U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works
U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works
Hearing Statements
Date:   09/24/2004
 
Statement of Gary Back
Principal Ecologist
SRK Consulting(and Northeast Nevada Stewardship Group)
Oversight to review state and private programs for sage grouse conservation

Introduction

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, my name is Gary Back and I am representing the Northeastern Nevada Stewardship Group, Inc. (Stewardship Group). On behalf of the Stewardship Group, I want to thank the Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Fish, Wildlife, and Water for providing the Stewardship Group an opportunity to testify at this hearing. As a representative of one of the many volunteer local area planning groups involved in Sage-grouse conservation, we welcome this opportunity to provide you with information that will help sustain these local efforts. I especially want to thank Senator Reid and his staff for their assistance.

The Nevada State motto is “Battle Born” in reference to statehood being granted during the Civil War conflict. Similarly, the Stewardship Group was born out of conflict; conflict surrounding public land issues in the West. As the level of conflict elevated, a private citizen (Leta Collord) and a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Field Office Manager (Helen Hankins) agreed that there had to be a better way to not only resolve the conflicts, but also to improve stewardship of the land. The two agreed that the BLM Partnership Series was worth trying in this arena of conflict. The Partnership Series is a series of training modules in community-based collaboration or consensus building. This training helps individuals, groups, organizations, and agencies with diverse backgrounds and viewpoints to focus on their common values, and to use these diverse viewpoints to develop plans and actions that can achieve those values on the landscape, community, or economy.

In September 1998, the BLM Elko Field Office and several local mining companies sponsored a three-day workshop on the collaborative process that was followed a month later by a meeting of the trainees to determine if the were interested in putting the training into practice and forming a community-based stewardship group. The group agreed to give this a try, and the Northeastern Nevada Stewardship Group, Inc. was formed. Over the next several meetings, the Stewardship Group developed a mission statement, a copy of which is included as Attachment A. This mission statement can be paraphrased as: “The solution has to work for all of us, or it works for none of us”. We believe it is imperative to conserve the natural resources of our region without losing our heritage and culture, while maintaining our local economy.

The Stewardship Group also recognized that to maintain credibility with the public and the land management agencies, the work had to be science-based. To this end, the Stewardship Group has sponsored one or two science symposia each year since 1999. The intent of the symposia has been to provide members and the public an opportunity to interact with scientists specializing in various topics related to the issues we were undertaking, and to educate ourselves about the processes that occur on the landscape. Examples of the symposia include:
· National Environmental Policy Act Workshop – 1999;
· Great Basin Rangelands Science Symposium – 1999;
· Sagebrush Symposium – 2000;
· Fire Ecology and Revegetation Symposium – 2001;
· Restoration and Management of Sagebrush/Grass Communities Workshop – 2002;
· History of Rangeland Monitoring – 2003;
· Sage-grouse Ecology and Management of Northern Sagebrush Steppe – 2003; and
· Mining and the Community – A Partnership (Sustainability Workshop) – 2003.

These symposia and workshops provided a forum to discuss the various issues, dispel myths, and move the group to a common understanding. This was an essential part of the process.

Collaboration and Sage-grouse conservation planning

The Stewardship Group decided to focus on emerging issues; to work on the issues before they became embroiled in heated public debate. In 1999 there were suggestions that environmentalists were preparing to petition the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Greater Sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) as threatened and endangered under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (as amended). Because this issue had the potential to affect land users of every persuasion, and therefore, the potential to bring diverse viewpoints to the table to resolve the issue, Sage-grouse conservation was selected as the issue for the Stewardship Group to implement the collaborative process. This was a new issue and hard-line positions had not yet developed. The potential existed for a successful collaborative effort and the citizens worked to resolve differences for the common good.

The Stewardship Group incorporated community values into the development of this strategy, a strategy developed to provide for the natural resources within the county, as well as to provide for the well being of the people, continuance of the land uses, and maintenance of the cultures of Elko County. The Stewardship Group quickly realized that the Sage-grouse was an indicator species of ecosystem health. Because of the variety of plant community types (i.e., habitats) needed by Sage-grouse for breeding, nesting, brood-rearing, and wintering, the goal of managing Sage-grouse habitats for an optimal balance of shrubs, forbs, and grasses at community and landscape scales should be analogous with restoring and/or maintaining form, function, and process in the sagebrush ecosystem. Consequently, the focus of the effort changed from a single-species conservation plan to an ecosystem conservation strategy.

The emphasis on Sage-grouse has not been lost in the process. Throughout the process, sagebrush obligate species, special status species (both plants and animals), and other unique land features (e.g., aspen stands, sub-alpine forests, etc.) were be considered with the intent on maintaining the diversity of communities on the landscape. Sage-grouse have been the impetus for this conservation effort, but should be viewed as the “means” not the “ends”; by understanding the ecology of this species and the ecology of the sagebrush plant community on which it depends, some of the general concepts for ecosystem management can be developed. The “ends” is to achieve properly functioning ecosystems that allow for sustainability of the resources and the sustainability of the land uses that depend on those resources.

During this time, Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn convened a statewide Sage-grouse Conservation Team. The Stewardship Group was invited to participate in this statewide effort. The result has been a Nevada and Eastern California Sage-grouse Conservation Plan (State Plan). The Stewardship Group’s Elko County Sagebrush Ecosystem Conservation Strategy (Strategy) has been incorporated into this State Plan. The Stewardship Group’s Strategy is a watershed-based, ecosystem conservation strategy and the State Plan is primarily focused on Sage-grouse conservation. While the two planning efforts share common goals and considerable overlap in process, they remain separate approaches. The end result is that the NNSG has incorporated some of the statewide strategy for Sage-grouse conservation, but will implement Sage-grouse conservation through watershed/ecosystem management.

The Strategy and the State Plan identify some common goals. The goal of the Strategy is to:

Manage watersheds, basins, and sub basins in a manner that restores or enhances (as appropriate) the ecological processes necessary to maintain proper functioning ecosystems, inclusive of Sage-grouse.


The objectives of the Strategy are to:

Implement a watershed analysis process on the watersheds within the planning area by initiating the assessment of three watersheds each year; and

Develop a watershed plan for each watershed within one and one-half years following the initiation of the process.



The Strategy also includes goals specific to various resources (e.g., Sage-grouse, vegetation, special status species, livestock, recreation, mining, and fuels management). However, these goals are general goals that can be refined at the watershed management unit level.

The first goal of the State Plan is to:

Create healthy, self-sustaining Sage-grouse populations well distributed throughout the species’ historic range by maintaining and restoring ecologically diverse, sustainable, and contiguous sagebrush ecosystems and by implementing scientifically-sound management practices.


The watershed assessment will follow range, watershed, riparian, and Sage-grouse habitat evaluation processes developed by the BLM, U.S. Geological Survey, NRCS, Agricultural Research Service, USFS, Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Park Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. The use of existing methodology provides acceptance by the land management agencies and allows coordination with existing data bases.

The watershed management plans will include actions and management strategies that address the specific land health and Sage-grouse habitat issues identified in the watershed assessment. Once completed, the individual projects, groups of inter-related projects, or the entire watershed plan will be subject to National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis to determine the impacts of such actions on the critical elements of the human environment, as well as the cumulative impacts of such actions.

The Strategy identifies several management strategies that are likely to be incorporated into the watershed management plans on a site-specific basis. As other issues are identified in the watershed assessment process, additional management strategies will be developed.

Monitoring at the watershed plan-level, at the individual watershed project-level, and at the on-the-ground resources-level, will be part of the watershed management process. For each monitoring level, the responsibility for conducting the monitoring, the variable(s) to be monitored, the frequency at which monitoring is to occur, and the manner in which the monitoring will be reported will be specified. The variables to be monitored will be directly related to the goals and objectives of the watershed plan, the project, and the resources to be affected by the project.

The feedback provided by the monitoring with respect to the objectives will provide the basis for implementing adaptive management strategies. If objectives are being achieved, then the type of action implemented will continue. If objectives are not being achieved, then the hypothesis on which the objective is based, the practice that was implemented, the conditions under which it was implemented, the variables being monitored, and monitoring methodology will all be re-evaluated to determine where changes need to be instituted. The Stewardship Group has been working closely with the University of Nevada-Reno on developing the adaptive management process for the watershed management plans.

This Strategy is the process for identifying the site-specific issues, developing watershed-specific management/conservation plans, proposing and implementing site-specific actions, determining the appropriate monitoring of these actions, and implementing adaptive management concepts to the entire process. The Strategy includes an assessment of the planning area that consists of a summary of Sage-grouse biology and ecology, a description of sagebrush ecology, a list of factors that affect Sage-grouse and Sage-grouse habitats, and a historical perspective of the landscape changes and Sage-grouse populations. The on-the-ground watershed assessment will examine the functionality of the watershed processes, such as water, nutrient, and energy cycling.

The condition of the vegetation with respect to Sage-grouse habitat requirements was also evaluated using soil mapping provided by the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), various vegetation mapping efforts provided by the Elko Field Office, BLM, allotment evaluation data from BLM and U.S. Forest Service, Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest (USFS), and field experience of the members of the team. The evaluation generally followed the protocols developed in Idaho and included five habitat categories:

· R-0: Habitat areas with desired species composition that have sufficient, but not excessive, sagebrush canopy and sufficient grasses and forbs in the understory to provide adequate cover and forage to meet the seasonal needs of Sage-grouse (4,805,000 acres);
· R-1: Habitat areas which currently lack sufficient sagebrush and are currently dominated by perennial grasses and forbs, yet have the potential to produce sagebrush plant communities with good understory composition of desired grasses and forbs (1,170,000 acres);
· R-2: Existing sagebrush habitat areas with insufficient desired grasses and forbs in the understory to meet seasonal needs of Sage-grouse (2,018,000 acres);
· R-3: Sagebrush habitat areas where pinyon-juniper encroachment has affected the potential to produce sagebrush plant communities that provide adequate cover and forage to meet the seasonal needs of Sage-grouse (354,000 acres); and
· R-4: Habitat areas which have the potential to produce sagebrush plant communities but are currently dominated by annual grasses, annual forbs, or bare ground (251,573 acres).

The remaining 1,626,000 acres of the planning area were identified as non-Sage-grouse habitats (forests, urban areas, salt-desert shrub, etc.).

This breakdown indicated that although Elko County has considerable acreage of intact Sage-grouse habitat (R-0 acreage), there are almost 4 million acres of habitats that are currently not supporting Sage-grouse that are capable of providing Sage-grouse habitat if management actions are implemented. The potential habitat on which sagebrush can be readily established and sagebrush habitat that is in poor condition (R-1 and R-2 acreage, respectively), and the areas formerly occupied by sagebrush but now occupied by pinyon-juniper and cheatgrass (R-3 and R-4 acreage, respectively) account for 44 percent of the acreage (3,793,000 acres) within the planning area. These habitat condition categories that represent risks to Sage-grouse also represent acreage that is not functioning in terms of watershed values. Consequently, the issues of habitat quantity and habitat quality were identified as major issues to be addressed and are directly linked to watershed health.

What is needed to continue developing and improving our conservation efforts.

    Recognition of the local conservation planning groups:

The collaborative process is not a process that moves quickly. Building trust amongst the diverse viewpoints at the table requires time. Recognition of these efforts occurs at two levels. The first is recognition of the groups as a means of getting local input into the decision-making process. These are about a place-based, community-based, and in fact, community-led process for stewarding landscapes, watersheds, and ecosystems. These groups embody the Western Governors Association concept of “en libra”, of local solutions to national and regional issues. This is recognition on a functional level.

The second level is that of providing standing. These groups must be recognized as having the standing necessary to influence resolution of the regional and national issues at the local level. For example, the Endangered Species Act is a federal law which applies across the country, but implementation of recovery actions should be conducted through collaboration at the local level where recovery actions impact local economies and culture, and where local knowledge can be added to the equation to resolve the issue. Groups that follow the principles of collaboration and community-based stewardship should be recognized as important components of the natural resource issue-solving process.

Give the Local Conservation Planning Process a Chance: Most of the local conservation working groups have just begun their work. Others that have been working for several years are just getting the implementation phase started. These groups need an opportunity to implement their plans and to evaluate the success or failure of their efforts. While many of these efforts were initiated to eliminate the need to list Sage-grouse as threatened or endangered under the ESA, it is too early to know if these efforts will have significant impact on Sage-grouse conservation. However, it is likely that a listing of the species will have significant impact on the local, voluntary conservation effort and will remove some of the tools from the conservation tool box. The current conservation effort for this species over eleven western states and being conducted by approximately 70 local conservation working groups represents a new process for addressing species conservation. The “ownership” of the issue as demonstrated by the local conservation working groups is a significant step in cooperation among the stakeholders and the regulators. This process deserves a chance to demonstrate its merit.

    Start up funding:

The Stewardship Group was fortunate to be in an area with mining, ranching, and business community, as well as federal and state agencies, that were willing to provide the initial support. The mining, ranching, and business community provided initial funding for postage, supplies, symposia, demonstration projects, meeting facilitator, etc. The BLM and USFS also provided funding and facilities, and the Stewardship applied for and received several grants. Other state and federal agencies have also contributed in kind services. However, not all groups that have started or that will start in the future will have the same resources available. A funding mechanism to provide at least two years support for administrative needs could make a significant difference in the success or failure of these groups.

This is probably best set up as a grant process whereby the local groups apply for available funds and whereby the success rate of groups can be tracked. This will also allow some follow-up to determine what commonalities occur among the successful groups, as well as the characteristics of the unsuccessful groups.

    Continued and increased funding for existing programs:

There are already several mechanisms for funding in place; therefore, it is imperative that funding continue to be appropriated to these programs, and as the demand increases, that the funding level for these programs is also increased. Some examples of existing programs:

1.
    BLM Partnership Series
– this training program has been in existence and ongoing development for several years and the Stewardship Group, as one of the groups whose success is largely based on the initial and follow-up training through the Partnership Series, is highly supportive of this program. This program uses the cultural setting that defines the interrelationship of people to the land as the basis for landscape or watershed or ecosystem management, and as the basis for applying science to the management process.
2.
    Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 (Farm Bill)
– this bill has several programs that are directly related to landscape management. The funds are primarily intended for private lands, and in Nevada and other western states where much of the private lands was a result of the Homestead Act, these private lands are often the most productive lands because they include most of the springs, streams, and riparian zones. These areas are important seasonal habitats for a variety of wildlife species, including Sage-grouse. Therefore, funding to provide incentives for sustained stewardship of these lands is critical. Some of the programs with direct application to either Sage-grouse conservation (habitat improvement) or watershed management include:
· Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) – this program is administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) which works with private landowners and operators, conservation districts, Federal, State, and Tribal agencies to develop wildlife habitat on their property. Funds from this program have been used to enhance habitats for Sage-grouse.
· Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) – is a voluntary program that provides assistance to ranchers who face threats to soil, water, air, and related natural resources on their lands. One of the national priorities for this program is to promote at-risk species habitat conservation. These funds could be applied to cheatgrass-dominated areas or areas dominated by pinyon-juniper for restoration of these lands to sagebrush-grasslands.
· Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA) – this program provides voluntary technical assistance to land-users, communities, units of state and local government, and other Federal agencies in planning and implementing conservation systems. The assistance is for planning and implementing conservation practices that address natural resource issues. This program is currently under funded for the demand.
· Conservation Security Program (CSP) – this program supports ongoing stewardship of private agricultural lands by providing payments for maintaining and enhancing natural resources. This is a watershed-based program which fits well with the watershed approach being used by the Stewardship Group.
· Emergency Watershed Program (EWP) – this program provides funding to project sponsors for restoring vegetation and stabilizing river banks; restoration of natural functions of a watershed. This program is currently under funded for the demand.
3.
    Clean Water Act (CWA) Section 319 (h)
– provides grants to states to implement Nonpoint Source Pollution Management Programs. CWA Section 319(h) grants are available for projects aimed at reducing, controlling, and preventing nonpoint source pollution, such as sedimentation, with the ultimate goal of improving water quality. These projects often use the watershed management approach. These programs can be used for implement best management practices to reduce nonpoint source pollution. Comprehensive watershed projects are eligible for funding. The Stewardship Group views this funding as an essential part of our ability to acquire funds for the watershed planning and project implementation for projects that have direct bearing on water quality.
4.
    National Fire Plan
– this plan and associated funding provides for a variety of management actions that when effectively incorporated into a watershed plan can be used to reduce fuel loading (to reduce the risk and intensity of wildfires), and in the process improve habitat for Sage-grouse and other wildlife species and increase forage for livestock by changing the ratio woody biomass to herbaceous biomass on the landscape. These practices can be used to create mosaics of different aged stands of sagebrush (i.e., different Sage-grouse seasonal habitats) on the landscape while reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire. Similarly, dense stands of pinyon-juniper woodlands can be managed under this program to restore sagebrush plant communities to historic sites. These actions also have direct benefits to the watershed. This type of multi-faceted project increases the cost-benefit over single-faceted projects.

    Sustainable funding for watershed coordinator:

The priority need for the Northeastern Nevada Stewardship Group, Inc. is funding for a full-time watershed coordinator. We have managed to complete the initial Strategy planning document using volunteer efforts and small grants. However, as the watershed assessment process for over 10.5 million acres is initiated, the need for a coordinator is paramount. This is not a task that can be done appropriately on spare time. Coordination with the public land management agencies, state agencies, private landowners, and stakeholders alone is more than the volunteer effort can accomplish and the actual coordination of assessment data collection and data analysis dictates that a full-time position be funded.

    Development or application of new technology:

The Stewardship Group is pursuing the application of new technology developed in part by the Agricultural Resources Service (USDA). This technology is a combination of digital imagery to conduct vegetation cover sampling and the use of software to interpret the digital imagery. This technology will allow the Stewardship Group to quickly and cost-effectively assess the plant communities within the watershed and asses the availability of various seasonal habitats and areas in need of restoration. This technology appears to be able to reduce initial field work by thousands of man-hours. The Stewardship Group is seeking the opportunity to use this technology for assessment and long-term monitoring of upland vegetation as well as riparian systems. The Stewardship Group is currently seeking grant money to implement this assessment technology. A federal program to encourage the development and transfer of technology for conservation planning would greatly benefit the conservation effort.

    Support for an investigation into commercial uses of pinyon pine and juniper:



Summary

The overriding goal for the Stewardship Group is to restore functionality to the watersheds in our planning area, and by doing so, maintain the economic viability of our existing land-based industries and develop opportunities for new land- and resource-based industries as a means of economic development and rural community sustainability. We believe that those that are closest to the land can make the best decisions for how the land can be managed to meet national, regional, and local resource and economic objectives. We believe that the place-based or community-based stewardship is necessary to reduce conflict and provide sustainability. We also believe that watershed management or ecosystem management is the most comprehensive and viable means for achieving the land values that are important to the community. The watershed, as a well-defined, functioning unit, must have all processes functioning to provide long-term sustainability, as well as ecosystem resiliency.

On behalf of the Northeastern Nevada Stewardship Group, Inc. and other local conservation planning groups, I thank you for this opportunity to testify before the Subcommittee on Fish, Wildlife, and Water.