(EnviroNews DC News Bureau) — At the end of July, a coalition of environmental non-profits sounded the alarm about the “concerning, big-picture trend” across federal lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) while “the nation has been otherwise preoccupied with the COVID-19 pandemic.” In several recent moves, the agency has created policies that will effectively allow it to enact broad-based deforestation measures and administer 245 million acres of land without critical public and scientific oversight.
In a letter to Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt on June 24, 2020, Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), Democratic Whip, demanded two of the rules, one of which was made in secret and against a congressional directive, be rescinded. One rule allows the BLM “to categorically – exclude vegetation removal projects under 4,500 acres” and the other “[excludes] removal of pinyon pine and juniper forests up to 10,000 acres from NEPA analysis.”
At a joint press conference on July 30, representatives from the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Defenders of Wildlife, and the Center for Biological Diversity took the BLM to task for three rules and two programmatic environmental impact statements (EIS) that, if fully adopted, would fundamentally change the way the agency does its work.
The BLM has “a multiple use mandate and their corporate culture and their perspective is to facilitate industry; that’s oil and gas, it’s mining, it’s grazing. Resource protection is important, but… it’s kind of a second priority,” Laura Welp said at the press conference. Welp worked at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument before she became the Ecosystems Specialist at Western Watersheds Project. “I’ve been in meetings where the managers have said, ‘This is the BLM we have to accept some degradation.’”
At the core of the new policies is the controversial practice of “vegetation removal,” which goes by many names, including “vegetation treatment,” “habitat restoration,” “watershed enhancement,” “habitat treatment,” and “rangeland restoration.” The BLM says it uses these processes to reduce forest fire hazards, restore natural vegetation, and reduce the encroachment of “invasive” trees onto grasslands.
“[These projects] often don’t accomplish what BLM intends,” said Scott Lake, Nevada Legal Advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The agency claims these projects are needed to reduce fire risk or enhance wildlife habitat. But, when you look at the research, it shows that removing vegetation can actually increase fire risk and accelerate habitat loss.”
The agency has herbicides, chainsaws, and chemical treatments in its arsenal of vegetation-stripping techniques – methods used to precisely target what the agency claims is problematic plant matter. However, the BLM oftentimes chooses cheaper and less discriminative solutions to completely rid an area of all living foliage, regardless of the viability of individual plants within that area.
“Ranchers benefit mostly; the push is coming from people who have an interest in game species, the state wildlife agencies, actually, and hunters and livestock because the projects just by their nature produce a lot of forage,” said Welp. “These creatures overuse the forage, and so, there’s a corporate culture that you go ahead and you facilitate that grazing program or the hunting program and if that resource is overused, you just redo it… The BLM and the industry really do have a close relationship.”
Mulching, using a Bull Hog masticator, turns an entire tree into woodchips within seconds, but these wood-chewers are rarely, if ever, used on just a single tree. Salvage logging in a post-fire habitat clear-cuts an entire forest, and while an area devastated by fire may look like a wasteland, ecologists say these spaces are actually important for several species, including pollinating insects, deer, and elk.
“[Post-fire areas] are some of the rarest and most valuable habitats in a forest, and they can’t be replicated by logging or plantation-style forestry,” added Lake.
Chaining may be the most destructive weapon BLM levels against an ecosystem. Two bulldozers drag a 2,000-lb. chain between them, pulling everything from the ground and unearthing the living microbiotic web in the topsoil. Scientific pushback to the process resulted in chaining being abandoned in the 1990s. However, the method has made a comeback of late because it is the cheapest method of removing all trees, shrubs and other understory in a target-area.
Erik Molvar, Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, added this to EnviroNews in an exclusive online interview:
The real impetus behind the push to get rid of pinyon-juniper woodlands is the livestock industry, which hopes to profit from manicured, domesticated landscape that maximizes grass production for their cattle and sheep. But public lands were never meant to be large-scale feedlots; they are supposed to be managed for multiple uses, which includes healthy native ecosystems and the wildlife that depends on them.
Pinyon-juniper removal is part of a bigger scheme to convert western public lands to livestock factories… to put ranchers in charge of dictating livestock use of public lands. These are all part of a hostile takeover of western public lands by the agriculture industry.
OPERATING IN THE DARK: WHERE’S THE TRANSPARENCY, OVERSIGHT, AND FISCAL ACCOUNTABILITY?
How much money is spent and who is awarded the contracts to do the treatments isn’t the kind of information the agency often makes public. While the Utah Water Restoration Initiative increases the public’s access to information on BLM activities in Utah, where the agency has just given out $50 million over the next 10 years for vegetation restoration projects, other states are left in the dark about who reaps the financial benefits of the doing the work.
“Projects are conducted at the field office level. That’s the most local office the BLM has… Generally, the contract is between the field office and a specific company, and that’s not really the kind of information that we, as members of the public, are privy to,” said Lake. Specific companies do stand to benefit from these projects, but “we’re not really sure the extent, to which these contracts are competitive and whether the tax payer is really getting a good deal. We do know that spending on these projects is kind of a black box,” Lake concluded.
But in a 2017 EnviroNews Nature documentary titled, Lions and Tigers and… Sage Grouse? Oh My! — The Granddaddy Endangered Species Battle of Them All, the underbelly of these “conservation” contracts is exposed. In one clip, a rancher-driven sage grouse working group called the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) discusses how members of its group have “removed encroached conifers in excess of 100,000 acres” across the imperiled bird’s terrain.
The documentary notes:
The problem with [the current model is that it] allows the biggest culprits guilty of sage grouse habitat destruction, to wet their own beaks with federal funds while simultaneously perpetuating the problem – all in a system that offers very little transparency regarding where the funds are going, and how they are being used.
Ranchers ‘Wetting Their Beaks’ With Federal Funds to Carry out Habitat Treatments
Currently, the BLM is required to plan and evaluate habitat treatments in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). This includes seeking comments from the public and following the science laid out in mandatory localized environmental impact statements.
“In recent months, we have seen an unprecedented, single-minded scaling back of this critical citizen and scientific oversight” focused on the controversial public lands management practice of vegetation removal,” Kya Marienfeld, Wildlands Attorney at SUWA said at the press conference. “The BLM has created these loopholes to avoid the basic fundamental scientific and public oversight that’s the backbone of environmental management today.”
The BLM states that the approval process for removing vegetation takes too long due to the required public comment period. However, opponents of the rules say that removing critical parts of the process will give the agency too much power to abuse. For example, under the proposed Pinyon-Juniper Forest Cutting Exemption to NEPA rule, the agency could conceivably remove the vegetation from 10,000 acres of land and move on to the next 10,000 acres and the next, without oversight or any way to stop entire areas from being uprooted and destroyed.
More importantly, public and scientific input can change the way a treatment operation is carried out – or stop it entirely if the plan doesn’t cut the mustard.
“[The public interaction] is actually a useful, integrative process that the agency itself does rely on, sometimes, at the local field office level to then avoid controversy and have a more scientifically defensible project at the end of the day,” asserted Marienfeld.
In one case, Mary O’Brien, Utah Forests Program Director at the Grand Canyon Trust says the BLM was planning a project to remove pinyon and juniper to protect the community from fire without regard to the plant-life at the site. Over 50 percent of the pinyon was already dead due to drought, and the BLM didn’t know it. Due to public input, the agency came out to the area twice and saw that only the small juniper needed to be cut down to handle the fire hazard. “They rewrote the project with the community’s input and it’s been undertaken now successfully,” said O’Brien. “It shows the value of taking public input and suggestions.”
The sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus), which has been embroiled in the costliest endangered species battle in history spanning nearly two decades, became an emphasis for habitat treatments back in 2015. The issue has been a contentious one, landing multiple agencies, parties, partners and organizations on opposing sides.
“At this point, the science is unclear whether major juniper removal projects help or hurt sage grouse. In cases where junipers are sparse and there’s a healthy understory of native bunchgrass and sagebrush, there is a possibility of expanding sage grouse habitat,” Molvar continued to EnviroNews. “In cases of old-growth juniper woodlands, which have little understory vegetation, or areas where overgrazing by livestock has caused cheatgrass incursions, these so-called ‘vegetation treatments’ can cause cheatgrass invasions to blow up, causing far more harm than good.”
Opponents and Advocates Go at it Over Habitat Treatments in EnviroNews Documentary
NO SHORTAGE OF NEW RULES
In one already finalized management plan called Fuel Breaks in the Great Basin, the BLM empowers itself to remove the vegetation from about one million acres of land in western states. The plan has already been finalized and is awaiting deployment. The National Environmental Policy Act Implementing Procedures for the Bureau of Land Management — which was established in response to a directive in the 2018 Farm Bill — created a “categorical exclusion for vegetation projects up to 4,500 acres to protect, restore, or improve habitat for greater sage grouse and mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus).”
Fuels Reduction and Rangeland Restoration in the Great Basin, is an EIS that covers 38.5 million acres and allows the BLM to conduct work in “healthy native vegetation systems.” The Pinyon-Juniper Forest Cutting Exemption to NEPA rule allows the BLM to remove Pinyon trees and juniper plants from 10,000 acres (16 square miles) of land to improve mule deer and sage grouse habitat without having to get public input. Salvage Logging Exemption to NEPA allows the authorization of removal of dead and dying trees due to disturbances, like fire and pathogens, on up to 5,000 acres of land.
“While each of these proposals on their own are at a scale and a significance to give pause, together they are truly concerning,” said Vera Smith, Senior Federal Lands Policy Analyst, Landscape Conservation, for Defenders of Wildlife. “The aggregate effect of these five BLM proposals… is significant and serious… They will affect millions of acres of forest.”
The Pinyon-Juniper Forest Cutting Exemption could have a profound effect on the sage grouse, a species EnviroNews has covered in-depth, as well as other keystone species in the sagebrush steppe, according to Smith.
“In a lot of cases, the tree removal results in a landscape that’s just not usable for sage grouse,” Lake said. The studies that the BLM uses to support their massive deforestation efforts involve targeted, low-impact methods of tree removal by chainsaws. “Just because you chop down a few scattered trees with a chainsaw and sage grouse came back to the area, doesn’t mean that if you drag an anchor chain across the same area, it’s going to increase habitat. There’s a serious disconnect there.”
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