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Calico Mountain Wilderness, BLM land in Nevada, by Kurt Kuznicki. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

There’s a movement afoot that is incredibly frightening. Unbeknownst to most of us, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has proposed a series of initiatives of historic proportion that will expedite the removal of native vegetation across the intermountain West. The potential aggregate effects are staggering. And Nevada is at the bull’s eye.

According to a July 2020 press briefing held by a coalition of partners through the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, for decades the BLM has been destroying hundreds of thousands of acres of native vegetation like sagebrush, pinon pine and juniper through so-called “vegetation removal” projects, using huge chains, bulldog masticators, and front end loaders to crush and pulverize tree and plant life. They claim such projects improve wildlife habitat, increase forage for cows and wildlife and restore watersheds by reducing stream erosion and runoff.

The best available science as shown in Forest Ecology and Management 365 (pp. 34-50) and Jones, A Review of the Literature (February 2019) indicates that such projects often do more harm than good. Heavy machinery disturbs fragile soils, harms native wildlife habitat, increases invasive species prone to wildfire, and results in widely inconsistent results. Now the BLM is making the situation dramatically worse, and is seeking to shield future project planning from most public view and scientific scrutiny. It is also ratcheting up the pace and scale of such projects.

One new regulation would allow the BLM to pulverize pinyon pine forests up to 10,000 acres in size without any environmental analysis or public review. Another new regulation would exempt the removal of pinyon forests or sagebrush shrublands up to 4,500 acres from oversight. There is no limit on the number of these projects, so incrementally they will pot mark public lands in Nevada and across the West.  

Also exempted from scientific oversight and public review is a plan that allows the clearing of up to 11,000 miles of 500-foot wide “fuel breaks” in forest, sagebrush and grassland habitats across six western states, including Nevada, as well as a plan that allows the agency to execute vegetation removal projects across a 223 million-acre are in the same six state area.

Our public lands are a valued resource. During this coronavirus pandemic, visitation and recreational usage have increased dramatically as people seek respite from forced homebound isolation. We are delighted with the recent passage of the Great American Outdoors Act which now provides permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, among other benefits. We know about Trump’s attack on the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) which requires review of the environmental impacts of proposed land-use projects, and his weakening of environmental regulations. Now, if these BLM initiatives are implemented, the impacts to native plant communities and wildlife as well as our unspoiled wild landscapes in the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau will be devastating.

Another often overlooked consideration of wide scale vegetation removal is that plants, especially trees, help to remove carbon pollution from the air. With ever-worsening climate change, thoughtless removal of these important carbon capturers is just plain foolish.

The BLM should halt these initiatives and put into place a set of policies to establish oversight, transparency, accountability, and a scientific framework for assessment and review.

Americans love our public lands, which is why we should be alarmed at the plan to remove scientific review and public input on the expansive clearcutting of our pinyon pine forests and sagebrush shrublands. Please call or write your members of Congress and let them know you disapprove of this secretive, dangerous plot by the BLM.

 Rita Ransom is a former science teacher, environmentalist, and member of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Sierra Club and Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

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