BLM proposes expedited review of pinyon-juniper restoration projects

SUWA calls it a ‘scorched earth policy for public lands’

A bull hog mastication project, years after project completion. Photo courtesy of Neal Clark/SUWA

The Bureau of Land Management has announced a proposal to expedite review and approval of restoration projects across the West designed to address the rapid spread of pinyon-juniper woodlands on sagebrush habitat for the benefit of greater sage-grouse, mule deer and other sagebrush-dependent native wildlife and plant species. The proposal would establish a new categorical exclusion under the National Environmental Policy Act, enabling the agency to streamline review of projects that remove encroaching pinyon-juniper trees to allow for sagebrush restoration, according to a press release from the agency.

“Improving sagebrush ecosystems by removing pinyon-juniper woodland is an established and well-studied practice. If finalized, this proposed categorical exclusion would eliminate needless analysis, so we can more quickly protect and restore sagebrush habitat and reduce the threat of wildfires for the benefit of mule deer, sage-grouse and hundreds of other native species,” said Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt.

William Perry Pendley, BLM deputy director for policy and programs said, “Pinyon-juniper encroachment is a serious threat to millions of acres of sagebrush habitat. This proposal will allow us to keep the problem from growing worse, and to accelerate habitat restoration projects that increase the health and resilience of the landscape for iconic species.”

The proposal has come with criticism from the environmental front. Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance Wildlands Attorney Kya Marienfeld said the BLM’s proposal to fast track approvals and eliminate public input will be harmful. She said the review on so-called “vegetation projects” that would clear-cut forests of native juniper and pinyon pine are primarily to promote forage for cattle.

“This is a scorched-earth policy for Utah’s national monuments and public lands. This proposal would prevent the public from being able to weigh in on the process, methods, and science that BLM contends support these heavy-handed projects. This is especially concerning because the public has demonstrated increasing concern in recent years about large-scale mechanical removal of native vegetation on public lands. Several proposed projects – totaling more than 100,000 acres in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument alone – that were temporarily withdrawn by BLM as a result of public pressure could reappear at any time under this new policy and move forward without public review, scientific study, or accountability.”

A press release from SUWA said, “following administrative rulings showing that BLM has not followed the law or gathered the scientific evidence to justify the mechanical removal of native juniper and pinyon pine forests through mastication, chaining, and other large surface-disturbing methods, the BLM has now proposed excluding public oversight and environmental analysis of this program altogether.

The Interior Department’s own internal review board, the Interior Board of Land Appeals, ruled in September 2019 that BLM’s proposal to remove 30,000 acres of forest in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument failed to meet National Environmental Policy Act requirements. In response, BLM wants to create a new exception from NEPA review for destroying pinyon pine and juniper forests, which will also eliminate the public’s right to comment on and challenge these proposals.”

On the other hand, Beaver County Commissioner Tammy Pearson said, “Beaver County commends Secretary Bernhardt and Acting BLM Director William Perry Pendley for taking action to reduce pinyon-juniper encroachment. The spread of these trees is the biggest threat to the sagebrush ecosystem that sage-grouse, mule deer and other species rely on. Pinyon-juniper increase fuel loads and often contribute to large crown fires that cause significant harm to watersheds and local communities. Having this option in the toolbox will expedite habitat restoration for big game while also allowing important vegetative management projects to move forward expeditiously.”

The announcement opened a public comment period that closes 30 days from the date the proposed categorical exclusion is published in the Federal Register.

The National Environmental Policy Act requires federal agencies to consider the potential environmental consequences of their decisions before deciding whether and how to proceed. The appropriate use of CXs allows NEPA compliance, in the absence of extraordinary circumstances that merit further consideration, to be concluded without preparing either an environmental assessment or an environmental impact statement, said the BLM press release.

Scientists estimate that pinyon and juniper woodlands occupied less than seven million acres prior to settlement of the West in the 1870s. They now occupy over 74 million acres across the West, a 10-fold increase attributed to many factors including fire suppression, grazing, land clearing, and climate change. Pinyon-juniper species can be aggressive invaders into more productive shrub-steppe communities that historically occupied deeper soils than the pinyon-juniper woodlands – in particular sage-steppe habitat. As of 2016, sagebrush ecosystems in the U.S. occupied only about one-half of their historical distribution.

Actions covered by the proposed CX include: manual or mechanical cutting; mastication and mulching; yarding and piling of cut trees; pile burning; seeding or manual planting of seedlings of native species; and removal of cut trees for commercial products such as sawlogs, specialty products, or fuel wood, or non-commercial uses. The proposal does not cover cutting of old-growth trees; seeding or planting of non-native species; chaining; pesticide or herbicide application; broadcast burning; jackpot burning; construction of new temporary or permanent roads; or construction of other new permanent infrastructure.