Chaining


  • March 21st, 2021

    In this episode, we take on the climate implications of the Bureau of Land Management’s “vegetation removal” program. Previously, we’ve discussed this clearcutting of mostly healthy pinyon-juniper forest in the name of “habitat restoration” – a practice that mostly benefits domestic livestock grazers. SUWA Wildlands Attorney Kya Marienfeld joins us to preview a new SUWA report on how the BLM’s vegetation removal program is Moving Backward on Climate and 30 x 30.

    Wild Utah is made possible by the contributing members of SUWA. Wild Utah’s theme music, “What’s Worth?” is composed by Moab singer-songwriter Haley Noel Austin. Post studio production and editing is by Jerry Schmidt.

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  • February 18th, 2021

    FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

    Contact: Kya Marienfeld, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, 435-259-5440, kya@suwa.org 

    Laura Welp, Western Watersheds Project, 435-899-0204, laura@westernwatersheds.org 

    Decision finds BLM failed to consider project alternatives that would have limited post-wildfire treatments to native seeds and manual restoration methods

    Moab, UT (February 18, 2021) – The U.S. Department of Interior’s Board of Land Appeals (IBLA) yesterday set aside two late-summer 2020 decisions by the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM’s) Kanab Field Office to chain and seed with non-native livestock forage in two post-fire landscapes within the original boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

    In overturning BLM’s decisions, the IBLA held that the BLM erred in its rushed National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process because it “fail[ed] to consider alternatives that would have limited its post-wildfire treatments to native seeds and to manual methods.” The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and Western Watersheds Project had encouraged the BLM to consider a more environmentally-sound alternative treatment plan that would only use native species for seeding and would not use chaining—the most invasive and soil-disturbing method—as part of the agency’s restoration plans. 

    Unfortunately, although the IBLA held that the BLM’s rushed approval of these projects violated federal law, the agency had already started on-the-ground operations, including chaining and seeding with non-native plant species. All further activities for both projects are prohibited as of yesterday’s IBLA order, and the BLM confirmed earlier today that its heavy equipment is being moved offsite.

    “Using natural restoration methods is critical for fragile desert ecosystems, because science shows that introducing vigorous, non-native seed mixes significantly decreases the long-term potential for native species to recolonize,” said Kya Marienfeld, Wildlands Attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “This is precisely why the 2000 Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Management Plan required managers to consider pre-burn conditions before approving post-fire management activities, and required that only native seeds be used in restoration. When Monument protections were removed from these areas by President Trump in 2017 and new management plans approved last year, these science-based prohibitions disappeared. The BLM’s hurried approval of these two ‘fire restoration’ projects is direct evidence of how little it takes to permanently transform a native ecosystem and harm habitat for plants and wildlife without these protections.” 

    “Trump stripped National Monument status from Wire Pass and Pine Hollow, along the iconic House Rock Valley road,” said Laura Welp, Ecosystem Specialist with Western Watersheds Project and a former Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument botanist. “When a wildfire occurred there, the BLM took advantage of the reduced protections to destroy pinyon-juniper woodlands and native shrublands with bulldozers hauling massive chains, and to seed non-native plants to benefit livestock.”

    The Wire Pass and Pine Hollow wildfires, which occurred in July and August of 2020, collectively burned more than 5,000 acres on the west side of House Rock Valley Road in Kane County, Utah, directly across the road from the Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness Area and near access points for the world-renowned geologic feature known as “the Wave.” Following these two lightning-caused fires, the BLM pushed through hurried environmental analyses and approved “restoration plans” in both burn areas to chain burned and remaining live vegetation and aerial seed an almost 4,000 acre area with crested wheatgrass and other persistent and invasive non-native perennial forage species favored by livestock.

     The BLM’s plan to introduce non-native species in the name of restoration was particularly alarming given that both burn areas were dominated by a diversity of native species including pinyon pine, sagebrush, and cliffrose prior to the wildfires, and were largely untouched by human-disturbance—an increasingly rare baseline for public lands devastated by grazing, motorized vehicle intrusions, and other human impacts throughout the West. 

    “This was a tremendously important appeal, and we are pleased with the IBLA’s decision” continued Marienfeld. “We expect to see the original boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and its full management protections restored soon, preventing these kinds of ill-conceived activities from being proposed or carried out anywhere on the full, 1.9 million-acres of this exceptional and fragile National Monument.”

    Additional Resources

    Interior Board of Land Appeals Order, February 17, 2021

    Lawsuit Launched Over Trump Plan to Accelerate Clearcutting, Herbicide Spraying, Fuel Breaks Across Six Western States (January 13, 2021).

    Interior Board Overturns BLM Decision to Replace Native Forests with Livestock Forage in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (September 17, 2019).

    National Geographic, September, 2019: Forests on Utah’s public lands may soon be torn out. Here’s why.

    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.

     

  • January 13th, 2021

    Contacts:
    Scott Lake, Center for Biological Diversity, (802) 299-7495, slake@biologicaldiversity.org
    Kya Marienfeld, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, (435) 259-5440, kya@suwa.org
    Paul Ruprecht, Western Watersheds Project, (208) 421-4637, paul@westernwatersheds.org
    Connie Howard, Sierra Club, Toiyabe Chapter, (775) 224-3916, constancehoward58@gmail.com 

    Lawsuit Launched Over Trump Plan to Accelerate Clearcutting, Herbicide Spraying, Fuel Breaks Across Six Western States

    RENO, Nev.— Conservation groups filed formal notice today of their intent to sue the Trump administration for violations of the Endangered Species Act stemming from two last-minute decisions authorizing widespread clearcutting, herbicide spraying, grazing, plowing and prescribed fire across 223 million acres of Bureau of Land Management public lands in the Great Basin. 

    The plans will have potentially devastating consequences for the imperiled greater sage grouse and other wildlife that call these vast landscapes home. They also will exclude the public and the scientific community from key land-management decisions across Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Idaho and Utah. 

    “The Trump administration’s reckless, 11th-hour decision authorizes the Bureau to use highly destructive methods to remove millions of acres of native trees and shrubs,” said Scott Lake, Nevada legal advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The agency hasn’t even considered the consequences of these highly destructive actions on dozens of threatened and endangered species. It’s a clear violation of the Endangered Species Act, and we won’t allow these plans to become reality.”

    The administration is using two environmental impact statements to circumvent local environmental analysis and public comment. They authorize the Bureau to remove massive amounts of vegetation anywhere within the 223 million-acre analysis area, which is home to more than 130 threatened and endangered species. Many of these species are endemic to local environments and found nowhere else on Earth. 

    “These two decisions have incredibly far-reaching implications for future management of fragile native ecosystems throughout the American West,” said Kya Marienfeld, wildlands attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “Science, transparency and public input are meant to be the backbone of managing Western public lands, but instead, these decisions improperly substitute anecdote for evidence while cutting off all normal channels of public notice, review and future accountability.”

    The plans are part of a larger Trump administration program of forest and shrubland destruction underway across the West. Other components include categorical exclusions that sidestep environmental analysis and public accountability for pinyon pine and juniper clearcutting projects up to 10,000 acres and logging projects up to 3,000 acres. 

    Although the Interior Department admits many of the proposed methods, such as so-called “targeted grazing,” are experimental or unproven, there are no plans for long-term monitoring or maintenance to avoid significant, long-term damage to public lands and native ecosystems. The potential for these projects to spread invasive weeds, like fire-prone cheatgrass, make them particularly problematic.

    “Using cows to mow down vegetation to dirt level to reduce fuel won’t work,” said Paul Ruprecht, Oregon-Nevada director for Western Watersheds Project. “Intensive grazing destroys the soil crusts and removes the native bunchgrasses that are nature’s two best defenses against cheatgrass. Targeted grazing will only increase cheatgrass, and ultimately backfire.”

    “The Sierra Club believes these Trump administration deforestation programs would effectively destroy the healthy ecosystems of much of the western United States known as the National System of Public Lands,” said Connie Howard, chair of conservation and public lands for the Toiyabe Chapter of the Sierra Club. “The sagebrush biome accounts for a large component of these lands, and the pinyon, juniper and sagebrush plants targeted for removal are home to over 350 wildlife species and play a critical role in sequestering carbon in the face of climate change. We are pleased to join our conservation partners in efforts to stop this assault on our public lands that is not based on science or any long-term thinking as to consequences to endangered and threatened species, ecosystem health or climate change and resiliency.”

    The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

    The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), based in Salt Lake City, Utah, has more than 15,000 members from all fifty states and several foreign countries. SUWA’s mission is the preservation of the outstanding wilderness and other sensitive public lands at the heart of the Colorado Plateau and to advocate for management of these lands, and the associated natural and cultural resources, in their natural state for the benefit of all Americans.

    Western Watersheds Project is a nonprofit conservation organization with over 9,500 members dedicated to protecting and conserving the public lands and natural resources of watersheds in the American West.

    The Sierra Club is the most enduring and influential grassroots environmental organization in the United States. We amplify the power of our 3.8 million members and supporters to defend everyone’s right to a healthy world.

  • 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.

     

  • October 5th, 2020

    For Immediate Release

    Contact: Oliver Wood, Wildlands Attorney, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance,  435-355-0716, oliver@suwa.org

    Moab, Utah (October 5, 2020) – Last week, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) withdrew its May 4, 2020 decision authorizing the removal of pinyon pine and juniper in a nearly 20,000-acre area within the remote Book Cliffs of southeastern Utah.

    The BLM’s withdrawal came after SUWA appealed the decision to the Interior Board of Land Appeals (Board), taking issue with the agency’s attempt to avoid conducting environmental analyses specific to the project area.

    Known as the Seep Ridge vegetation removal project, the now-withdrawn project would have allowed the removal of native pinyon pine and juniper trees over approximately 20,000 acres through a practice known as lop-and-scatter—a vegetation removal technique that involves felling live trees, cutting them into roughly three-foot pieces, and scattering them throughout the area. 

    In authorizing the project, the BLM sought to avoid conducting a site-specific environmental analysis by relying on documents from prior vegetation removal projects that, in total, overlapped with only twelve percent of the project’s geographic area. 

    After SUWA submitted its opening brief to the Board, the agency voluntarily withdrew the project for further analysis. 

    In response to the BLM withdrawing the project, SUWA Wildlands Attorney Oliver Wood issued the following statement:

    “Despite the Bureau of Land Management’s initial unwillingness to admit its unlawful approval of the nearly 20,000-acre Seep Ridge vegetation removal project, we are glad that the agency has decided to pull the project and initiate the level of environmental analysis required by the National Environmental Policy Act. The public has the right to know all of the environmental impacts of such a massive project before the chainsaws start whining and trees come crashing down.

    “This project would denude large swaths of the Book Cliffs area, including lands recognized by the Bureau of Land Management for their important wilderness and wildlife values. Because of these considerations, vegetation removal in such wild places demands a heightened level of environmental scrutiny. 

    “The Bureau of Land Management’s withdrawal of this project is just the latest in a series of setbacks for the Trump administration and its push to clearcut large portions of native pinyon pine and juniper forests throughout the West. Whether promoted under the guise of habitat restoration, fire mitigation, or watershed health, the end result of these projects is the same—deforested landscapes seeded with non-native grass species for cows. If these projects are as great as the agency would like the public to believe, then there’s no reason to avoid analyzing and disclosing those environmental impacts as required by law.”