Last summer, two lightning-caused wildfires burned across a combined 5,400 acres on public lands within Wire Pass and Pine Hollow, two wild areas along the House Rock Valley Road within the original boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Following these two fires, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) pushed through a hurried environmental analysis and approved “restoration plans” in both areas to chain burned and remaining live vegetation and reseed with crested wheatgrass and other persistent and invasive non-native perennial forage species favored by livestock.
The agency’s plan to introduce non-native species in the name of restoration after a naturally occurring wildfire was particularly alarming given that both areas were largely untouched by human disturbance prior to the wildfires and dominated by a diversity of native plant and tree species—an increasingly rare baseline for public lands often devastated by grazing, motorized vehicle intrusions, and other human impacts.
Because of this, SUWA and several of our conservation partners sought to persuade the BLM to consider alternative restoration plans for post-fire rehabilitation in both burn areas. We advocated use of only native seed mixes and less disruptive manual treatment methods, rather than razing the area with heavy machinery and seeding with invasive perennial species that would dramatically and permanently change the areas’ natural character.
Although the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires the BLM to at least consider other reasonable alternatives in their environmental analysis, the agency did not even acknowledge our comments or alternative proposals. Instead, the BLM quickly approved both projects and their plans to chain and seed the areas with non-native vegetation.
Because of this violation of NEPA, SUWA and our partners at Western Watersheds Project appealed both projects to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Board of Land Appeals (IBLA) last September.
In early February of this year, the IBLA overturned both of the BLM’s rushed decisions, agreeing with us that the agency erred in the NEPA process because it “fail[ed] to consider alternatives that would have limited its post-wildfire treatments to native seeds and to manual methods.”
Unfortunately, the appeals process often moves slowly, and just days before the IBLA issued its ruling that the BLM violated federal law, the agency had already started on-the-ground operations.
Although our successful appeal did not prevent all harmful activities from occurring, this was an important win, and several thousand acres were left undisturbed by chaining in both project areas due to our appeal. Using natural restoration methods is critical for fragile desert ecosystems, because science shows that introducing vigorous, non-native seed mixes significantly decreases the potential for native species to recolonize. This is precisely why the original Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Management Plan required the BLM to consider pre-burn conditions before approving post-fire management activities, and specifically required that only native seeds be used in restoration projects. These science-based directives vanished when President Trump drastically shank the monument’s boundaries in 2017.
We are looking forward to the restoration of the original 1.9-million-acre boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, with its full complement of management protections, preventing these kinds of ill-conceived activities from being carried out in the future.
(From Redrock Wilderness newsletter, Spring 2021 issue)