Grand Staircase-Escalante judge rejects plan to strip 30,000 acres of forest

An administrative judge with the Department of the Interior’s appeals board sided with environmentalists who appealed a Bureau of Land Management decision to remove pinyon pine, juniper and sagebrush from 30,000 acres at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, above. Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of the Interior

An administrative judge with the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Board of Land Appeals rejected a plan to strip 30,000 acres of pinyon-juniper forest and sagebrush from the Skutumpah Terrace area inside Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

The plan was to replace it with non-native grasses preferred by cattle companies after four environmental groups appealed the Bureau of Land Management’s decision to do so last February.

The BLM “failed to consider the cumulative effects of the project on migratory birds,” wrote Judge James K. Jackson in his order signed Monday, Sept. 16, adding the BLM also failed to meet requirements in the National Environmental Policy and Federal Land Policy and Management acts.

He said appellants Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Western Watersheds Project, the Wilderness Society, and Grand Canyon Trust met the burden of demonstrating the BLM’s environmental assessment “failed to consider a substantial environmental question of material significance to the proposed action.”

Here’s what the appellants had to say in emails: “This decision illustrates what should be obvious, which is that destroying native pinyon and juniper forests to plant non-native forage for livestock is bad public policy,” said Kya Marienfeld, wildlands attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “Unfortunately, the BLM is still proceeding with plans to rip up native vegetation from more than 100,000 acres elsewhere in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and hundreds of thousands of additional acres throughout Utah and the West. Congress needs to step in and ask why the BLM continues to waste taxpayer money on vegetation removal projects that ignore science and its own land management plans.”

Added Laura Welp of Western Watersheds Project, “Thanks to an enormous amount of effort and tenacity, the old growth pinyon-juniper woodland plants and wildlife on the Skutumpah Terrace are safe for now from BLM chains and bulldozers.” Welp is a former BLM botanist at Grand Staircase-Escalante. “Massive vegetation-removal projects like this one interfere with efforts to restore the native plants and animals we cherish.”

Mary O’Brien, Utah Forests program director for the Grand Canyon Trust said, “The IBLA acknowledged what the BLM did not: destroying native pinyon and juniper trees on over 100,000 acres of land – combined with two additional pinyon and juniper removal projects being planned in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument – just might have significant impacts on birds like pinyon jays, which have declined more than 85 percent.”

“The special values of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument continue to be under attack by this administration,” said Phil Hanceford, conservation director for the Wilderness Society. “We will continue to fight illegal efforts to gut this area and efforts like this that mismanage the trees, wildlife, fossils and cultural resources that make this place special.”

Monday’s IBLA decision comes on the heels of the BLM’s withdrawal in May of a decision to approve another vegetation removal project on the Tavaputs Plateau in Utah. Conservationists contend that the BLM’s vegetation removal projects on public lands throughout the West lack a scientific basis, and that its vegetation removal program is in dire need of congressional oversight, according to appellants.

Jackson, the administrative judge, found the BLM’s argument that supplanting the pinyon and juniper and sagebrush with non-native grasses would help to add diversity to the steppe.

In his conclusion, which earned the concurrence of Acting Chief Administrative Judge Silvia Riechel Idziorek, Jackson found the environmental groups proved the BLM violated NEPA “because it failed to take a hard look at the project’s cumulative impacts on migratory birds,” but they did not prove the BLM failed to take into account greenhouse gas emissions and other climate change impacts.

SUWA and the other groups, however, did show the BLM erred “in determining that using non-native seed to better compete with invasive species or to add diversity was consistent with the applicable land use plan under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.” Indeed, they found the non-native seeds were invasive.