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Despite receiving thousands of letters of opposition from many of you, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has so far ignored our call to withdraw a right-of-way across public lands in southwest Utah.

The right-of-way had been granted by the Trump administration, just before it left office, through the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area outside St. George—a rapidly sprawling city. Trump’s BLM did this despite clear instruction from Congress in 2009 that Red Cliffs was designated to conserve and protect the plants and wildlife, including the threatened Mojave desert tortoise, that live where the Mojave Desert, Great Basin, and Colorado Plateau converge.

This past June, Guardians and our partners sued BLM for failing to uphold its responsibilities to manage the Red Cliffs. Construction hasn’t started on the four-lane highway—yet—so the Biden administration still has an opportunity to correct this terrible decision by its predecessors.

To get the Biden administration’s attention, Guardians and allies have created a shared website asking the public to join together to voice its opposition to this destructive and unnecessary highway across fragile desert habitat.

The overall goal is 80,000 signatures. With the help of Guardians’ great supporters, I’m confident we can reach that goal.

Please take action and tell the BLM that the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area is too valuable to destroy with a highway.

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On October 8, President Biden issued proclamations restoring the boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah.

WildEarth Guardians is grateful to the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni, and Ute Indian Tribe for their leadership in advocating for the swift restoration of Bears Ears. I’d also like to thank our members and supporters who wrote President Biden over 14,000 times urging him to restore these national monuments.

The proclamations immediately renewed protections for innumerable cultural and paleontological sites on public lands in southern Utah. Biden’s orders fulfilled a campaign promise and came four years after Trump gutted two million acres from the monuments in 2017.

From a biodiversity standpoint, it is difficult to overstate the importance of protecting these two places. Bears Ears is in the top 10 percent of similarly sized places in the American West for both ecological intactness and connectivity—two factors considered essential for biodiversity and landscape-level conservation. Grand Staircase-Escalante is in the top four percent for ecological intactness and the top six percent for connectivity.

Bears Ears is also home to at least 13 species listed under the Endangered Species Act, including the California condor, Mexican spotted owl, and greenback cutthroat trout. Grand Staircase-Escalante is believed to offer an even greater diversity of species, with more than 200 species of birds and—incredibly—more than 650 species of bees.

For now, let’s celebrate this big win. But it’s clear this won’t be the final battle to protect Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, because we have little doubt that industry groups, the state of Utah, and those hostile to national monuments and public lands will file lawsuits challenging Biden’s proclamations.

We will continue to fight for the people and wildlife sustained by these two critical national monuments. In fact, Guardians and our allies still have a lawsuit pending in federal court challenging Trump’s illegal dissolution of Bears Ears National Monument to ensure that no future president can eliminate or shrink a national monument designated by an earlier president.

So let’s all celebrate this monumental win even as we know we’ll need to prepare to defend these special landscapes from future attacks.

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In December 2017, then-President Trump slashed the size of Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by half. In one fell swoop, over 2 million acres were gutted from the national monuments—never before had so much public land lost federal protection.

President Biden has pledged to study restoring the boundaries of these monuments. Earlier this month, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland visited Utah to learn more about the threats to cultural and environmental resources on the lands that were stripped of monument protections.

Now it’s up to the president to take action. Please ask President Biden to protect these two important landscapes by moving quickly to issue proclamations reinstating the boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments.

The need for the president to take action is evident. Sites sacred to the Bears Ears Tribes—protected for only a short time after President Obama designated the monument in 2016—are targets for looters and even grave robbers. Public lands previously inside the boundary of Bears Ears face threats of oil and gas development and uranium mining. Illegal and inappropriate off-road motorized travel further jeopardizes the unique landscape and irreplaceable cultural sites found in Bears Ears.

The dangers are much the same for Grand Staircase-Escalante. Energy extraction, increased livestock grazing, fossil collection, and off-road vehicle travel all threaten the incredible beauty and biodiversity of public lands, which had been protected for more than 20 years prior to Trump taking office.

The good news is that the president can act quickly, as the case for restoring the monuments has already been made. Prior to Obama’s designation of Bears Ears National Monument, the Interior Department completed a thorough review that illuminated the need to protect the region’s treasures. Ever since Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was established in 1996, the Bureau of Land Management has extensively documented the region’s outstanding paleontological resources, and scientists have made significant discoveries regarding its biodiversity.

The benefits these two cherished places provide—and the threats they currently face—are all too clear. With your help, we can ensure these vital public lands are once again protected. Speak up to restore Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments.

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The San Carlos Apache and their Tribal and non-profit allies have been fighting tirelessly for decades to save their sacred site of Chi’chil Bildagoteel, also known as Oak Flat, within the Tonto National Forest in Arizona. Their commitment, perseverance, and courage have managed to stave off the rapacious appetites of multinational mining company Rio Tinto, which has already desecrated a 28,000-year-old Aboriginal site in Australia.

We now have the opportunity to permanently overturn the 2014 midnight rider that authorized the transfer of public and sacred lands to Rio Tinto. In March, Representative Raúl Grijalva introduced the Save Oak Flat Act to protect this sacred Indigenous site from being destroyed by a massive copper mine and Senator Bernie Sanders introduced a companion bill in the Senate.

It’s long overdue that we uphold the treaty rights and federal trust responsibilities promised to the original inhabitants of this country and overturning the 2014 rider that gave an Indigenous sacred site to a multinational mining corporation would be a significant step in the right direction. Write your members of Congress today.

Rio Tinto’s subsidiary, Resolution Copper, is proposing the use of block cave mining at Oak Flat, a type of underground mining that will collapse the land surface and leave a crater nearly two miles wide and over 1,000 feet deep. That’s in addition to the 1.4 billion tons of toxic waste the mine would produce, which would be dumped into the fragile desert ecosystem, likely ending up in the ground and surface water.

The mine will also require upwards of 250 billion gallons of water—that’s the equivalent of a football field filled with water, 147 miles high. The American Southwest is already deeply mired in a water crisis. We cannot afford to continue to promote and prioritize these kinds of water-intensive extractive industries at the expense of the health and resilience of the human and non-human communities who must rely on the land and its water long after the copper has run dry.

Ask your members of Congress to support the Save Oak Flat Act. This is our chance to demonstrate our commitment to Tribal sovereignty, ecological integrity, and the rich and powerful space where the two intersect.

I’d like to share some good news for public lands, wilderness, wildlife habitat, and the rule of law.

Just one day after WildEarth Guardians and our partners filed a lawsuit, the Bureau of Land Management rescinded a last-minute Trump administration decision permitting an unqualified ranching company to graze cattle on Steens Mountain in southeastern Oregon.

These public lands grazing allotments are on the ancestral homeland of the Burns Paiute Tribe and the Northern Paiute and the Western Shoshone peoples. The lands include designated wilderness and other wilderness-quality lands that contain a trove of cultural resources, as well as important habitat for imperiled sage grouse, redband trout, and other species.

On his last day in office—the day before Inauguration Day—former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt rushed to grant public land grazing privileges to Dwight and Steven Hammond. Bernhardt cut short, and unlawfully ignored, public participation and failed to consider impacts to native species, cultural resources, and wilderness.

The Hammond’s previous grazing permit had been revoked after the father and son were convicted of intentionally setting fire to public lands in 2012. In 2016, insurrectionists cited that conviction when they took up arms and occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for 41 days.

While Guardians will continue advocating for public lands grazing reform, one important action you can take right now is to raise your voice to make sure the federal government holds law-breakers and scofflaws accountable, rather than granting them special favors and treatment.

As always, you can count on Guardians to protect wildlands and critical wildlife habitat while we also defend the rights of everyone to have an equal say in how America’s public lands are managed.

Good news, Guardians! Your collective voices made a big difference for public lands and critical wildlife habitat in Nevada.

On December 3, the U.S. Congress passed the 2021 annual defense spending bill—called the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)—without including a number of public land giveaways, which threatened critical habitat for desert bighorn sheep, greater sage-grouse, and golden eagles.

Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nevada) wanted to amend the Senate’s version of the NDAA to transfer authority over more than 380,000 acres of public lands in northern Nevada from the Bureau of Land Management to the Navy to expand an air station and bombing range. To make matters worse, Senator Cortez Masto also wanted to sell off or give away 100,000 acres of federal public lands in four Nevada counties, with little environmental review and an abridged appraisal process that would have skirted federal standards.

A big thanks to over 3,150 WildEarth Guardians members and supporters who took action and urged your senator on the Armed Services Committee to oppose these public land giveaways.

Congress has a long history of tacking public lands giveaways and sales onto unrelated legislation, especially bills such as the defense spending bill that it must pass every year, so stay tuned as we will need all Guardians to remain vigilant and ready for action when the time comes.

The other day when my son and I were at Fort Missoula looking at the line of mountains in the distance, he innocently asked why one didn’t have any trees on it. He was pointing to where old forest roads cut stark lines across much of the mountainside denuded by heavy-handed logging. I struggled to respond. How do you tell an 8-year old about massive clearcuts, government mismanagement, and the general profiteering off of public lands? The logging scars serve as a stark reminder that we need strong legal protections to ensure forests are able to provide quality habitat for fish and wildlife and clean drinking water for nearby communities.

Yet under the Trump administration, the Forest Service has been exploiting legal loopholes to sidestep one of the country’s most important laws, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Signed into law on January 1, 1970 by President Nixon, NEPA requires government agencies to involve the public in meaningful ways, consider better alternatives, and disclose the environmental consequences of specific projects. Of course not everything needs such a robust process: painting picnic benches and mowing lawns all historically fit within a broad array of actions called categorical exclusions (CEs) that are exempt from most of NEPA’s requirements in order to expedite minor projects.

However, starting in the early 2000s, President Bush’s so-called “Healthy Forest Restoration Initiative” began creating new categories of categorical exclusions to push through more industrial logging and road building with less environmental analysis and citizen participation. Since then, lawmakers have granted the Forest Service over thirty different categories of CEs that allow harmful projects like logging and road building to circumvent NEPA’s safeguards across tens of millions of acres. Right now, Senator Steve Daines is pushing legislation that would establish two brand new CE categories, one allowing over 15 square miles of logging.

At WildEarth Guardians we knew the use of categorical exclusions was getting out of hand, but we didn’t know the full extent. Upon closer examination, we found that from January through March of 2020, the Forest Service proposed to categorically exclude 51 projects across more than 3.7 million acres of public lands. That’s an area larger than the state of Connecticut. We detail our findings in a recently released report that shows the Forest Service overwhelmingly uses one particular categorical exclusion that lacks any size limits under the guise of improving wildlife habitat or “timber stands.” The agency used this particular CE to propose large-scale commercial logging without adequately analyzing the impacts to the very wildlife habitat the agency is supposed to be protecting. Such actions completely undermine NEPA’s “look before you leap” approach that was enacted in response to decades of agency mismanagement and degradation of forests, watersheds, and wildlife habitat.

It appears the Forest Service is now using categorical exclusions as a blank check to authorize enormous logging projects in sensitive and pristine areas, including Roadless Areas, without involving the public or disclosing the potential consequences to species and their habitats. While our report is only a three-month snapshot, it points to a concerning trend within the Forest Service. In fact, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has called on the Forest Service to treat National Forests as tree farms, and that is exactly what the agency is doing with little regard to their importance for fish and wildlife, water quality, or recreation.

Worse, as part of Trump’s continued attack on the environment, the Forest Service is finalizing a wholesale rewrite of its NEPA rules that would establish even more categorical exclusions. Before the Forest Service creates any new CE authorities, Congress should call for an independent investigation such as the one completed in 2006 by the Government Accountability Office that looked into the agency’s use of categorical exclusions for vegetation management projects. Absent such an investigation, the Forest Service must immediately stop its abuse of categorical exclusion authorities.

State and local officials in southwest Utah are asking the federal Bureau of Land Management to approve the bulldozing and carving of a new 4-lane highway through the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area. The request comes less than a dozen years after Congress designated the conservation area to protect habitat for the imperiled Mojave desert tortoise, which has been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act since 1990.

Construction of the highway, known as the Northern Corridor, would harm much of this key habitat for the threatened tortoise. The new highway would also exacerbate impacts of a July 2020 wildfire that tore through 12,000 acres of the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, which as the local paper pointed out, impacted desert shrubs, herbs, grasses, cacti, and wildflowers that serve as shelter and food for the threatened tortoise. The truth is that the highway is unnecessary and would increase the already rapid pace of human expansion into southwest Utah.

The Red Cliffs are the northeast extent of the range of Mojave desert tortoise and a stronghold for the species. While these creatures can live up to 80 years, they don’t reach reproductive maturity until around 15 year-old and they are very sensitive to habitat changes, which means that their populations grow slowly. The tortoise’s overall population has long been declining and the Northern Corridor highway would fuel further decline in several significant ways.

The 4-lane highway would permanently restrict tortoises’ ability to migrate within the National Conservation Area, which could lead to the complete loss of local sub-populations. And while federal officials would attempt to gather up tortoises in the path of the highway and relocate them before bulldozers started rolling, the effort would largely serve as PR rather than preservation. Science has shown that re-located tortoises have very poor survival rates and other tortoises wouldn’t be found and would be crushed by heavy equipment during construction.

Utah’s Department of Transportation wants the public to believe the new highway is needed to reduce snarled traffic in rapidly growing St. George. But real-world experience shows us that any short-term reduction in traffic congestion provided by the Northern Corridor would hasten further sprawl around St. George, ultimately offsetting the short-term traffic benefits. And the Bureau of Land Management’s own environmental analysis identifies an alternative route that not only avoids the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area entirely but would be more effective at reducing traffic congestion in the long term.

September 10 is the deadline to tell the Bureau of Land Management to act in the best interest of public lands and threatened wildlife. Click here to ask the Bureau to reject Utah’s request for an unnecessary and harmful 4-lane highway through this desert tortoise stronghold.

Trump’s Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue flew into Missoula on June 12 to sign a memorandum directing the U.S. Forest Service to essentially double-down on its continued push to prioritize logging, mining, drilling and grazing, all while limiting environmental reviews. During the campaign-style signing event, Secretary Perdue—a former agribusiness CEO whose previous political campaigns were bankrolled by Monsanto and Big Ag interests—not only bragged that “we see trees as a crop,” but also ironically compared America’s bedrock environmental laws to “bubble wrap.” Apparently it was lost on Secretary Perdue that bubble wrap protects valuable things from being destroyed.

Missing from the secretary’s statements was any recognition that America’s national forests, 193 million acres in all, are actually diverse ecosystems that are home to hundreds of imperiled fish and wildlife species, and contain the last remnants of wildlands in this country that millions of people cherish. The secretary failed to mention how numerous communities rely on national forests to provide clean drinking water, or the fact that intact forests do more to remove atmospheric carbon than do stumps. In fact, national forests have a crucial role to play as part of global, natural climate change solutions.

Returning to the past, when resource extraction and exploitation ruled the land is hardly a blueprint for the future. Yet, this is exactly what the secretary ordered and what the Trump administration has been pursuing from Day One. In fact, Perdue’s memorandum comes on the heels of two recent Trump Executive Orders allowing industry and federal agencies to waive compliance with long-standing environmental laws that safeguard fish and wildlife. These orders follow Trump’s wholesale rolling back of rules requiring federal agencies to involve the public, take a hard look at the environmental consequences of its actions, and consider alternatives.

A recent Journal of Forestry article demonstrates the rationale for these rollbacks and attacks is baseless. Even without further “streamlining processes,” the Forest Service approved over 80% of projects between 2005-2018 by categorically excluding them from environmental analysis. The same study also showed that less than 1% of all projects were challenged in court.

Of course, this administration and industry proponents would never let facts change their story, especially when it plays on people’s fears and hopes. For years, those opposed to public land protection keep weaving nostalgic hints of returning to the good ole days when the mills were humming and the logging trucks filled with big trees, all the while knowing economics and automation make this impossible. At the same time, they use fear of wildfires as cover for industrial logging, sidestepping the reality that climate change and the historic drought gripping much of the West increases wildfire risks far more than cutting trees will ever address. The wildfires we see today matches what climate science tells us. If we truly want to see fewer large-scale wildfires, then we need to stop burning fossil fuels and do more to preserve intact, mature forests. Further, it is hubris to believe, and irresponsible to purport, that timber harvest will prevent wildfires. No one talks about hurricane-proofing the Gulf Coast, or tornado-proofing Oklahoma, but the Forest Service suggests if given enough latitude it can reduce forest fires – though the degree of which is left to the public’s imagination and that’s the point.

Ultimately, Secretary Perdue and the Trump administration believe national forests are little more than crops and the best, highest use for public lands is to exploit them with more logging, grazing, mining and drilling. The fact is, national forests and public lands are complex, living ecosystems with inherent value that deserves our moral consideration. These public lands are homes to grizzly bears, mountain goats, elk, trout, salmon and a whole host of other iconic wildlife species. Their survival depends on us, and we need to be better environmental citizens with our non-human neighbors.

America does need a “modernization blueprint” for the future of national forests, one that re-envisions their purpose so we can move beyond viewing forests simply as sources of lumber. In the 21st century, we need to strengthen forest protection, maximize the ability of national forests to serve as part of natural climate change solutions, and heal the scars left from decades of exploitation through true restoration, which cannot be done with a chainsaw.

TAKE ACTION! Tell Secretary Sonny Perdue to protect, not destroy, National Forests.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought to light the importance of wild places in all our lives. Yet the Trump administration is intent on their destruction through unmitigated extractive uses such as oil and gas development, mining, logging, and grazing to benefit private industries.

Wild places—most of which, at least in the U.S., are on public lands—safeguard and improve public health in numerous ways. Studies confirm what is intuitive to anyone enjoying a beautiful day in nature: greater contact with the natural world reduces stress, anxiety, and depression, as well as physical manifestations that often accompany these conditions.

Paradoxically, wild places keep us healthy by limiting our exposure to nature’s ills by creating a physical buffer between human populations and the wildlife that can transfer bacteria and viruses. Covid-19 is not the only recent example of a disease existing in the wild prior to jumping to humans—Lyme disease in the U.S. and the Ebola virus in Africa have been traced to human encroachment upon wild places. Lyme disease, which is transmitted to humans through the bite of ticks infected with a particular species of bacterium, was first diagnosed in Connecticut in 1976. Its current prevalence is thought to be the result of the expansion of suburban neighborhoods into formerly wooded areas and an accompanying reduction in predator populations that control the numbers of deer and rodents that normally host the ticks.

More broadly, wild places support greater biodiversity than places where humans have a heavier presence on the land. And biodiversity gives resilience to the natural systems and cycles that make the planet habitable to humans, as healthy, species-rich ecosystems adapt more easily to stressors such as climate change. It’s no exaggeration to say there’s no humanity without biodiversity.

Wild lands are also carbon sinks that capture and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere—especially forests, though grasslands and deserts store significant amounts of carbon as well. Preservation, and even expansion, of wild places will be crucial in tempering the extent of climate change.

At a time when the need for wild places and public lands is so clear, it’s infuriating and illogical that the Trump Administration is pushing hard for the removal of protections for endangered species, clean air and water, and public participation in land management decisions, all while federal land management agencies are ramping up efforts to drill, mine, graze and cut trees on public lands across the West. In Utah, the Bureau of Land Management is plowing ahead with plans to offer more than 100,000 acres of public lands near Canyonlands and Arches national parks for oil and gas leasing. The Trump administration has proposed reopening public lands on the north rim of the Grand Canyon to uranium mining despite a 2012 moratorium imposed to prevent further poisoning of the landscape. In an effort to push projects through faster and with less public oversight, the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service announced they will no longer analyze the environmental or public health impacts of vast categories of extractive uses—including fossil fuels, logging and grazing—that generate corporate profits at the expense of public lands and human health. Capitulation to the extractive industries has also had a disproportionate impact on low income, Black, Indigenous and People of Color communities. Every extractive industry seems to be getting a sweetheart deal, while vulnerable communities, wildlands, wildlife, wild rivers, and public health bear the consequences.

In the recent past, we have seen states and extractive industries pushing for the transfer of public lands into private or state hands that don’t have to comply with all the federal environmental laws that protect the lands, waters, species, and neighboring communities. Yet advocates for public lands privatization or “transfer” to the states have been surprisingly silent during the coronavirus pandemic. Maybe they’re self-aware enough to know their perceived grievances won’t register with a country currently grappling with systemic racism, a public health crisis, and economic dislocation.

Or maybe they remember that past efforts to legislate the mass sale or transfer of public lands to states or private industries have been overwhelming failures. In 2012 Utah enacted the Transfer of Public Lands Act, which demanded that the United States “extinguish title to public lands and transfer title to those public lands to the state on or before Dec. 31, 2014.” The federal government has not felt compelled to respond to the absurd demand. Utah later passed a bill to authorize a lawsuit against the U.S. to “take back” those same public lands. It’s amounted to nothing, other than lining some lawyers’ pockets. And in 2017, then-Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), after facing widespread public outcry, was forced to withdraw his bill to sell off millions of acres of public lands across the West.

As a result of these past failures, conservative lawmakers and industry proponents have looked to alternative means to make it easier for extractors and developers to exploit public land resources. That’s largely what we’re seeing now: the effective privatization of public lands by weakening the regulatory safety nets that protect wildlands, waters, species, and public health; as well as the removal of public oversight from agency decision-making. It should come as no surprise the Secretary of the Interior was a long-time industry lobbyist who advocated for privatization, reduced public oversight, and weakened environmental laws. Or that the person Trump finally nominated for Bureau of Land Management Director is a dyed-in-the-wool racist climate-change-denying sagebrush rebel.

Despite the recent silence, we shouldn’t expect those who’ve clamored for privatization or state control to keep quiet for long. The issue is too central for its proponents, and the pandemic’s aftermath may offer new pretexts for privatization and state control: boosting government revenue and restarting national and local economies.

Photo by USFS.

The arguments that environmental laws are too burdensome and that public lands have been “locked up” by “Washington bureaucrats” for too long are as short-sighted as ever. But with states facing budgets in shambles and unprecedented unemployment, privatization or transfer may appeal even to those who normally see this scheme for the plundering of public resources it is. We cannot afford to let down our guard.

Public lands in public hands means we all share in the benefits public lands provide—clean water, clean air, recreation, physical and mental health, hunting, fishing, birdwatching, biodiversity, protection against disease, protection of historic and cultural resources, and moderation of the impacts of climate change. Just as important, public lands in public hands means we can all participate in planning and making decisions for how public lands are managed for future generations, through laws such as the National Forest Management Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

For now, we maintain the right to determine whether public lands protect us from disease, or bring it to our doorstep; help us adapt to climate change, or contribute to the crisis; provide refuge for wildlife, or serve as a feedlot for livestock. We must remain vigilant in our defense of public lands against effective or actual privatization by those who seek to destroy them for private gain. Luckily, Guardians, our supporters and our conservation allies are fighting tooth and nail to keep existing environmental safety nets in place. We will continue to do so, and hope you will continue to join us.