How the BLM’s Costly Practice of Vegetation Removal Still Threatens Ecosystems Across the West

Some threats to public lands, such as energy development, mining, off-road-vehicle damage, and the ever-growing effects of unmanaged human-powered recreation tend to draw their share of national attention. But another threat to our public lands and wilderness remains largely ignored, yet ever-present, no matter who is president, what things look like in Congress, or how much focus is on public lands conservation: mechanical removal and clearcutting of piñon pine and juniper woodlands.

Every year, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) spends tens of millions of taxpayer dollars removing hundreds of thousands of acres of native piñon pine and juniper forests and sagebrush shrublands. These vegetation removal projects, commonly called “treatments,” take many forms. Different methods produce different results. At the most basic level, land managers use chainsaws to topple piñon pine and juniper trees, herbicides to kill sagebrush and woodland saplings, and prescribed fire to remove small understory growth. SUWA very often supports these kinds of small-scale, conservation-based approaches. When based on science and with clear goals, these targeted methods also carry the lowest risks to overall ecosystem health, particularly when post-removal restoration utilizes native plants and seeds and when other stressors like grazing are removed to allow new native plant life to flourish.

Unfortunately, these methods are less common than the large-scale ones, which wield the metaphorical axe, not the scalpel. They rely on heavy machinery across a sizeable landscape and are by nature the most likely to cause collateral damage to ecosystems during and after implementation. Among these large-scale mechanical methods is mastication, where a “bull hog” masticator (essentially a large wood-chipper attached to an excavator) turns entire live trees and sagebrush into mulch in seconds. Another method is “chaining,” a crude option in which two bulldozers drag a large anchor chain to rip up trees.

The aftermath of a large vegetation removal project in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Copyright Tim Peterson/Ecoflight

A New Spin on an Old, Failed Practice
The best available science shows that, more often than not, large-scale mechanical vegetation removal has either non-significant (at best) or detrimental (at worst) effects on such things as wildlife, fire prevention, and watersheds. Nonetheless, such vegetation removal projects have plagued public lands for decades. For most of the 20th century, these projects were fairly unapologetically identified as meant to remove “undesirable” native vegetation and enhance forage for livestock.

But present-day proponents of large-scale mechanical vegetation manipulation have expanded their reasoning for removal of native woodlands and shrublands today, especially as public lands grazing has lost much of it charm. Advocates now tout large projects as necessary to ensure habitat for big game species and sage grouse, and for watershed health. Of course, these conditions are still a boon for public lands grazing; it just no longer gets star billing.

Perhaps the most pervasive reason for promoting large-scale removal projects today is that they are necessary to prevent wildfire. This reasoning not only brings in major funding for projects, but makes any opposition to them seem unreasonable. But the problem with “remove it soon or it will burn” reasoning in piñon-juniper forests is that these kinds of woodlands don’t actually burn frequently at all, having fire return intervals of hundreds of years. But when trees in these ecosystems are removed through chaining, mastication, or other highly-disturbing methods, we see increases in invasive annual grasses like cheatgrass, which actually does make fires more frequent and more severe. In this way, mechanical vegetation removal can actually increase the risk of catastrophic fire.

Exacerbating the Impacts of Climate Change
Crucially, large-scale vegetation removal is a backward step when it comes to mitigating the worst impacts of climate change. These practices decrease soil stability, reduce fire resiliency, hasten the spread of invasive species, and produce dust that accelerates snowmelt in the Colorado Rockies, worsening an already cataclysmic future of drought and desertification.

Piñon pine and juniper forests, the primary woodland type in western dryland ecosystems, bring other critical elements to bear on climate change mitigation—notably, their ability to reliably sequester a disproportionately large amount of carbon compared to other land cover types in the arid West, such as grass and sagebrush. Studies have found that the expansion of woody shrubs and trees (something land managers often portray as an “invasion” to justify large-scale removal projects) actually helps the ecosystem sequester more carbon, and that removing these woody vegetation types results in the release of stored carbon into the atmosphere.

The use of heavy machinery over tens of thousands of acres not only increases atmospheric dust and accelerates desertification (see graphic below), it destroys fragile, late-successional cryptobiotic soil crusts, which themselves play a significant role in sequestering carbon beneath the soil surface. Carbon loss and leaching from these desert carbon sinks is lowest where soils and vegetative cover remain undisturbed.

A Difficult End to the Trump Administration
Our calls for science and oversight in ecosystem management produced fierce attacks from the Trump administration and its allies in industry, ranching, and development. In no small part because SUWA and our partners were effective over the last decade at increasing public and scientific scrutiny of these heavy-handed land management tactics—resulting in the BLM shelving or revamping many large mechanical vegetation removal proposals—the Trump administration actively sought new ways to gut procedural protections promised by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), removing public review mechanisms and stifling the role of science in planning and implementation of vegetation removal projects on public lands.

At the end of the Trump administration, the BLM approved:

  • A rule allowing the BLM to avoid environmental analysis, scientific oversight, and public review on piñon-juniper removal projects of up to 10,000 acres.
  • Another rule exempting deforestation projects of up to 4,500 acres in size from the scrutiny that NEPA would ordinarily require.
  • A plan that authorizes the BLM to clear up to 11,000 miles of “fuel breaks” in forest, sagebrush, and grassland habitats in six western states.
  • A corresponding but broader plan that would allow the BLM to plan and execute vegetation removal projects across a 223 million-acre area in the same six states with no accountability.

This 11th-hour flood of rule and policy changes could now result in the removal of native forests and sagebrush shrublands on massive acreages across the West without the benefit of scientific oversight or public accountability—the exact things that have consistently helped bad projects become better in our rapidly-changing natural world.

A chaining project on the western slope of Indian Peak in Utah’s West Desert. Copyright SUWA/twig media lab

What We’re Doing Now
SUWA and our conservation partners have been working hard to educate our members and the general public about the broader implications of mechanical vegetation removal—an effort that is often complicated by the the many “where, when, how, and why” questions that inevitably arise in regards to this lesser-known threat to public lands.

We have also continued to fight individual vegetation removal projects that directly threaten the wilderness values of lands in America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act. These projects seek to transform natural ecosystems into something they are not, focus myopically on managing habitat for one single species, and/or have the primary intent of creating more non-native forage for cattle. In every instance, we encourage the BLM to rely less on specious land management practices that began when the American West was viewed as nothing more than “useless rangelands,” and move toward a modern, science-based approach to ecosystem health and longevity.

Through a combination of strategic legal action, engaging early with federal land managers, and using the public planning process to help make it easier for land managers to choose passive restoration techniques or design small-scale projects instead of defaulting to heavy mechanical means, we have made progress in influencing how the BLM approaches these projects.

We and our partners have advocated for the Biden administration to embrace its own consistently-stated goals of using the best available science, improving public health, and protecting the environment. At the top of the list of things this administration can do to keep faith with its rhetoric is to rescind the Trump-era rulemakings. The Biden administration should also review the BLM’s policies, especially those that target piñon-juniper forests, fire rehabilitation, and the sagebrush biome. Science and public scrutiny must also be restored as integral pieces of public land management.

There’s also plenty of room for a review of the agency’s structure, programs, and budget lines to make sure they work to enhance, rather than frustrate, native ecosystem survival.

We have made it clear that, while this examination occurs, the BLM should immediately halt large-scale mechanical removal of vegetation, especially within the National Landscape Conservation System where it is antithetical to the agency’s expressed framework for resource protection in wilderness, wilderness study areas, national monuments and conservation areas, and all lands with wilderness characteristics.

Citizen engagement, public oversight, and scientific research have long been the only things preventing the BLM from forever being an agency that “does what it does because that’s what it has always done.” If that approach was ever defensible, it is flatly deadly in the face of climate change.

We do not for a moment argue that degraded ecosystems can never benefit from human help. We do strenuously argue that the most draconian, highly mechanized approaches—and those with the very least scientific support—ought not to be slam-dunk first choices.

—Kya Marienfeld

(From Redrock Wilderness newsletter, Summer 2022 issue)