• December 18th, 2020

    For Immediate Release

    Contacts:

    Landon Newell, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, (801) 428-3991, landon@suwa.org
    Steve Bloch, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, (801) 859-1552, steve@suwa.org
    Anne Hawke, Natural Resources Defense Council, (646) 823-4518, ahawke@nrdc.org
    Taylor McKinnon, Center for Biological Diversity, (801) 300-2424, tmckinnon@biologicaldiversity.orgJohn Weisheit, Living Rivers, (435)-260-2590, john@livingrivers.org

    Washington, D.C. (December 18, 2020) — Conservation groups have sued the Bureau of Land Management to challenge its illegal leasing of 1,400 acres for helium extraction within the newly designated Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness in southeastern Utah. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council, Center for Biological Diversity and Living Rivers filed suit Monday in federal district court.

    The Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness includes one of the country’s most iconic and world-renowned stretches of river canyon. This national treasure is bounded on the east by the Green River and on the south by Canyonlands National Park and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act of 2019 secured its permanent protection as wilderness. (See photos here.)

    The lawsuit says the Bureau violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by failing to take a hard look at the potential climate harms from the fracking project and failing to provide a reasoned basis for offering this land for leasing in the first place.

    “This proposal is the paragon of the Trump administration’s ‘going out of business’ assault on the nation’s public lands, plain and simple,” said Landon Newell, staff attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “This project would needlessly and permanently tarnish one of the Bureau of Land Management’s crown jewels: the Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness.”

    The Bureau of Land Management formally issued a lease to Twin Bridges Resources, LLC in February 2019, only a few weeks before the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, which created the Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness, became law. The agency rushed to close the deal knowing the area was about to be permanently closed to future leasing and development. Now the Bureau is racing ahead to approve the company’s proposal to drill on its federal lease and a nearby state lease, and is poised to do so just before the Christmas holiday.

    This afternoon the conservation groups filed a motion with the court seeking an emergency injunction to block the Bureau’s approval of the project until the merits of the lawsuit can be decided. “We’re hopeful that the court sees this last-minute maneuver by the Trump administration for what it is: a transparent attempt to destroy a piece of the Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness as they head out door,” said Stephen Bloch, Legal Director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

    “It’s truly stunning how brazen the Trump administration has been these past four years in serving up our pristine, iconic landscapes to industry,” said Josh Axelrod, Senior Advocate for the Land Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Its race to secure this project’s approval for the helium industry’s benefit is flatly illegal, and we’ll defend this special area at every turn.”

    The Bureau offered the lease without allowing the public to review or comment on that decision and did not prepare site-specific analysis prior to offering the lease for development, as required by NEPA. Courts have found such restrictions on public participation and lack of analysis to be unlawful.

    “This dangerous plan is an obscene, purposeful attack on Utah’s iconic public land and wilderness protection,” said Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’ll do everything in our power to ensure that these lands never see the insult of this proposed extraction.”

    The proposed helium operation will industrialize one of the most remote areas of southeastern Utah’s red rock country. If the plan is approved, Twin Bridges will drill up to seven wells, permanently disturbing 43 acres in this remote and austere landscape and forever diminishing the unique wilderness values found in the area. The project will also involve road grading, construction of three separate pipelines, construction of a 10-acre processing facility and increased vehicle traffic.

    “This proposal is not appropriate because very reasonable alternatives do indeed exist,” said John Weisheit, Conservation Director of Living Rivers & Colorado Riverkeeper. “Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe and it just doesn’t make sense to propose a trade-off that jeopardizes the sensitive lands and rivers of the Canyonlands region.”

    ***

    Plaintiffs SUWA, the Center for Biological Diversity and Living Rivers are represented by Landon Newell, Joseph Bushyhead, and Stephen Bloch with Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and William Eubanks II and Nick Lawton with Eubanks & Associates, PLLC. Plaintiff NRDC is represented by Sharon Buccino with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

    The case is captioned Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance v. Bernhardt, 1:20cv3654 RC (D.D.C.).

     

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  • December 9th, 2020

    Contact:
    Kya Marienfeld, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, 573-228-1061, kya@suwa.org
    Scott Lake, Center for Biological Diversity, 802-299-7495, slake@biologicaldiversity.org
    Gwen Dobbs, Defenders of Wildlife, 202-772-0269, gdobbs@defenders.org
    Chris Krupp, WildEarth Guardians, 206-417-6363, ckrupp@wildearthguardians.org
    Susan Jane Brown, Western Environmental Law Center, 503-914-1323, brown@westernlaw.org
    Laura Welp, Western Watersheds Project, 435-899-0204, laura@westernwatersheds.org
    Logan Glasenapp, New Mexico Wild, 414-719-0352, logan@nmwild.org
    Katie Fite, Wildlands Defense, 208-871-5738, katie@wildlandsdefense.org
    Mary O’Brien, Grand Canyon Trust, 541-556-8801, maryobrien10@gmail.com

    Moab, Utah (Dec 10, 2020) Today, the Trump administration’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) completed its final actions to fast-track approvals and eliminate public input and review on clearcutting of native forests and shrubs across western public lands. 

    With the announcement of its final “pinyon-juniper categorical exclusion” and “salvage logging categorical exclusion,” the BLM has now pushed through five regulatory changes and large-scale initiatives to expedite the removal of native forests and sagebrush shrublands across the intermountain West. 

    The BLM’s actions today with regard to vegetation removal and clearcutting represent a broader push by the Trump administration to gut protections in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), take the public out of public land management, serve extractive industries, and downplay science in decision-making. 

    “These are scorched-earth policies with no place in what is supposed to be open, transparent, and science-based management of 245 million acres of public land,” said Kya Marienfeld, Wildlands Attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “The removal of public review through these final NEPA exclusions today is especially alarming because many large projects that were withdrawn because of public pressure — including some within Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument — could now reappear at any time under this new policy and move forward without public review, scientific study, or accountability.”

    Scott Lake, Nevada Legal Advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, stated: “BLM’s notion that there will be no significant environmental impacts from clearcutting thousands of acres across the West is absurd on its face. This is nothing more than an eleventh-hour attempt by the outgoing administration to shut the public out of public land management and curry favor with Secretary Bernhardt’s industry allies. It has absolutely no basis in science or sound management practices.”

    Echoing this sentiment, Chris Krupp, Public Lands Guardian for WildEarth Guardians, added: “These categorical exclusions are part of a comprehensive effort from Bernhardt and other political appointees at Interior on their way out the door. Their focus from now until inauguration day is on greasing the path for even more logging, grazing and other resource extraction on Western public lands.” 

    “The BLM’s final salvage logging categorical exclusion is a parting gift to the voracious timber industry in southwest Oregon,” said Susan Jane Brown, staff attorney and Wildlands Program Director with the Western Environmental Law Center. “Millions of acres burned this summer in Oregon wildfires, and rather than follow the best available science that recommends leaving these snag forests alone, we can expect clearcutting of old forests that will foul waterways and eliminate habitat for species such as the iconic northern spotted owl. We will meet any attempts to sidestep the law, the science, and the public with swift legal action.”

    “The BLM’s assertion that clearing 10,000 acres of pinyon and juniper forests will not have a significant environmental effect is wrong and incredibly dangerous to ongoing efforts to protect public lands, wildlife, and the general safety and livability of the human environment,” said Logan Glasenapp of New Mexico Wild. “Using such a sweeping categorical exclusion to excuse the agency from due diligence will only lead to detrimental effects. The safety and long-term health of our public lands depends on public voices.”

    “The BLM has a long history of failed land management policies, yet it continues to charge ahead with unearned confidence and little science,” said Laura Welp of Western Watersheds Project. “Removal of native trees like pinyon and juniper may do nothing to reduce fire risk and may in fact facilitate more fires by increasing flammable fuels like cheatgrass. Science, not politics, should guide public land management, and the public needs to have an opportunity for input on these lands they care so deeply about.”

    “The BLM’s massive deforestation schemes will transform much of the West into bleak, cheatgrass-infested and treeless expanses, dealing a huge blow to biodiversity and the survival of many species of migratory birds and other native wildlife,” said Katie Fite of Wildlands Defense

    Mary O’Brien, Utah Forests Program Director for the Grand Canyon Trust, pointed out that “the BLM’s claim that massive clearcutting and mastication of pinyon pine and juniper is ‘solely’ intended to enhance habitat for sage-grouse and mule deer might be believable if science indicated that these ‘treatments’ work, or if the BLM didn’t use them as an opportunity to graze the heck out of the newly ripped-up landscape, seeding it with exotic grasses meant for cattle. Neither is the case.”

    “The bottom line is that science has to guide the management of our western lands,” said Vera Smith, senior federal lands policy analyst with Defenders of Wildlife. “We hope that the Biden administration will right this wrong by directing the Bureau of Land Management to restore science-based decision-making to our public lands and refrain from clearcutting under these new rules.”

    Background:

    These proposals will allow the BLM to conduct large and controversial vegetation removal projects without notifying or inviting input from the public including the scientific community. Specifically, these proposals would allow the BLM to plan and execute vegetation removal actions without detailed NEPA review and public comment, undermine an already fragile public trust, and effectively shelve the critical role of science in some of the most unproven and controversial projects taking place on public lands today. 

    Since the 1940s, the BLM has spent tens of millions of taxpayer dollars manipulating native pinyon pine and juniper forests and sagebrush stands throughout the West. Initially undertaken to enhance forage for wildlife and livestock, these projects have more recently been justified in the name of habitat, watershed restoration, and fire prevention. But vegetation treatments are often controversial because the scientific evidence to support their efficacy is mixed at best. Increased public and scientific scrutiny in recent years has forced the BLM to stop or rethink a number of large-scale mechanical vegetation removal proposals.

    Rather than responding to the increased scrutiny with greater attention to the implications of large-scale vegetation manipulation for native wildlife and ecological integrity, the agency instead forged ahead with several initiatives of historic proportions which by design curtail public oversight and scientific review of its vegetation removal activities across the West. 

    Today, the BLM approved:

    • A rulemaking that allows the BLM to thin or cut down pinyon pine and juniper forests in multiple projects, each up to 10,000 acres in size, without environmental analysis, scientific oversight, or public review and input.
    • A rulemaking that automatically greenlights logging on up to 3,000 acres of BLM-managed forest as long as the agency determines the trees are “dead and dying” due to a variety of possible “disturbances” such as wildfire or forest pathogens. Again, this would be without any public oversight or scientific review, as would typically be required under NEPA.

    In 2020 alone — all during the tumult of the coronavirus pandemic — the agency has also approved:

    • A rulemaking that exempts vegetation removal projects (including chaining of sagebrush and other native vegetation) up to 4,500 acres in size from the public oversight and scientific review ordinarily required by NEPA prior to a project being planned and executed.
    • A plan that authorizes in one broad brushstroke the clearing of up to 11,000 miles (667,000 acres) of 500-foot wide “fuel breaks” in forest, sagebrush, and grassland habitats across Utah, Nevada, Idaho, California, Washington, and Oregon without scientific oversight, public review of projects, or accountability.  
    • A corresponding, even broader plan that allows the agency to plan and execute vegetation removal projects across a 223-million-acre area in the same six states without scientific oversight, public review of projects, or accountability.   

    The cumulative effects of the BLM’s actions are staggering, and the agency is now unleashed to remove vegetation from millions of acres across the western states without further involving the public or the scientific community and without any accountability. 

    Additional Resources:

    Google Drive folder containing photos (for use with attribution), maps, fact sheets, scientific studies, and resources relevant to all five of the Trump administration’s 2020 actions removing public and scientific oversight from vegetation removal actions on the BLM’s National System of Public Lands. 

    Recording of July 2020 Virtual Press Conference discussing all five of the Trump administration’s vegetation/deforestation actions. 

    Gambling with Our Public Lands: The Scientific Uncertainty and Fiscal Waste of BLM’s Vegetation Removal Program in the West

    Do mechanical vegetation treatments of pinyon-juniper and sagebrush communities work? A review of the literature. 2019. Jones.

    Consequences of pinyon and juniper woodland reduction for wildlife in North America. 2016. Sara Bombaci and Liba Pejchar in Forest Ecology and Management.

     

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  • December 9th, 2020

    In the interest of transitioning to clean energy sources, we’re excited to announce that SUWA’s Salt Lake City office has gone solar! Panels were installed this summer and we are all set to harness the power of the sun.

    This project was made possible with funding support from Rocky Mountain Power’s Blue Sky program customers. We are also grateful to the Creative Energies Solar team for their expert installation.

    We expect to generate 11,370 kilowatt-hours annually from our new 8.82-kilowatt solar array. Click here to see our real-time solar output!

    The Creative Energies Solar installation team.

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  • December 2nd, 2020

    Located just three miles from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s White Mesa community and one mile from Bears Ears National Monument, the White Mesa Uranium Mill was originally designed to run for 15 years before being closed and cleaned up. 40 years later, the mill is still in operation, and community members are concerned about the mill’s continued impacts on public and environmental health, as well as the mill’s ongoing desecration of cultural and sacred sites. As the last remaining conventional uranium processing mill in the country, will the White Mesa Mill become the world’s radioactive waste dump? We speak with Yolanda Badback from White Mesa Concerned Community and Talia Boyd, Cultural Landscapes Program Manager with the Grand Canyon Trust, about the nuclear fuel cycle, impacts to Indigenous communities, and what you can do to help stop ongoing harm by closing and cleaning up the mill.

    Wild Utah is made possible by the contributing members of SUWA. Our theme music, “What’s Worth?” was written and performed in Moab by Haley Noel Austin.

    Listen on your favorite app!

    wildutah.info/Stitcher
    wildutah.info/Apple
    wildutah.info/Spotify

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  • November 30th, 2020

    The coronavirus pandemic entered the American psyche the same week our 2020 stewardship season was slated to begin, forcing us redefine how we work on the landscape.

    Today, as we plan for the 2021 season and beyond, adaptation remains critical in protecting the health of people and the integrity of Utah’s wild places. Working on Utah’s public lands going forward will require all of us to pause and reevaluate how we encounter, experience, and enjoy our public lands.

    Key to our understanding of how best to approach stewardship in the coming years will be your input and reflection on how our individual impacts – how the choices we make and those we do not make – affect the places we love. This means considering how we recreate, how we tell public lands stories via social media, and how we build inclusivity and resilience into the outdoors.

    As much as anything else in a persistent pandemic environment, this ought to be the year’s primary lesson: the protection of public lands is fortified with an equal measure of care and justice for people. The true crossroads of wild and built environments are people – those who maintain, endure and experience both. 

    For many in 2020, our only seeming glimpse into the natural world was the patch of green or flash of color spied through a window. In a moment of clarity, the glint of the windowpane became a mirror through which we recognized as much wild within ourselves as in all the redrock. No matter where we live or what forces are at work on us, we are all poised to know and care for the wild. But if we are to protect wilderness, we must protect one another first.

    This year, we accomplished a great deal more than seemed likely or even possible given the context. In all, we tackled 14 projects on Utah public lands. We monitored and reclaimed over (50) unauthorized vehicular routes, removed over 1,200 square feet of graffiti from sandstone walls in wilderness, and installed thousands of feet of defensive barriers along protected land boundaries. Our volunteers installed dozens more wilderness and wilderness study area boundary signs, reclaimed extensive undesignated campsites, and removed countless bags of refuse. We would not have accomplished any of this without you. 

    This winter, we will work to redefine how we work with you on the landscape. As a start, we plan to hone our regional Wilderness Steward chapters across Utah. If you are interested now in becoming part of our program, complete a 2021 General Application and select “Wilderness Steward” under the Volunteer Position question. Learn more about our 2019 Class of Stewards here – or contact volunteer@suwa.org to speak directly with our staff. And keep an ear to the ground for a mid-winter update on our program as we carry forward into the new paradigm.

    Thank you once again for the hard work this season.

    Stay safe – and we will see you in 2021.

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