U.S. Interior Dept. changes stance on climate

Dean Heller objects to a federal program to help Nevada with its cheat grass problem

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.

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.


Read the Salazar order.

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.


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.”