SUWA has long opposed the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) frenzied rush to destroy sagebrush communities and piñon pine and juniper forests to encourage the growth of forage for cattle. In recent years, public opposition has stymied many of these controversial projects in such places as the Tavaputs Plateau and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Because of public oversight and involvement, we were able to block or reshape clearcutting schemes that lacked adequate environmental analysis or ignored the law or sound science many times over the last several years. Because of this, we hoped that the BLM would finally begin to re-evaluate its million-dollar rubber-stamping of large-scale projects that, by their very nature, entail surface disturbance and ecosystem devastation.

Instead, rather than making necessary changes to reform its antiquated clearcutting program—listening and learning from the best science and public input—the BLM has decided that it would be best to cut out public input and environmental review altogether.

To that end, the BLM has proposed a new “categorical exclusion” (CX) under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). This change to the BLM’s NEPA procedures would allow projects as large as 10,000 acres to mechanically remove piñon pine and juniper forest with no environmental analysis, public accountability, or public input. The BLM justifies the proposed CX on the need to improve mule deer and sage grouse habitat, although science does not support this claim. According to the agency, the public is in the way.

Aftermath of bull hog mastication on public lands in utah. © Ray Bloxham/SUWA

Abuse of NEPA
The ability to establish limited categorical exclusions was written into NEPA to ease the approval process for commonplace, environmentally insignificant federal actions—like fixing a buried water pipe or mowing the lawn at a visitor center—without a full environmental assessment. The provision was never intended to allow for mowing down every living, growing thing on 10,000 acres without public accountability. Too often, federal agencies see CXs as a way to shield from public review and scientific scrutiny broad and controversial classes of actions.

This CX would also allow the BLM to use heavy surface-disturbing machinery, such as front-end loaders and bull hog masticators, to remove vegetation. Because there are few outright limitations on the areas where these projects could be carried out, the categorical exclusion could be applied within national monuments, wilderness study areas, lands with wilderness characteristics, “areas of critical environmental concern,” and other sensitive management areas.

It is unclear what criteria or guidelines the BLM will use, if any, to determine what qualifies as sage-grouse or mule deer habitat, and because there will be no public process, the BLM will not have to explain or defend anything.

Even as the world was focused on the coronavirus pandemic, the BLM imposed a limited comment period on this sweeping proposal. We worked hard with our conservation allies to submit detailed comments, noting that this unprecedentedly broad exclusion from NEPA is illegal, unsupported by science, and runs counter to NEPA’s core principles of public involvement and environmental review. The BLM’s plan is short-sighted and its impacts potentially devastating. It is deeply troubling, but also sadly in line with the policies of the Trump administration. We are committed to stopping it.

­—Kya Marienfeld

(From Redrock Wilderness newsletter, spring 2020 issue)