Will the Greater Sage Grouse Survive?
by Suez Jacobson
Member, Broads’ Board of Directors
One spring, a few years ago, I had made a conscious decision to give myself over to voyeurism. At 4:15 in the morning, long before the first light of day, 12 of us who had made this same decision, stood in a grocery store parking lot in Craig, Colorado sharing names, drinking black coffee. One of two guides from Conservation Colorado explained what was ahead—an hour ride, a quarter-mile walk to a trailer, then silent observation of the mating ritual of the greater sage grouse, a species that was being considered for listing as “endangered” at the time.
It was an unseasonably warm day for the last day of March in Craig. The owner of the motel where we stayed remarked that this was the first time the participants on these sage grouse tours would not be trudging through snow. The expected high was almost 70 degrees. Still it felt chilly in the quiet, black night before dawn, under a vast sky studded with stars you can’t see where I live, in Denver. We drove to a secret location on private land. After a short, silent walk, we seated ourselves quietly in the two rows of bleacher seats built into a 12′ x 5′ utility trailer maintained by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The sweet, soft glow on the horizon signaled the arrival of another day. When the guides opened the sides of the trailer, there in the striated field, were almost 200 sage grouse. This display of birds larger than pheasants, but smaller than wild turkeys, was striking. The group, dominated by males, filled the weightless clear air with “whoo whoo click, whoo whoo click, whoo whoo click.” As the sun spread its light and warmth to the yellow, green, and purple patterned landscape, the males began strutting. Showing off their bright yellow eyebrows, they began to jerk their bodies, like small children with hula hoops. They parted their thick, white, bulky-knit scarves to reveal their mustard-colored, egg-like sacs on their chests. Binoculars pasted to our faces, we were transfixed. Our arms wearied, but we kept watching. A small flock of deer walked through the group of grouse, seemingly puzzled by the birds. A sizable herd of elk came from behind a hill and worked its way to the top of the ridge. The sage grouse danced on, unbothered. Then a golden eagle swooped over the flock, and they were gone. It hadn’t been a good day for the males. The smaller females, plain gray birds about three quarters the size of their male counterparts, were less than engaged. Like students in a classroom where attendance is mandatory, they simply watched. In their judgment, the males had failed that morning. Neither the strut nor the social skills met with approval. They would have to reassemble the next day, and perhaps many more days as these mating rituals extend from March into May.
You can watch this amazing display on YouTube and get a much better idea of the mechanics of the process than you can from reading a description. It’s a visual delight. But it’s nothing like being out on the quiet open landscape of rolling hills trying to figure out what the dance of the sage grouse, a uniquely spirited bird that is now close to extinction, might mean. You can’t feel the sense of place from a computer screen. You must be there. The rolling stripes of the landscape reminded me that the owner planted winter wheat in alternating bands. The cow pies said cattle lived on this landscape. In the distance, mountains reminded me this was Colorado.
We came to see the birds, the elk, the deer, and the pronghorn antelope, but intertwined with those natural creatures and their processes was stark evidence of human intervention. The loss of the sagebrush habitat that these birds need to survive and the resultant collapse in their numbers from the millions that Lewis and Clark saw, dictated that this experience had to be carefully regulated. The sage grouse’s habitat and its mating grounds continue to be compromised, expropriated for other uses. Eaten up by fire deliberately set to clear the sagebrush, staked out for renewable and nonrenewable energy development, used for cattle ranching, and subdivisions, the habitat for the greater sage grouse has been reduced to 50% fewer acres of suitable landscape over the last 100 years. These birds were on private land, but much of the sage grouse habitat is on public lands, lands that this administration would like to open to mining and drilling.
Greater sage grouse are extremely sensitive to humans and their use of the land. Simply stringing barbed wire fences kills these low-flying birds. In September of 2015, despite the collapse in the greater sage grouse population to less than 10% of its historical numbers, the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service decided not to list them as an endangered species. Rather, the Department of Interior in the Obama administration put together a plan, agreed to by both industry and the conservation community, to preserve sage grouse habitat. A lot of work had gone into coming to this decision which rested on the judgment that local and state governments working with the Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service would continue to preserve enough habitat to save the species. These plans, made after long dialogues, were then dismissed by the Trump administration, and over nine million acres of sage grouse habitat was opened to oil and gas leasing. There seemed to be some good news in October. A preliminary injunction issued by a federal judge in Boise, Idaho demanded that there be more analysis of the impact on the endangered bird. The result was supposed to be that the 2015 plan would be enforced in seven (ID, WY, CO, UT, NV, CA and OR) of the 11 states where sage grouse live. Now it appears, according to conservationists including the Wilderness Society, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Audubon Society, this court order is not being consistently applied, with leases offered for 117,000 acres in sage grouse territory in ID, CO, and UT. These leases will be challenged in court.
This is why Broads’ work to keep fossil fuels in the ground is so critical—of course, it’s related to climate change, but it’s also the preservation of habitat for wild creatures.
Closing the Gap
by Suez Jacobson
Member, Broads’ Board of Directors
The gap between what Americans want and this administration’s environmental policy is startling. Results of a survey by the Washington Post in conjunction with the Kaiser Family Foundation, released October 25th, dramatize the gaping chasm. (You can see the full survey results here: https://www.kff.org/report-section/the-kaiser-family-foundation-washington-post-climate-change-survey-main-findings-9349/ )
According to the survey, a huge majority of adults, 67%, disapprove of the way the President is “handling climate change”—a higher disapproval rating than for any other issue including the economy, healthcare, immigration, renewable energy, and gun policy.
Looking at specific policies makes it clear why people are frustrated with this administration. Let’s take the Paris Climate Accord, an agreement among nearly 200 nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A mere 16% of those surveyed think the US should withdraw from this agreement. But on November 4th, President Trump announced that the US would bail out, refuse to accept responsibility, as the biggest per capita greenhouse gas emitter on earth, further contributing to the suffering of those least responsible for global warming. Another specific: Trump has also proposed weaker standards for the disposal of coal ash. Again, according to the survey, only 19% of people surveyed, favor relaxing standards for emissions from coal-fired power plants. This disconnect is alarming, especially when over 50% of Americans report feeling “angry,” “afraid,” and “helpless” when asked about how they feel about climate change.
Great Old Broads for Wilderness is in tune with Americans, focusing on how public lands, with their ability to sequester carbon, could be part of the solution to climate change—rather than part of problem. But the Trump administration is hell bent on expanding leasing on public lands for oil and gas development—adding to the carbon bomb. These survey results tell us that expanding oil and gas leasing is not only bad for the climate, it is unpopular. According to the survey, 51% percent of adults believe that leasing of federal lands for fossil fuel development should decrease, and 32% say it should remain unchanged. This is an overwhelming 83% of adults who oppose this President’s policy to expand leasing for oil and gas development. These are the facts.
Broads is engaged in opposing more leasing of public lands for fossil fuel development. Find out what the Broadband in your area is doing to be part of the solution, closing the gap between what we want and what we are getting under this administration. https://www.greatoldbroads.org/join-a-broadband/
Durango Diaries Presentation: How Can We Save the Environment?
By Shelley Silbert, Broads’ Executive Director
I am a Great Old Broad. We are women who find our greatest happiness, our greatest fascination, on the lands that are accessible to everyone, regardless of income or status—our small “d”—democratic public lands. Public lands are the places I go every chance I get: they are my spiritual grounding and where I love to discover wildflowers, birds, geology, and the remarkable ecological networks that support all life on earth. And while someday I might not be able to hike, backpack, or ski, I still want to know that public lands are there, intact, for future generations—and I mean of all species, whether of two, four, six or eight legs, finned or furred, flying in the air, or rooted in the ground.
How many of you think public lands are protected lands? Think again—all kinds of things impact our public lands—roads, mines, oil and gas extraction, dams, and even now a border wall being constructed through national parks, monuments, and wildlife refuges that truly were supposed to be protected.
I’m nearing sixty years old, and in my entire life, I have never experienced such constant and vicious attacks on our public lands and environmental laws like those happening today. And we all know we’ve witnessed harsh attacks before.
How can you save the environment? I believe you can save it with your strong voice, your thoughtful choices, and your educated vote. You can advocate for what you believe, letting your values form the foundation for your choices. You know, we used to be called “citizens” in this country up until the 1950s, when suddenly a post-war industrial boom led to citizens being viewed as consumers. You could almost hear the ka-ching! While we do consume, we are not solely “consumers”. The term citizen, such as world citizen, implies we have responsibilities. This includes the responsibility to choose how we consume and how we set the practices and policies that ensure we do not consume the very life given to us, the life that we owe to future generations.
Growing up, I didn’t know much about public lands or wild places. My grandparents immigrated to NY in the 1920s, and my parents, with their urban roots and urban sensibilities, moved to Tennessee in the 1950s, where I was raised. My dad’s view of wilderness was the empty lot near his house in Brooklyn where he played stickball with his friends as a boy.
When I began my job as Executive Director with Great Old Broads for Wilderness seven years ago, my dad asked me to explain what defined wilderness. I simply told him wilderness meant roadless public lands, designated by Congress to stay largely undisturbed by human impact, forever. And, that I had come to love wilderness because it was there I felt my strongest and most fulfilled self.
Yet being in the wilderness was not always easy, especially as a woman. Many years ago, I had an experience that may be one reason why I appreciate being part of a women-led wilderness organization. I was backpacking alone in the Superstition Wilderness, a rugged wonderland of weathered volcanic formations in the Sonoran Desert at the edge of the sprawling megalopolis of Phoenix. As I started to cook my dinner over a small fire at sunset, two men I’d seen earlier in the day on the trail walked into my camp. I immediately noticed a rifle in one man’s hands, and a pistol on the belt of the other. One sat down on a rock by the fire, while the other sat a distance away. The one sitting closer regaled me with questions about why I was alone in such a dangerous place. He told me about bodies found in the desert, battles between old miners and young intruders, and by the way, did I know I was camped on a mining claim? He’d seen death by rattlesnake, hypothermia, heat exhaustion, and dehydration. When he started talking about mountain lions and bears, I was convinced he simply wanted to provoke a reaction. I refused to oblige. Thankfully, the two men left as the sky darkened, and I took a deep breath. I ate my dinner, sat quietly, and then climbed into my sleeping bag.
In the middle of the night, I woke with a sudden awareness that a bright light was shining on my face. I sensed it through my eyelids and dared not move a muscle. I couldn’t hear a sound, but knew they were back again, the beam of their flashlight trained on my head. Motionless and with eyes closed, I considered my options. I couldn’t think of many. After what seemed like eternity, I knew I had to face my tormentors. I prepared to let out a piercing scream to be heard throughout the wilderness as I opened my eyes. And then I saw it, the full moon, rising over a cliff, its blessed light streaming full force onto my face.
It was then that I knew how scared I was. Immediately, I began to question my wisdom of backpacking alone. Yet I knew that I could not let fear keep me from doing what I most love.
That night in the Superstition Wilderness, I grew stronger in my own voice. Perhaps it was out of defiance that I knew I must claim my place, to become a bit feral myself. I grew bolder and more intent in knowing that as a woman, I was committed to being in and being FOR wild places. There are some times when determination takes a giant leap forward, and for me, this was one of those times. No one was going to stop me from being a part of these places that mattered most. No one, not these two men, not men intent on building illegal roads into wild lands, not those who want to pump fossil fuels, cut lumber, mine uranium, or otherwise scar public land for whim or for profit.
After that, I worked a couple of decades with the Nature Conservancy and with a university, but I ached to become an even stronger advocate for the environment. Ultimately, I found my place with Great Old Broads, an organization that empowers women as activists.
As Broads, we value the feminine way of being in relation to nature, an approach that has common roots with that of many indigenous cultures. It’s one of humility rather than arrogance, gratitude rather than acquisition, reciprocity and harmony rather than conquest. Both women and men can take this approach, but I daresay it’s one that has rarely been exercised by Western civilization. The future of life as we know it on Earth depends upon taking this feminine view of nature.
We are called today to use our voice for our planet like never before. We must put aside our fear, and especially our greed, and become citizens of the earth. Each voice becomes a drop in a river that eventually will flood policy makers with the truth that we cannot live without clean water, clean air, and a stable climate. As is attributed to a Cree prophecy, which is also emblazoned on my brother’s favorite t-shirt: “Only when the last tree is cut, the last fish caught, and the last stream poisoned will we realize that we cannot eat money.”
If you think there is nothing we can do, recognize that apathy and hopelessness are the tools of those who benefit from the present system. We are limited only by our inability to imagine. Who pictured that Nelson Mandela would lead his country after years in prison? Who imagined the Berlin Wall would come down after decades? We cannot all be as heroic and recognized as Greta Thunberg—I wish I had the energy and chutzpa of that remarkable sixteen-year-old. But we can commit ourselves to making change, in small and large acts, publicly and privately, using our specific skills and yes, courage, to turn this giant ship heading in the wrong direction. We owe it to the teenagers to speak as loudly as they are.
As citizens, we must gather the courage to open our eyes to that which torments us, and let out a scream for all to hear. Together, our voices can be heard. You just never know when the full moon will rise above the cliff and bless us with her unexpected light.
Our National Parks Are Being Loved to Death
By Suez Jacobson, Broads Board Member
I’m a Broad and I also serve on the Great Old Broads for Wilderness (Broads) board. Broads is a national grassroots organization, led by women, that inspires advocacy to preserve and protect wilderness and public lands. Conceived by older women who love wilderness, Broads gives voice to the millions of Americans who want to protect their public lands and wilderness for this and future generations. As a women-led conservation organization, we bring knowledge, leadership, and humor to the environmental and wilderness preservation movements.
Today, I share my voice as a Broad on an issue facing our public lands that is of great concern. Last weekend, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that the National Park Service (NPS), without doing any analysis or listening to input from citizens and National Park visitors, is planning to open all primary access and back roads in Utah’s national parks to off road vehicles (OHVs) as of November 1st.
Acting regional director Palmer “Chip” Jenkins announced this policy change with a memo to Utah park superintendents using the argument that this will align policy in the parks with Utah law. This reverses a policy by the NPS to keep these vehicles off the crowded park roads despite Utah’s law, passed in 2008, which allowed them on state and county roads if these vehicles were “street legal”—registered and insured.
Conservationists were alarmed. To get an idea of what this might mean in Arches National Park, take a look at the webcams installed because of the incredible traffic jams of visitors trying to get into the park. https://www.nps.gov/arch/learn/photosmultimedia/webcams.htm
Our parks are already being loved to death.
More seriously, OHVs can easily be driven off-road—the very intent of their existence. For the fragile desert in Utah parks this is ecocide. Even walking on fragile living biological soil crust destroys the foundation for life in the desert. That’s why there’s so much on the web telling us, “Don’t Bust the Crust.”
And imagine the noise.
As with most recent assaults on our public lands, this decision caters to narrow interests. The Salt Lake Tribune reported that this decision was prompted by a request to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt from Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding (and 13 other Utah officials). Lyman was convicted in 2015 of trespass and conspiracy for riding into Recapture Canyon after it was closed to protect cultural resources. His intentions are clear.
This is just one more assault on our democracy and our public lands. We must fight back. Write a letter to the editor of your local paper. Send a message to the administrators in your favorite Utah National Park. Be bold. Be a Broad.
Update – Reason Prevails
The National Park Service announced on October 25th that it would withdraw its order of September 24th, that would have taken effect November 1st, to allow OHVs on the roads in Utah’s National Parks. People spoke out and they were heard. Arches’ and Canyonlands’ Superintendent, Kate Cannon, argued in an eight-page memo what was obvious to a lot of people. The parks are already too crowded; it would impossible to police OHVs, to keep them on the roads (when they are built to go off), and the noise would compromise the park experience. This sensible push-back, and the outrage at a change in policy without any environmental review or public input, was supported by a joint resolution of the councils in the adjacent communities of Grand, Moab and Castle Valley.
Sometimes there is good news. Thank you all who stood up to this incomprehensible rule change and made it go away. More details at this link: https://www.sltrib.com/news/environment/2019/10/25/feds-shift-gears-now-say/
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Bigger Than Ourselves
By Shelley Silbert
Executive Director, Great Old Broads for Wilderness
It’s hard to fathom that our scrappy and growing organization celebrates thirty years in 2019! In this issue, we preview opportunities to commemorate this special year: September festivities at the Boulder Mountain Guest Ranch at the edge of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, new membership specials, and expanded opportunities to catalyze public land protection where you live.
GETTING DOWN & DIRTY FOR THIRTY
Three decades ago, our founders chose our very particular name—Great Old Broads for Wilderness—to project a certain proclivity to laugh together even as we deal with serious issues, not to mention the ability to handle mud, dust, heat, cold, or wildness. It’s not beneath us to handle crusty old politicians either. We use our wit and wisdom, strategy, tenacity, and persuasion to get them behind wilderness designation, forest protection, keeping roadless areas intact, fighting climate change, and other measures to defend the wild places we love. We let them know we’re not going away and won’t take no for an answer!For older broads, “dirty thirties” conjures up the devastating Dust Bowl decade. As Ken Burns’ PBS documentary described it, the Dust Bowl was “the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history,” and “a morality tale about our relationship with the land that sustains us—a lesson we ignore at our own peril.”
As an organization entering our thirties, what lesson could be more appropriate as we fight today’s ecological disasters, and the dirty politics that go hand in hand with them? Younger broads describe the dirty thirties as the decade in which women revel in their full complement of power and prowess. Indeed, we are hitting our stride as an organization in our dirty thirties, and we intend to use everything in our power to prevent any disaster reminiscent of the Dust Bowl on U.S. public lands or anywhere on the planet.
SHARPENING OUR TOOLS
We continue to sharpen the tools of advocacy work, aiming to be bigger than ourselves as we tackle mission-driven work, inspire activism, and develop partnerships to multiply our efforts in this endlessly challenging period. We train a new cohort of Broadband leaders in March, surpassing 40 total chapters and adding in states where we’ve never had a presence, like Alaska, New Hampshire, and Texas. Reports from our Broadband leaders tell us there is inspiring work going on in their communities. More people are getting involved: over 7,000 participants last year and nearly 43,000 volunteer hours— a whopping 47% increase in boots on the ground and 19% more hours. Taking on an astounding array of activities, our Broadbands:
- Actively engage in Forest Plan Revisions and wilderness campaigns
- Write formal comments on the impacts of fossil fuel and infrastructure development, grazing, mining, and roads
- Monitor water quality and solitude (or lack thereof)
- Advocate for wetlands protection
- Teach nature studies to children
- Author opinion pieces and letters to the editor to educate the community
- Host and attend rallies
- Take the lead on climate issues…and so much more.
In November, a group of Broadband leaders will descend on the halls of Congress for a national grassroots training and lobbying event. Guided by our strategic plan, we’ve honed key campaigns to guide our work, both nationally and on specific public lands near and dear to our members. We continue to go to court as needed, which sadly seems more often of late. A litigation screening tool we’ve just developed will help decide when legal action is critical.
CELEBRATING OUR WAY TO SUCCESS
As Broads, we know that reconnecting with wild places and our wild selves motivates our passion like nothing else. When difficult work drains and depletes us, a retreat to celebrate what we love uplifts the soul. My year started with a recharge in a mountain hut at 10,000’ elevation, enjoying good friends and the chance to ski where quiet rules and motorized vehicles can’t follow. To enjoy no sound but the push of skis and the occasional junco’s trill or hawk’s cry; my ski poles softly whooshing through ice crystals, like sifting through tiny shards of glass. We marvel at the feathered hoar crystals mounded as if marmots sleep beneath the snow, their frosty fur curling at the surface. I think of the Navajo/Diné concept of Hozho: beauty and balance, and the need to restore it when disrupted. Beauty before me, beauty behind me, beauty above me, beauty around me. I carry these images home as inspiration. We gain resilience as we celebrate these moments and wake our senses to the urgency to restore the beauty, in every possible way.
This has been the work of Broads for thirty years—to restore what has been disrupted and protect what remains in its most intact and balanced condition. Hell yes, we are still here and persistent as ever —kicking up our heels with passion for wilderness, and kicking mightily against some of the harshest political attacks ever seen on public lands and waters, let alone our democracy. Walking in beauty, we are bigger than ourselves, and we walk together, growing stronger in our thirtieth year—and counting!
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