Conservationists sound alarms over initiatives they say shut out public input

Bull Hog masticators work to clear the land, location and date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Defenders of Wildlife, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Local and national conservation groups and scientists recently held a webinar to discuss regulatory changes and large-scale initiatives proposed by the Bureau of Land Management that, if approved, would allow the BLM to conduct extensive vegetation removal projects without notifying or inviting input from the public or scientific community.

After mastication, upper Kanab Creek has less vegetation, Kane County, Utah, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Defenders of Wildlife, St. George News

Specifically, these proposals would allow the BLM to plan and execute controversial treatments without detailed National Environmental Policy Act review and public comment.

Kya Marienfeld, attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said during the webinar that this year, while the nation has been preoccupied with the COVID-19 pandemic, the BLM has engaged in three rulemakings and two significant programmatic environmental impact statements that when taken together take away public input for vegetation removal.

One of the rules would allow for the BLM to clear as much as 10,000 acres of pinyon-juniper woodlands without any public feedback. Another rule would allow for salvage logging on up to 5,000 acres of BLM-managed forests at a time.

“Which would allow massive clear cuts,” she said. “And completely ignore restoration science to western conifer forests.”

A sage grouse stands in its habitat, location and date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Defenders of Wildlife, St. George News

The overlapping initiatives proposed by the BLM would set into motion decades-long treatment projects that put the sagebrush steppe, of which less than 10% remains intact, and the 350 species that rely on this ecosystem in jeopardy of succumbing to negative impacts, according to scientific data provided by Defenders of Wildlife.

Derrick Henry, a spokesperson for the BLM, said the proposals, if approved, would eliminate redundant and unnecessary process requirements for routine timber and vegetation management projects that “have been repeatedly proven to be beneficial to the health of the lands we manage.”

“For example, improving sagebrush ecosystems by removing encroaching pinyon-juniper woodlands is an established and well-studied practice,” he said.

Vera Smith, a senior federal lands policy analyst who also presented at the webinar, told St. George News in response to Henry that it isn’t that simple. Land management is complex, and the proposals act as types of categorical exclusions, which don’t allow for the necessary time and input needed before conducting large-scale treatments.

A cow looks back at the photographer, location and date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Defenders of Wildlife, St. George News

“The BLM is saying, ‘OK, we’re going to say that cutting pinyon-juniper forests and trees up to 10,000 acres is an activity we do routinely like mowing a lawn, and we’ll never have significant environmental impacts so we’re exempting it from here on out for further review,'” she said.

According to information provided by Defenders of Wildlife, recent reviews showed that since 1980, BLM has conducted over 10,000 projects on about 40 million acres, yet ecological conditions, such as exotic grass invasions and sage grouse and pinyon jay populations, are worsening.

BLM proposed treatments include chaining, mastication, applying herbicides, prescribed burning, targeted grazing, chain-sawing, salvage logging and mowing.

Marienfeld said, more often, it’s a “complete deforestation with and de-vegetation of the area in question often by mulching with a piece of heavy equipment called a Bull Hog Masticator.”

“It takes a forest and essentially turns it into woodchips,” she said.

Area where pinyon-juniper has been mechanically cleared, location and date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Kya Marienfeld, St. George News

They also use a chaining method, which drags a 20,000-pound anchor chain between two bulldozers ripping up vegetation and destroying soils. This is the cheapest and most destructive method, she said, adding that the BLM had largely abandoned this practice in the 90s due to pushback from the public and scientific communities but there has been a revival in the last decade.

Henry said that the BLM’s proposed changes are designed so they can effectively respond to threats.

“In each case, these proposed changes are designed to increase our ability to respond to the threat of wildfire, disease and habitat loss on public lands in a timely manner, while ensuring the public and stakeholders have the ability to effectively weigh in on our actions.”

This, again, stands contrary to what Smith and others are saying about these proposals: that they will eliminate public input.

Scott Lake, a legal advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, explained the necessity for critical analysis of vegetation removal projects has to do with unintended consequences and varying opinions over what a return to a natural condition actually means.

Pinyon jays perch on a tree, location and date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Defenders of Wildlife, St. George News

He said a one-size-fits-all approach does more damage than good.

Many of the claims for needing to implement a project refer to areas where woodlands are unnaturally encroaching upon the sagebrush steppe, which in some cases is true, Lake said. But this tends to be the result of land use and, in particular, overgrazing.

St. George News asked the BLM specifically about overgrazing and whether it played a role in sagebrush steppe degradation, but they have yet to respond to this question.

Smith, who has worked in land restoration, said as a complex science, the key to ecological restoration is in a gentle approach.

“When you’re counting acres as success, it’s way cheaper to get a bulldozer out and check off the acres than it is to get a crew of people with chainsaws gently whacking across the soils and making sure they don’t disturb things,” she said.

Ultimately, Smith said they are asking for BLM to take a pause and consider the necessity of public feedback.

“We’re not saying don’t do this. We’re saying, ‘We’ve really got to be thoughtful and we’ve got to look at more brains than just the Bureau of Land Management,'” she said. “There are huge consequences if we misstep – to our land, to our wildlife – that are not easily corrected.”

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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