Letter to the Editor: Judicious tree clearing, not chaining, will be more effective on Grand Staircase

Stock image, St. George News

OPINION — New vegetation treatments are being rushed to completion on public lands within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Most are intended to reinvigorate degraded “seedings” created in the mid-1900s by chaining pinyon-juniper woodlands and sagebrush and planting non-native grasses. The seedings have mostly died out through years of mismanagement. Now, rather than address the reasons the seedings failed, BLM managers want to do the same thing again and hope for a better outcome.

Read more: Conservationists, officials clash over what one calls ‘destructive’ tree clearing; launch competing ads

As usual, the devil is in the details. Each proposal needs to be evaluated from several perspectives, including the plant community, soil type, and, importantly, why the original treatment failed. We should also question the reason for the treatment.

On Grand Staircase, the focus is supposed to be on restoring ecosystems to foster stable, resilient landscapes that support all species, not just livestock.

That means matching the plant communities to the soil type, and not trying to plant grass where it won’t grow. For example, pinyon-juniper forests are best suited for rocky sites and it is foolish to remove them and hope for sagebrush and grasses instead.

Yet, 80% of the Last Chance treatment proposed on Grand Staircase has shallow, rocky soils where pinyon and juniper occur naturally. People mistakenly say these trees are “encroaching” and need to be removed. But they may simply be recovering from the original treatment that removed the trees in the first place. Some of the most degraded lands on the monument occur where trees have been torn down for forage without considering soil type.

Furthermore, Monument staff want to use chaining (dragging massive anchor chains between two bulldozers to tear trees and sagebrush out of the ground) and Dixie harrows to remove trees and shrubs. Both methods can cause heavy soil disturbance.

In fact, the monument plan expressly prohibits chaining that is aggressive enough to tear out live trees. There are less destructive techniques available, and Grand Staircase should not be using methods prohibited by its own plan.

The plan also specifically prohibits treatments solely to provide forage for livestock and wildlife. This is because seedings on Grand Staircase and elsewhere have a history of causing ecological problems. They concentrate animals in one place for too long, which results in overgrazing and degraded soils. The worst conditions on Grand Staircase are on old sagebrush seedings.

That’s not to say they can’t be restored to health. The judicious removal of trees and shrubs, using appropriate methods on the right soils, can improve land conditions. But these effects will only last if, instead of bowing to political pressure, the BLM protects the taxpayer’s investment and manages cattle responsibly afterward.

This has not been the case in the past, or the previous seedings would not have died. (Drought is no excuse – seedings should be managed conservatively so they don’t die when it gets dry.)

This is a complicated subject but it’s important. Hundreds of thousands of acres of treatments are proposed for public lands across the West. The monument alone has five ongoing or proposed seeding projects totaling over 65,000 acres and costing hundreds of thousands of federal dollars.

If Grand Staircase is to be truly managed as a national monument it might be time to entrust that responsibility to a new generation of leaders who are not beholden to entrenched interests or outdated management practices.

Submitted by LAURA WELP, a former Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument botanist who resides in Kanab, Utah. She currently engages in contract work for Western Watersheds Project and other nonprofit conservation organizations.

Letters to the Editor are not the product or opinion of St. George News and are given only light edit for technical style and formatting. The matters stated and opinions given are the responsibility of the person submitting them.

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  • Skeptic March 5, 2018 at 8:16 pm

    Speaking of the management of the monument, the author says “It might be time to entrust that responsibility to a new generation of leaders”. That’s exactly what is taking place, there is new management! Environmentalists like those in the Western Watershed Project no doubt enjoyed the Clinton and Obama policies advocating limited use of public lands. However, to say that BLM managers want to act just like they did 70 years ago is stretching the truth and you know it. These management methods are working to the benefit of wild life all over the western US. If the bison still freely roamed the west you would have no problem with them grazing in the monument but heaven forbid improvements be made to public lands and a rancher dare to legally use his grazing allotments to earn a living!

    • mesaman March 5, 2018 at 9:45 pm

      Bravo, Skeptic. You cleared the letter of the rhetorical trash so typically written by those inner city darlings who suddenly proclaim themselves as environmental saviors. I remember working for the BLM 65 years ago; back when BLM officers had rational thought processes and who did not play the “save the sage brush” game. We were railing junipers then for the sane reason that any vegetative growth beneath them died. The benefits afforded wildlife is far more generous than the pictures drawn by the Western wannabees. Thanks.

      • comments March 5, 2018 at 10:38 pm

        FYI Nolan, you don’t get your own planet or celestial whatever. That’s all a myth that’s been fed to you. This planet is all there is. I guess according to you we should use it all up as quick as possible? And this coming from a fellow LDS’er.

    • Lee Sanders March 6, 2018 at 1:21 am

      And your natural resource management background is???

  • comments March 5, 2018 at 10:33 pm

    I have no doubt that the BLM will find a way to screw it up….

  • comments March 5, 2018 at 10:34 pm

    The desert is fragile and is best left alone.

    • Striker4 March 6, 2018 at 6:16 am

      The Prophet has spoken …..Im sure they actually care what he thinks !

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