Environmentalists have sided with Utah's Paiute Indians in an effort to stop the Bureau of Land Management from "chaining" tens of thousands of acres of fire-damaged federal land in its Richfield District of central Utah.
In a lawsuit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court, the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah charges that the BLM, in its attempts to rehabilitate land, is violating several federal laws that protect cultural resources.The suit asked for a temporary restraining order until full archaeological surveys are done and more public input is gathered. In a hearing Friday, U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell granted the order for a 10-day period.
BLM attorneys argued that the 10-day work stoppage this late in the season would force them to call off the entire chaining operation, which is in its final two weeks.
"The window of opportunity probably goes to the end of this month," said BLM Richfield District manager Jerry Goodman.
Campbell remained unmoved, saying archaeological sites might sustain permanent damage from chaining, which justifies an immediate stoppage.
"It does seem to me . . . that there would be irreparable harm," she said.
Meantime, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance has filed for administrative relief from the BLM's parent agency, the Department of Interior.
"The claim they make that chaining is absolutely necessary is completely unfounded," said Jennifer Lupton, a St. George-based spokesman for SUWA, arguing that nature should run its course in the area.
At issue are BLM rehabilitation efforts that are occurring - or will soon occur - on some 45,000 public acres charred last year by wildfires. The agency wants to replant the areas with native grasses in order to control erosion and create forage and habitat for wildlife.
Part of the work involves "chaining," the practice of dragging a taut chain at ground level between two bulldozers. The method stirs up soil to about one inch deep as it removes dead trees and burnt vegetation. The loosened soil covers seeds which have been dropped from airplanes in order to ensure they're not washed away by spring rains.
"Unless you cover the seed by some method, basically you're just throwing the seed away," he said.
BLM officials said Campbell's ruling will force them to simply hope for the best for seeds dropped in areas that have not yet been chained.
Goodman said if the BLM's seeds - primarily of crescent wheat - don't take hold, cheat grass, thistle and other plants will take over. He said that type of vegetation does less to control erosion and is highly flammable, ensuring wildfires in the future that will be even worse than those of last spring, which burned a total of 250,000 acres.
In Friday's hearing Paiute attorneys implied BLM officials are more interested in reseeding the land with suitable cattle food than in natural rehabilitation.
Lupton said the project has overlooked what might be important archaeological sites in the areas.
"This seems like a typical BLM maneuver to do business as usual, to appease the ranchers and rangeland folks to get seed in the ground covered as quick as possible without considering the other resources that may be out there," she said.
Paiute archaeologists say the endangered sites include pictographs and similar valuable artifacts, but BLM archaeologist Craig Harmon said the sites contain nothing more than flakes from arrowhead making and the like that would sustain "little or no damage" from chaining.
Thursday's lawsuit says it's a case of ignoring three statutes: the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. It charges that the agency is running roughshod over Paiute archaeological sites and that the BLM failed to go through a proper public-hearing process before starting rehabilitation work last fall.
The action also alleges the BLM surveyed and marked only between 7 percent and 23 percent of such sites in the 45,000 acres being restored.
Defendants named in the suit are the BLM; the Interior Department; the BLM's state director, William Lamb; Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt; Goodman; Rex Rowley, a BLM local area manager and John Fowler, acting executive director of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.
Gene Foreman, a Salt Lake spokesman for the BLM, said he could not comment directly on the lawsuit but defended the agency's "chaining" method.
"It's been mandated by Congress that it is essential that the Forest Service or the BLM move in and do rehabilitation work immediately following fires, Foreman said.
He said the BLM considers rehabilitation in such cases an emergency effort exempt from normal public hearings and that the agency is trying to act before the summer fire season begins.
He dismissed SUWA's claim that the BLM is pushing its "chaining" operations in Utah because it has already awarded millions of dollars in contracts.
"It's high-cost, but we're more interested in the resource," Foreman said. "Our concern is protecting and maintaining a resource."
Deseret News staff writer Alan Edwards contributed to this story.