Rocky Barker: Interior Secretary Sally Jewell will return to Idaho to deal with sage grouse

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell is returning to Idaho for the fourth time since President Barack Obama picked her to be the nation’s public landlord in March 2013.

Jewell, Gov. Butch Otter and others will hold a news conference Tuesday in the Boise Foothills. The former REI CEO will talk about wildfires, the same issue she came to talk about the last three times. That’s not surprising since Boise is the home of the National Interagency Fire Center, the nerve center for fighting fires.

But Jewell’s last trip and this trip will focus on fire and sage grouse. The 2-foot-tall bird has become a major chore for the former oil and gas drilling engineer, who had been an active member of the environmental community before she went to Washington, D.C.

Adapting to and helping to combat climate change was a major initiative of Obama’s, which she has pushed as well. She hoped to user her national soapbox to continue her personal campaign to get kids outside, and to improve American Indian schools that come under her responsibility.

But the potential listing of the grouse as a threatened species — the symbol of the health of the West’s sagebrush ecosystem — has forced Jewell to spend a lot more time on the issue than she expected when she was appointed.

The sagebrush sea, once 290 million acres, has been cut in half over the past century, and in the Great Basin that includes Idaho, Oregon, Nevada and Utah, fire has been the final destroyer of much of that desert land. Jewell heard it from her biologists, ecologists and range managers, and from governors such as Idaho’s Otter.

In Idaho last October, she saw the effects of giant fires, standing on China Mountain southwest of Twin Falls and meeting with ranchers, conservation groups and others. Tens of thousands of acres of previously rich sagebrush steppe had been converted, largely by fire, to alien cheatgrass.

In November, Jewell’s assistant secretary for land and mineral management, Janice Schnieder, led resource agency heads and scientists from across the West in a sage grouse conference that laid the groundwork for Jewell to order a comprehensive strategy to reduce the size, severity and cost of rangeland fires.

Getting an entire bureaucracy of firefighting agencies, land managers and wildlife biologists all moving in the same direction is not easy. Climate change has increased fire intensity and spread for at least the past 20 years. But only now is the fire threat to the sagebrush sea rising to a place of prominence in the national discussion. It had been largely ignored, as were the birds by some of these same agencies only a decade ago.

Interior issued its initial report in March that talked about slowing the spread of cheatgrass and other invasive species, and positioning fire trucks and other equipment for quicker response to sagebrush fires. The follow-up long-term report will be released next week.

John Freemuth, the Boise State University political science professor who has advised Interior officials working on the fire and sage grouse report, observed the inaction of the past decade and called the changes Jewell has made “remarkable.”

“She deserves credit for putting her foot on the gas and getting it done,” Freemuth said.

But he’s waiting to see whether the firefighters and their agencies realize that the traditional way they’ve operated is changing now to protect the sagebrush habitat.

“This is not political smoke, its serious,” Freemuth said. “Everybody’s got to remember it’s not just this summer, but also the summers after.”