything kind of maintains its balance,” he said.
Key to that success is the tribe’s being “unhindered by environmental litigation and drawn-out federal government processes,” he added.
The simple truth is, the White Mountain Apache Tribe and Utah locals have powerful incentives to be good stewards of their environment. Their communities directly benefit from good management decisions and are hurt by poor ones. It’s not surprising that many Western states, of varying partisan hues — Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming — proposed or signed bills during their 2019 legislative sessions that attempt to strengthen state and local involvement in federal land issues.
In contrast, federal management is often costly, bound in red tape and litigation, inflexible, and at odds with state and private interests. Federal agencies’ priorities and incentives are less connected to the land, which has resulted in blanket solutions to nuanced problems.
The good news is, the federal government is starting to notice the benefits of state management. For example, in “rethinking our approach to land management,” the Forest Service laid out a “Shared Stewardship” program to foster state and local participation in land management decisions for better results. So far, Idaho, Utah, and the Western Governors’ Association have signed on to the initiative, with Montana and Washington considering it.
Such progress is promising, but Congress can and should goose it along. Shifting more control from Washington to those with direct knowledge of the land and a clear stake in the outcome would be a step in the right direction.
This piece originally appeared in The Washington Times