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New Center Wants to Fight Wildfires by Fixing Bad Laws

The Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) has launched a new conservation law and policy center that aims to promote good stewardship of the land without compromising private landowners’ property rights, including by cutting red tape to lower the risk of wildfires.

Jonathan Wood, PERC’s legal director, told The Epoch Times in a Sept. 22 interview that the center intends to drive collaboration, not the sort of conservation that “pits people against each other” through endless litigation.

Education is one crucial focus for the center. A news release touts PERC’s work with Case Western University on an upcoming Supreme Court case that addresses the Clean Water Act, Sackett v. EPA.

The organization’s legal brief on the case sided with Mike and Chantell Sackett, a couple who wanted to construct a home on their own land. More specifically, PERC supported the Sacketts’ effort to get a hearing before the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court building in Washington on June 21, 2022. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

The EPA claimed that the Sackett’s property is a federally protected wetland, meaning the Sacketts need a federal permit to build on it.

PERC’s brief argues for a “clear standard that landowners and others can reasonably apply on the ground,” asserting that Sackett v. EPA could help the court articulate such a standard.

By contrast, environmental groups such as the Idaho Conservation League, the Izaak Walton League, and many others backed the EPA.

The Idaho Conservation League’s brief contends that the Sackett wetlands are closely connected with Priest Lake, which they argue falls under navigable waters of the United States.

That connection, they argue, means the Sackett wetlands are themselves waters of the United States. The upshot: the Sackett property can be regulated through the Clean Water Act.

PERC’s new center also tackles federal grazing rights, a continual source of conflict between ranchers and agencies.

Clashes over federal grazing rights led to a series of standoffs between members of the Bundy family and the Bureau of Land Management.

The Bundy family and their supporters fly the American flag as their cattle were released by the Bureau of Land Management back onto public land outside of Bunkerville, Nev. on April 12, 2014. (AP Photo/Las Vegas Review-Journal, Jason Bean)

In a new brief, PERC urges the Forest Service to make federal grazing rules more flexible to promote cooperation between landowners and the government.

While disputes over wetlands and grazing rights are far from trivial to landowners, federal agencies, and others, another top priority for the center may be an even more hot-button issue.

“Every year, we’re facing terrible wildfire seasons that aren’t going to get better unless we do something about it,” said Wood.

PERC’s forest management advocacy comes near the end of a very active wildfire season.

Massive blazes have consumed millions of acres across California, Idaho, Oregon, and other western states.

With backing from PERC and other groups, including ranching and timber interests, Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) on Sept. 22 introduced a new bill to change that.

Their “Promoting Effective Forest Management Act” would make agencies set much broader targets for thinning acreage. It would also expand training for loggers and mandate forest carbon data reporting by the Forest Service, among other items.

“The bill’s primary goal is to increase accountability for forest management,” Wood said.

Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) speaks during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Jan. 11, 2022. (Sarah Silbiger/Reuters)

More generally, he thinks red tape and the threat of litigation are the biggest barriers to the use of controlled burns, mechanical thinning, and other methods that reduce the likelihood of devastating wildfires.

Wood also stressed the value of collaborative forest management, based on voluntary contributions from sources beyond federal agencies and timber harvesting on federal lands.

He pointed out that water utilities often have a vested interest in curbing the risk of wildfires.

“When fires burn through, the consequences don’t stop when the fire is put out,” he said.

“It will clog storage facilities for water and dramatically increase the cost to treat drinking water.”

That makes them a natural partner for such collaborations.

Firefighter Trapper Gephart of Alaska’s Pioneer Peak Interagency Hotshot crew takes a drink while battling the Mosquito Fire in the Volcanoville community of El Dorado County, Calif., on Sept. 9, 2022. (Noah Berger/AP Photo)

The Epoch Times has contacted other environmental groups regarding PERC’s new center. Two of them, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Waterkeeper Alliance, have filed legal briefs supporting the EPA in the Sackett case.

A spokesperson for The Wilderness Society told The Epoch Times on Sept. 22 that PERC’s new center is “a bit far afield” of their focus.

The others did not respond by press time.

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