ELKO – Bureau of Land Management chief Neil Kornze returned to his stomping grounds Tuesday where the land is much drier than it was when he lived here.
Kornze, who spent most of his youth in Elko, visited the area as part of a tour that included multiple stops in Idaho and Nevada.
“The drought could force us into a difficult season on a lot of fronts,” he said. “We wanted to get out here and listen to folks, see what they see coming down the season.”
A four-year drought has spurred concern in the West.
Kornze said earlier fire seasons in California and Alaska is a consequence.
“The fire season is one indication that that trend is growing,” he said.
BLM Deputy Director Steve Ellis said the BLM aims to fight fires with an aggressive initial attack and then strategically rehabilitate burned rangeland with beneficial plant life.
Grazing, he added, can be a useful tool to combat wildfires, but overgrazing can harm rangeland health.
“It’s a balance,” he said.
Wildfire has been identified as a top threat to sage grouse, a species under consideration for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Kornze said the BLM, which houses about 50 percent of sage grouse habitat, plays a large role in the birds’ conservation.
The BLM is revising 68 different land-use plans.
“We’re putting in place conservation measures that we’re working through Fish and Wildlife Service, the state fish and game agencies, with the governors,” Kornze said.
In Nevada, Gov. Brian Sandoval’s plan is based around mitigation banking.
The recent U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service decision not to list the bi-state sage grouse, a subspecies that lives along the Nevada-California border, due to successful collaborative projects was encouraging, Kornze said.
Locally, the drying climate has been a source of consternation for livestock operators, as well as wild horse advocates, worried about a lack of water in the creeks and springs.
In Lander County, ranchers worried about their livelihood after nearly half of the grazing areas on the Argenta allotment were closed due to drought.
John Ruhs, acting BLM state director, said he recently met with some of the Argenta permittee holders in an effort to build lines of dialogue. Although he said the issue hasn’t been resolved, he said the meetings were a step in the right direction.
“There’s a collaborative process and it seems to be going really well,” he said.
In an effort to bolster action, Kornze said the BLM has three significant proposals before Congress.
One, referred to as the “fire fix,” would allow the government to battle large, out-of-control wildfires using money beyond a budget cap.
“The proposal is to pay for them the same way we do major floods, major disasters,” he said.
The BLM has also asked Congress to approve a $60 million proposal to implement its sage-grouse conservation plan. A component of that includes getting more “boots on the ground.”
“In Elko County, we have one range (specialist) for every million acres,” he said. “We need to do better than that.”
The third proposal focuses on federally regulated oil and gas wells that would boost the number of inspectors.
“What we’ve asked for is to be able to charge a nominal fee on every lease in the country, so that we can fund those inspectors,” he said.
The proposal mirrors off-shore regulations, he said.
The BLM recently finalized regulations for hydraulic fracturing, comprising three basic components: disclosure of chemicals, well bore integrity and basic standards for collecting spill-over water.