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Report Critiques the Bureau of Land Management’s Failure to Protect Environmentally Critical Areas in Four Corners States
The 70-page report, entitled “The Bureau of Land Management’s Conservation Mandate, Areas of Critical Environmental Concern in Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico,” is a comprehensive review of agency management that highlights the few successes and many failings of the BLM’s two and a half decade old ACEC conservation initiative.
At the direction of Congress, the BLM has designated more than 3.2 million acres of land as ACECs in the four states, including essential habitat for endangered wildlife, ancient archaeological sites, and unique desert stream ecosystems and other rare ecological values, each of which the agency recognized needed special management attention in order to protect and conserve its values.
According to the report, the BLM has largely ignored its conservation mandate to protect these areas, instead permitting oil and gas development, livestock grazing and other degrading uses with little or no consideration for the need to protect these special areas. Among the report’s findings:
- 52 ACECs in the Southwest have been developed for oil and gas production with a total of 838 wells.
- Oil and gas leasing within ACECs is on the rise under the current Bush Administration. In the last 24 months, leasing for oil and gas development has been approved within 40 separate ACECs in the Southwest.
- 84% of all ACEC acreage is leased to the livestock industry, causing damage to streams and fragile desert environments. The majority of these areas have never undergone any analysis to assess compliance with environmental mandates.
- There are currently over 547,000 acres of privately owned inholdings within the approximately 3.2 million acres of ACECs in the Southwest, many of which are being fragmented as they are developed for homes.
- Of the total ACEC acreage in the southwest, only 11% contains 10 or more known occurrences of species protected under the Endangered Species Act. Less than 1% of the total number of ACECs provide habitat for eight wide-ranging focal fish and wildlife species that the report analyzed for.
- Of the 1,275 miles of streams within ACECs, 21% or 268 miles are polluted and violate federal water quality standards.
“These lands include some of the Southwest’s most endearing landscapes,” said Jon-Paul Oliva, Conservation Biologist for WildEarth Guardians and the report’s primary author. “But the BLM has failed to protect them and now the Bush Administration is steamrolling this mandate and sacrificing these precious areas in its rush to provide the oil and gas, livestock and outdoor recreation industries greater access to public lands,” added Oliva.
In addition to threatening currently designated areas by permitting incompatible uses, the Bush administration has also essentially abandoned the ACEC mandate, having failed to designate a single ACEC in the four states in the last three and a half years. In contrast the BLM designated 147 ACECs under the Clinton Administration, and under the administration of George Bush Sr. the agency designated 79 ACECs in the Southwest.
Simon Canyon ACEC in New Mexico, the first ACEC established in the four corners region, was designated in 1980 to protect ecological and cultural resources. Today that ACEC is scarred with 37 natural gas well pads covering over 167 acres and 11.8 miles of road networks. “The plight of Simon Canyon is emblematic of the problems many of these unique areas face, specifically that the BLM designates these areas for special protection and then allows a variety of uses to degrade the very resources the ACEC designation is designed to protect” said Oliva. In addition to Simon Canyon, the report includes highlights of the BLM’s failed and successful management strategies at more than a dozen other ACECs scattered across the Southwest.
Among the failings of the ACEC program are a lack of regional planning, a lack of site-specific management plans for ACECs and a failure to impose the restrictions necessary to protect the unique resources of these special areas. “Only 8% of ACECs in the Southwest have detailed, site-specific management plans in place to protect their resources,” said Oliva.
The result of the lack of careful planning by the BLM is that the special resources of ACECs are often neglected. Oil and gas development within ACECs is rampant in areas with high concentrations of these natural resources. Livestock grazing is ubiquitous within ACECs and is devastating riparian habitat and threatening the survival of protected species. Monitoring of the conditions within ACECs is, for the most part, poorly done if it is done at all, and encroaching development on privately held inholdings is fragmenting otherwise viable habitat. As a result of these factors, water quality in many ACECs is severely compromised.
“ACECs represent only 6% of the BLM’s landscape in the four corners, yet political pressure from Washington and special interests closer to home prevent the agency from adequately protecting even this minute portion of its charge,” said Oliva.
The report suggests that the BLM suffers from a lack of will to implement conservation actions that disrupt the activities of politically powerful and/or historic constituencies. “The BLM is often unwilling to designate ACECs where the most serious threats to resource values occur, and consequently where controversy over ACEC designations is going to be the greatest,” said Oliva. Where ACECs do exist in these conditions, a failure to implement and enforce necessary management plans has almost universally compromised the effectiveness of the ACEC designation.
Despite the programs shortcomings, each state has at least one shining example of an ACEC that has succeeded in protecting valuable natural resources. “Some of these areas, like the Dark Canyon ACEC in Utah and the Overflow Wetlands ACEC in New Mexico have site-specific management plans and the sensitive resources in need of protection are thriving. These areas are examples of what the agency could be doing better in many other ACECs,” said Oliva.
“The purpose of this report is to bring public attention to the ACEC program and the lack of support that the program receives within the agency,” said Oliva. WildEarth Guardians hopes the report will bring attention to the problems of this under-funded program and, by doing so, influence the BLM to become more responsible land managers with these irreplaceable treasures. “The agency needs to be reminded that these lands belong to the public, and that the majority of the public places a high value on the protection of the environment,” said Oliva.
The ACEC program was conceived in the 1976 landmark Federal Lands Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), which established the first conservation mandate for the BLM. The ACEC mandate directs the BLM to protect important riparian corridors, threatened and endangered species habitat, cultural and archeological resources and unique scenic landscapes throughout the southwest that the agency believes need special management attention.
For more information, or to download a copy of Forest Guardian’s ACEC report, please visit the group’s ACEC webpage.