Chaining


  • 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    Known as the Seep Ridge vegetation removal project, the now-withdrawn project would have allowed the removal of native pinyon pine and juniper trees over approximately 20,000 acres through a practice known as lop-and-scatter—a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.”

  • August 13th, 2020

    SUWA attorneys Landon Newell and Kya Marienfeld discuss the recent Trump Administration revisions to the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. NEPA and its implementing regulations have been described as our nation’s “Magna Carta for the protection of the environment.” Not surprisingly, the revised regulations severely undermine the dual NEPA requirement of ensuring public participation and scientific scrutiny.

    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. 

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  • May 26th, 2020

    As you know, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has been destroying native vegetation like sagebrush, pinyon pine, and juniper for decades. But in recent years, your voice and input has played a critical role in stopping or delaying many of the worst large-scale mechanical vegetation removal proposals on our public lands.

    In response, the BLM is now proposing to cut out a majority of both public oversight and scientific review of its vegetation removal activities across the West.

    Please keep the pressure up by submitting comments on the BLM’s latest attack on public lands and the public process.

    A pinyon-juniper forest chaining project on public lands in Utah.

    The agency just released a draft “Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Fuels Reduction and Rangeland Restoration in the Great Basin” (PEIS), which, in its current form, would serve as the only legally required review before the BLM can move ahead with a range of vegetation removal projects across 223 million acres, spanning six states, including Utah.

    Once this “programmatic” document is finalized, the BLM would be able to plan and execute massive vegetation removals anywhere within the 223 million-acre analysis area with little more than a checklist before pulling the trigger, and without any public review or input.

    Tell the BLM not to cut public input from its public land clearcutting plans. Click here to submit your comments by June 2nd!

    If this feels familiar, it is. Just one month ago, the BLM was busy making plans for a new “categorical exclusion” that would exempt pinyon pine and juniper clearcutting projects as large as 10,000 acres from environmental analysis and public accountability. Now the BLM is doubling down in its efforts to cut the public from its land-clearing decisions.

    The BLM’s PEIS for “Fuels Reduction and Rangeland Restoration in the Great Basin” is particularly inappropriate for several reasons:

    • Despite calling for removals in the “Great Basin,” the PEIS inexplicably encompasses nearly all of Utah, including most of the Colorado Plateau, a drastically different ecosystem. It even covers potential removals on more than 1.4 million acres proposed for wilderness in America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act.
    • The BLM sets no desired conditions for what the areas should look like after projects are completed. In other words, there will be no actual criteria for the agency or the public to measure “progress” or “success.”
    • The PEIS does not discuss specific projects, including where they will occur, which actions they entail, or what site-specific resources may be affected, putting all cultural and historic resources, wilderness-quality lands, and rare (including federally-listed threatened and endangered) plant and animal species that can be found within the hundreds of millions of acres in the crosshairs.
    • The BLM does not discuss the efficacy (or lack thereof) of various treatment methods (including chaining, mastication, chain harrowing, herbicide, and prescribed fire) or disclose results of past removals using these heavy-handed tools, essentially providing no evidence that any of the methods proposed will actually work, when the best available science actually demonstrates otherwise.
    • The PEIS calls for the use of targeted grazing as a treatment method throughout the analysis area. This method is not only scientifically unproven, it will likely contribute to continued degradation and loss of sagebrush habitat.
    • There are no plans for long-term monitoring or maintenance of the treated landscapes to ensure that the removals are successful and are not causing significant, long-term damage by destroying biological soil crust or further spreading invasive species like cheatgrass.

    Click here to submit your comments to the BLM by June 2nd!

    Comments may also be emailed directly to BLM_PEIS_Questions@blm.gov.

    This is the second time in just over a month that the BLM has tried to cut the public out of decisions to chain, masticate, and clearcut our public lands.

    Your input has made a difference before—so please take action again today. Thank you!

  • April 6th, 2020

    Comments due by April 13th, 2020!

    The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) spends tens of millions of taxpayer dollars destroying hundreds of thousands of acres of native pinyon pine and juniper forests throughout the West each year. In recent years, public input has stopped many of these controversial projects or helped the BLM make better, more scientifically-sound vegetation management decisions that leave pristine, sensitive wilderness-quality lands and habitat intact.

    Now, despite the critical role of public input and oversight on these controversial vegetation removal projects, the BLM is proposing a new categorical exclusion under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that would allow up to 10,000 acre projects to mechanically remove pinyon pine and juniper trees on public lands with no environmental analysis, public accountability, or public input. 

    We must use this opportunity to remind the BLM why public input is crucial to a rational and science-based decision-making process, provide evidence that the environmental effects of vegetation removal projects vary significantly from project to project, oftentimes causing significant long-term harm to native ecosystems, and make the public voice heard.

    Comments on the proposed categorical exclusion are due April 13th, 2020. Click here to submit comments through our online action center.

    When writing your comments, please consider the following points:

    • 10,000 acre projects are an extremely unreasonable size to categorically exclude from NEPA and public review. This area is larger than many cities. Congress in the past has called for agencies to establish categorical exclusions for some projects up to 4,500 acres in size. BLM’s proposed categorical exclusion is more than double that, with very few limitations on where, when, and how treatments can be conducted.
    • The best available science shows that these projects do have significant environmental effects, making any blanket determination that future projects need not go through the NEPA process because there are no significant environmental effects wildly inappropriate.
    • BLM has misrepresented available scientific research on the effects of these projects in its categorical exclusion proposal, erroneously concluding they have a net positive effect on the ecosystem. This completely excludes science showing that mechanical pinyon pine and juniper removal is overall very harmful for woodland-dependent species, including migratory birds whose populations are already in drastic decline.
    • BLM should not be able to categorically exclude any projects in National Monuments, Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, Wilderness Study Areas, or other special-status public lands. There are many proposed vegetation removal projects in recent years that were removed from these sensitive areas because of public input and engagement. It is improper for BLM to be able to plan, approve, and execute projects using heavy machinery to clearcut native forests in these special management lands with no public oversight and without robust, site-specific environmental analysis.
    • These projects help accelerate climate change by causing large-scale surface disturbance that increases desertification, contributes to atmospheric dust levels, and removes valuable forest carbon sinks. BLM must continue to do project-specific, public, NEPA analysis for pinyon pine and juniper removal projects because of their potential contributions to climate change.
    • BLM has not demonstrated that it has adequately monitored past vegetation removal projects to ensure that the treatments do not cause significant, long-term damage to overall ecosystem health by disturbing and destroying biological soil crust or spreading invasive species like cheatgrass. BLM must provide long-term monitoring data from past projects to demonstrate their success before categorically excluding future projects from NEPA. BLM must make this data publicly available.
    • BLM has not provided any criteria or guidelines in the proposed CX to determine what qualifies as sage-grouse or mule deer habitat, and because there will be no public process, the BLM will not need to justify these determinations. Therefore, the BLM could ostensibly use the proposed CX to remove 10,000 acres of forest wherever it wants with no public accountability. Distressingly, the public may not even know these large-scale projects were happening until after they were completed and the deforestation was irreversible.

    Please consider all of these points as you make your comments, and make sure to add your own! Tell the Bureau of Land Management why large-scale mechanical removal of pinyon pine and juniper forests across the west continues to be a very significant action deserving of careful environmental review and public input.

    >> Click here to submit comments through our online action center (personalize if possible)
    >> Click here to submit comments via the BLM’s web portal (use points above to craft a message in your own words)

    Aftermath of a BLM “mastication” project on Utah public lands. Copyright Ray Bloxham/SUWA

  • March 11th, 2020

    FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

    Contact: Kya Marienfeld, Wildlands Attorney, 573-228-1061, kya@suwa.org

    Moab, UT (March 11, 2020) – Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) Wildlands Attorney Kya Marienfeld released the following statement in response to the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM’s) proposal to fast track approvals and eliminate public input and review on so-called “vegetation projects” that would clear-cut forests of native juniper and piñon pine in order to promote forage for cattle.  BLM is seeking to establish a new categorical exclusion under the National Environmental Policy Act as the vehicle for its proposal. 

    “This is a scorched-earth policy for Utah’s national monuments and public lands. This proposal would prevent the public from being able to weigh in on the process, methods, and science that BLM contends support these heavy-handed projects. This is especially concerning because the public has demonstrated increasing concern in recent years about large-scale mechanical removal of native vegetation on public lands. Several proposed projects — totaling more than 100,000 acres in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument alone — that were temporarily withdrawn by BLM as a result of public pressure could reappear at any time under this new policy and move forward without public review, scientific study, or accountability.

    Following administrative rulings showing that BLM has not followed the law or gathered the scientific evidence to justify the mechanical removal of native juniper and pinyon pine forests through mastication, chaining, and other large surface-disturbing methods, the BLM has now proposed excluding public oversight and environmental analysis of this program altogether.

    The Interior Department’s own internal review board, the Interior Board of Land Appeals, ruled in September 2019 that BLM’s proposal to remove 30,000 acres of forest in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument failed to meet National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requirements. In response, BLM wants to create a new exception from NEPA review for destroying piñon pine and juniper forests, which will also eliminate the public’s right to comment on and challenge these proposals.

    Additional Resources

    Photos of vegetation removal projects (for use with attribution).

    Interior Board of Land Appeals Order on Skutumpah Terrace, Sept. 16, 2019.

    SUWA lawsuit stops Tavaputs Plateau Devegetation Project.

    SUWA press release on withdrawal of vegetation projects in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. January 30, 2020.

    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.

    George Wuerthner (former BLM botanist), The Salt Lake Tribune, September 12, 2019: BLM is attacking juniper to help cows, not sage grouse