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Eleventh-hour Trump actions prolong “scorched earth” policy threatening 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of public review through these final NEPA exclusions today is especially alarming because many large projects that were withdrawn because of public pressure — including some within Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument — could now reappear at any time under this new policy and move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.
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.
Consequences of pinyon and juniper woodland reduction for wildlife in North America. 2016. Sara Bombaci and Liba Pejchar in Forest Ecology and Management