Utah Native Plant Society

The posts contained herein may not always necessarily represent the official positions and views of the Utah Native Plant Society and are mine alone; nonetheless, this blog is intended to largely supplement the Utah Native Plant Society web site and has similar goals and objectives and when I think my slant about something is perhaps either controversial or straying from what might be generally supported by UNPS, I will try to so indicate since I am also the webmaster for the UNPS web site, a former UNPS board member, conservation co-chair, Utah rare plants guide coordinator, and remain actively involved with day-to-day issues involving the organization. Much of the information contained here will therefore no doubt therefore relate to issues of current concern to the UNPS board and/or its members, inquires made to unps@unps.org, postings made on the UNPS listserv, and the activities our various committees are involved with (conservation, restoration, rare plant issues, invasive species, horticulture and more) and our many and various botanical connections not the least of which are the herbariums based in Utah and elsewhere, and other conservation organizations that have goals that overlap those of UNPS.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Utah lawmakers, officials and agencies hate sage grouses, wolves, and beardtongues

Sage grouse:

Utah awards $2 million contract to fight grouse listing
(Salt Lake Tribune Brian Maffly May 21, 2014)

Utah lawmakers set to give sage grouse consultant another $2 million
(Salt Lake Tribune, Brian Maffly March 11, 2015)

$4 million to avoid listings?

And after the Governor was trying to say all the right things about good environmental stewardship and signing an executive order on February 10, 2015 to approve a conservation plan?   Clearly the state did not do this out of the kindness of their heart, and because they truly cherish this bird.

Wolves (related also to the above):

Utah sends $500K more to unexplained wolf delisting efforts
(Salt Lake Tribune, Brian Maffly March 18, 2015)

Utah's DWR is exceptionally anti-wolf.  They believe that wolves are a threat to wildlife, ignoring the best available science and ecology.

DWR biologists hope for wolf delisting

The wolf management plan is largely a product, and summary, of public opinion and perceived attitudes rather than science.  They also believe in introducing non-native ungulates into places like the La Sal and Tushar mountain ranges.

Beardtongues (Penstemon species):

A rare "beardtongue" species, Graham's penstemon.
Photo by Robert Fitts, Utah Natural Heritage Program (UNHP)

The State of Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration's (SITLA) #2 senior staff member John Andrews at a SITLA board of trustees retreat on April 16, 2014 with respect to a conservation agreement he was negotiating with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) to thwart the listing under the Endangered Species Act of two rare Penstemon species explained it as follows:

"You are getting the ability to mine where you're going to want to be mining anyway and you are protecting something that wouldn't be disturbed.  So that's the basic concept is you’ve got a 15-year agreement that’s going to buy for all of our miners the ability to strip mine and destroy any penstemon that are located on those sites in exchange for some conservation on federal, SITLA and private lands."

Graham's penstemon adult growing in the flat, white shales of the Green River formation
Andrews somewhat derisively indicated in the April 16 meeting that this species "eats oil shale."
We do have oil shale because of plants; in fact, we exist because of plants.
 But plants do not eat oil shale.
The shales do act as "nurse rocks" for those few plants that survive after germinating.
The seed literally falls between the cracks.
Photo by Tony Frates, UNPS

Interestingly  he refers also refers to SITLA funds as "using company funding" to study (in a very misguided way) transplanting plants.  SITLA is at least a quasi-state agency,  but does act like an independent development company.  State agencies however were unwilling to actually fund the conservation agreement otherwise, and the FWS agreed to the untenable terms dictated by SITLA.  As also stated by Andrews on that same date:

"The agreement, and this was the most difficult to get the Service to agree to, the agreement has a provision that if the plants are listed, notwithstanding the conservation agreement, i.e. if an environmental group sues and wins and the Service has to list, the conservation agreement blows up, we are released from all obligations.  So what that is intended to be frankly is a club to go and say to the environmental groups:  if you guys go ahead and challenge this, if you win, you lose.  And we're hoping that will bring some of the more constructive environmentalists away from the court system and into accepting this."

It is entirely unclear who Andrews was referring to with respect to "constructive environmentalists."  Even more conservation organizations have become involved now more than ever before in challenging the agreement, and no group previously involved has dropped out.   It would be difficult to find any organization concerned about the natural world (much less any non-agency botanists other than those hired by SITLA or Uintah County) that would support the conservation agreement that was ultimately accepted by FWS.

Graham's penstemon is found in places with amazing scenery.
It grows in a narrow band from about 4600 to 6700 ft. elevation in Utah's southern
Uintah County and just barely over the UT-CO border into Colorado.
Photo by Robert Fits, UNHP

But unless SITLA or its lessees (primarily Enefit and Tomco/Red Leaf) plan to now intentionally destroy  beardtongues they weren't previously planning on destroying in the next 15 years, then nothing whatsoever would be lost through nullification of the agreement by a successful listing action:  the logic is a non sequitur. SITLA by its own narrow-minded policy only pays attention to plant species that are federally listed. While the Endangered Species Act (ESA) it is true does not directly protect plants that occur on private property (which in FWS terminology includes state-owned lands, those of which are managed by SITLA are not considered as "public" but some of which are de facto public lands), listed plant species that occur on private/state lands receive huge benefits as a byproduct of that listing.   Funding for surveys, research, and private lands acquisition, protective measures, and potentially USDA consultation all come into play when a species is listed including consideration of impacts involving a federal nexus.  These benefits have been clearly documented since the first species from Utah was listed under the ESA.

Also what Andrews/SITLA does not seem to understand is that they have already lost either way.  They had absolutely no intention of becoming involved in a conservation agreement until the FWS proposed to list for the second time, and because of the second lawsuit (and in the case of White River penstemon, because of a lawsuit involving another organization and FWS settlement).   This is all nothing other than a lose-lose situation from their perspective. They were planning to do nothing to protect these species.  Along with other state and local government agencies, their goal was to stop the federal listing, and nothing more.  While the FWS incorrectly agreed to accept the agreement due to pressures within their own organization and in trying to work with the state and did withdraw the listing, it came at a cost to SITLA and Uintah County as they were forced to do things that had no intention of ever doing.  And if yet a subsequent suit is successful, they will then lose everything that they were trying to accomplish by the overall inadequate conservation agreement. So there is no win-lose situation for conservation groups, only lose-lose for those organizations who thwarted it. The plant species will receive some consideration either way that they would not have (although, it is true they are going to suffer no matter what as their habitat is disrupted). Any bad publicity SITLA receives is their fault for their blatant behavior that they themselves made little attempt to hide.

And those benefits are significant and normally very positive for all concerned: listing actions should be embraced, not feared.   One of our first species to be listed in fact, Phacelia argillaceae (Clay phacelia) in 1978 has no federal ownership that has yet to be identified, yet it is because of the ESA that it still clings to existence.  The same is true with Ranunculus aestivalis (Autumn buttercup)  previously considered perhaps our "most endangered" plant species, but recently additional plants have been found; it still is exclusively found on lands solely under private ownership, but absent its ESA status it is likely its habitat would have been ultimately inadvertently impacted and this additional occurrence never found.   Oftentimes in fact private landowners are often voluntarily cooperative as was the case here.  Ascelpias welshii (Welsh's milkweed) largely occurs on non-federal lands and has been greatly aided by listing.  To a lesser degree, so has Astragalus desereticus, another listed species occurring solely in Utah and with no federal lands ownership.   And while it has remained largely off the radar, another federally plant listed species known only from Utah that involves only private and tribal ownership,  Lepidium barnebyanum (Barneby's peppergrass), has had some doors open because of its ESA status leading to increasing amounts of cooperation that will benefit that species.

Organizations like The Nature Conservancy (TNC) have focused on their Utah rare plant habitat preserves in places containing plants with an ESA status (one exception being Penstemon flowersii, another beardtongue that was considered for listing but was rejected partly due to its land ownership - incorrectly -  and only has a small amount of federal ownership) which have included the Clay phacelia, Autumn buttercup, Dwarf bearclaw poppy and Holmgren milkvetch, and no doubt those preserves would not have happened absent an ESA status, nor years of research and monitoring efforts that have been funded by TNC, the BLM and others (and yes, including even SITLA).

The position that ESA protection does not play an important role for plants that occur on private lands is becoming an exceptionally tired, ill-conceived argument, and very much distorts the truth and some 40 years of ESA history.

SITLA, according to its director Kevin Carter, controls some 360,000 acres of land in the Uinta Basin (and they own/manage some 3.3+ million acres total in Utah). In his presentation at Uinta Basin Energy Summit 2014, Carter stated that he thinks that ". . . the carbon balance is much better in developing resources here in the Uinta Basin than in other locations, and we will defend and support that position to the bitter end, because I believe that is the right place to develop these resources."

Yet those developing natural resources in the other places such as those Carter refers to (for example, in Alaska and Canada) will likely take the exact same intractable position, meaning that they will all continue, and they will therefore all contribute to climate change which is inextricably linked to the use of fossil fuels, and the accumulation of CO2 in our atmosphere will continue to exponentially rise to the breaking point.   It is a very short-sighted view of the future.

Plus these activities will greatly exacerbate the already unacceptable air pollution levels that are already occurring in this area (despite low population, pollution levels in the Uinta Basin are often the worst in the nation), and will negatively impact the health of residents living not only in the Basin, but also for those living on the Colorado Plateau generally, in Colorado, and in population centers along the Wasatch Front.  This in turn will not attract businesses that want to locate to Utah.  It will also not create a place/state that people will want to visit.

Utah Title 53C with respect to the School and Institutional Trust Lands Management Act states:

53C-5-101. Management of range resources.

(1) The director is responsible for the efficient management of all range resources on lands under the director's administration, consistent with his fiduciary duties of financial support to the beneficiaries.

(2) This management shall be based on sound resource management principles.

Sound resource management principles would certainly imply some reasonable level of "best management practices." This level of management however is largely lacking.  Natural resource issues are largely ignored in the pursuit of school revenue profits.  What happens on those 3.3 million acres impacts potentially all or much of the 30 plus million acres of public lands, and this is what SITLA often seemingly does not understand. They really cannot and should not be managed in complete isolation and without significant public input, even if they are not technically public lands:  because what happens on those lands impacts the general public.   And, the trust beneficiaries end up having no voice in the process whatsoever.

Sound resource management principles might indicate that any rare natural resource, whether botanical, entomological, paleobotanical, archaeological, geological, etc. all be given a least some consideration prior to an area being leased for development.  But when it comes to say rare vascular plant species, SITLA completely ignores them, unless they have an ESA status. This is not a reasonable, nor a sound, management practice.

Graham's penstemon in flower on white shales.
Photo by Robert Fitts, UNHP

The pendulum has swung too far from the school trust fund revenue approach that existed in the state of Utah prior to SITLA to one that is now overly aggressive, elitist and run with a development mentality. A better balance needs to be achieved.  SITLA wants to work unencumbered by obstacles imposed by others (as does the state in its land transfer quest).  So do dictators.

By its very actions, SITLA and the state of Utah generally, encourage more ESA listings; clearly, they are mostly not truly sincere about protecting Utah's natural resource heritage that includes our unique flora and fauna.  And they are not terribly concerned about the future health of Utah's children who supposedly are the ultimate beneficiaries of the lands that SITLA manages; only that there is a lot of money in a trust fund.

Graham's penstemon juvenile growing in loose, dense white shales
Photo by Tony Frates, UNPS

More information:

EarthJustice March 26, 2015 press release

Utah Rare Plant Guide: White River penstemon

Listen to the portion of the April 16, 2014 meeting concerning these Penstemon species including the Andrews comments quoted above:

HTML 5 media player:

If your browser does not support the above, try the Listen link below which uses the Yahoo media player:


Should agency managing Utah school trust lands answer to public?
(Brian Maffly, Salt Lake Tribune, Sept. 16, 2013)

Utah Children say, "Oil Shale Puts our Future on the Line" (video on YouTube)

Lots for Tots: How one agency is selling off Utah in the name of the children
(by Colby Frazier, Salt Lake City Weekly, January 29, 2014 cover story)

This is an excellent in-depth article (the article does misspell Uinta Basin; it is not spelled the same way as Uintah County).

Some notable quotes:

 . . . the “ravaging of our land, air and water is truly a diminishment to our children’s future,” the Mormon Environmental Stewardship Alliance’s Markham says. “If you don’t have a healthy child, what good is education?


What the schoolchildren don’t know is that [SITLA and oil companies] are turning the Tavaputs Plateau into a wasteland,” he says. “It’s destroying our children’s future, it’s destroying our air, our water. It’s not mutually beneficial. It’s not a win-win situation.”    (John Weisheit, conservation director at Living Rivers)

SITLA responds to these sorts of statements with its usual dogma:

If we cater to all the criticism that’s out there, I think the ultimate outcome of our ability to deliver any dollars to the education fund would be damaged drastically. Collapsing to [criticism] would ultimately paralyze our ability to do anything.  (Kim Christy, SITLA’s deputy director)

SITLA and some others seem to think that we would suddenly plunge back into the dark pre-1994 savage days of "corruption" (as they refer to it) in the management of state school lands if SITLA were to be more open, more transparent, more responsible to the impacts of their projects.   Does that make any logical sense?   Which option sounds less corrupt?  There are not just two options.  SITLA could easily be more responsible, and more open.  It just doesn't want the "interference."   Yet the supposed beneficiaries of the trust is a constituency of the public.   SITLA operates in an mindset that is rife with conflicts of interest that, based on how it is currently structured, are impossible to resolve.

And as an aside, if Utah's state lands were so terribly managed financially and/or otherwise prior to 1994, and the state admitted this in creating SITLA, then how seriously can we take all of these overtures about how well Utah has managed its lands historically (and so how much better we would do without federal involvement), and how the pioneers were such great stewards. Herbert and any number of state legislators have perhaps never heard of Walter Cottam's 1947 paper, Is Utah Sahara Bound?  Ranchers/farmers have in fact more often than not degraded and mismanaged Utah's natural resources.   Like global warming, the Governor likely would say that he doesn't know whether humans caused the cheatgrass and exotic invasive species problems that we currently have or not.

Related references:

Range Plant Development In Utah: A Historical View. A history of heavy grazing and semi-arid climate have given Utah a unique challenge in developing range plants suited to the West.
(by R. Deane Harrison, N. Jerry Chatterton, E. Durant McArthur, Dan Ogle,
Kay H. Asay, and Blair L. Waldron, August 2003)

Is Utah Sahara Bound?
(by Ken Sleight  Dec-Jan 2010 The Zephyr)

July 2014 UNPS comments: Listing/critical habitat/draft economic analysis

July 2014 UNPS comments: Draft conservation agreement

July 2014 Coalition comments to proposed listing/draft conservation agreement

Graham's penstemon album on Flickr

SITLA bonus scandal of 2009:

Lawmakers riled over bonuses for trust land officials (Deseret News)

Legislative leaders outraged by land agency bonuses (Tribune)

Utah State Lawmakers Outraged Over Windfall Double Bonuses Paid To Senior SITLA Administrators; SITLA Defends Them As A Necessary Incentive (blog)


On April 3, 2015 the following Salt Lake Tribune article was published by Brian Maffly:

Suit says Fish and Wildlife sacrificing flower for oil shale

(some mostly confusing pictures that were used with a prior article also appeared with this article)

Andrews is quoted as saying that the suit misrepresents his agency's position and involved "cherry-picking" for PR purposes.   I have seen the trail of documents, the SITLA minutes, the e-mails back and forth between Andrews and many others, and participated in a conference involving Andrews, and nothing was misrepresented nor was there any cherry-picking; what was referenced in the complaint filed on March 26, 2015 is merely the tip of the iceberg involving not just Andrews and his agency but all of the participants.  At the heart of the complaint is the misapplication of Section 4 of the ESA by the FWS.  The FWS is required to make its determination based on the best available information.  Its job and the intent of the FWS not to then try to scuttle its very own listing recommendation with a last minute conservation agreement (which most certainly is exactly what this was, and for which SITLA and Uintah County paid a hefty price) and which is contrary to its own internal guidelines.  It is also not the job of the BLM to "beat listings" which it also did in this case (once again).  These are practices that must stop nationwide by both the BLM and the FWS.

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