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Public land decisions must be based on science, not convenience

Utah Department of Natural Resources and its federal partners walk past a pile of downed pinion juniper trees during a tour of a wildlands restoration project at the Sheeprocks Sage-grouse Management Area in Tooele County on the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest on Thursday, April 21, 2016.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

The Bureau of Land Management manages much of the land in the West — 245 million acres. Most of this land is arid or semi-arid, and therefore fragile, easily damaged and hard to restore.

The BLM is proposing rules and plans that allow local offices to remove pinyon pine and juniper trees on large swaths of land, without asking for scientific and public input. These management changes would allow the agency to deforest vast areas without even letting the public know ahead of time, and would potentially affect millions of acres across the West.

Some might think, “So what? Juniper and pinyon (P-J) forests seem to be everywhere, and they don’t seem as distinct or spectacular as ancient bristlecone groves, majestic Ponderosa stands or aspen, spruce and fir in the mountains.”

But like other forests that are much more often in the “spotlight,” P-J woodlands harbor a rich ecological web of relationships. Dozens of bird species, from eagles and kestrels to hummingbirds, owls, wrens and jays, find food and shelter there. Mammals ranging from large (like bighorn sheep) to tiny (like voles) rely on these woodland ecosystems, along with lizards, insects, grasses, forbs and fungi. Humans became a part of these webs too, using the ecosystems for shelter, food, implements, structures, ritual needs and warmth.

These old-growth woodlands also provide an urgent service: they pull carbon dioxide from the air and sequester it in their trunks. Any time we lose trees, we lose their contribution to our efforts to reverse climate change.

To state it succinctly: Pinyon-juniper woodlands are essential ecosystems in the West.

But for many reasons, the BLM often removes P-J aggressively with poison, fire, tractors, chains and giant shredders. Sometimes, but not always, the removal of trees results in a healthier landscape. However, the interconnections of soils, organisms and weather patterns within any specific ecosystem are complex. Too often, one-size-fits-all P-J removal projects destroy one-of-a-kind high desert communities.

Too often, these projects take out old-growth trees, destroy fragile and vital microbiotic soils, and invite invasive flammable plant species like cheatgrass to move in. Post-project studies have shown that in 50% of projects, nonnative species increased. Studies have found that removing native forests does little to improve habitat for deer and elk, and negatively affects other wildlife.

These negative outcomes often occur because the BLM simply doesn’t have the time or resources to analyze specific sites. That’s why the National Environmental Policy Act and its requirements to involve the public are a good and healthy thing — not an annoyance to circumvent. The well-being of our lands and the interests of the public are not served by decisions made in the dark.

Over the years, thanks to NEPA requirements, observation and comments from the public have provided information about specific sites and helped protect ecosystem integrity. We need more, not less, input on proposed P-J removal projects. Input from nonagency scientists and citizens provides critical information that can lead to better decisions and plans. Even where trees need to be removed, better information, site analysis and planning contributes to better outcomes and fewer failures.

The BLM needs to scuttle any plans to bypass the public process required by NEPA, and carefully consider input from citizens and scientists before sending bulldozers and masticators onto public lands.

No matter your political leanings, how could eliminating public input from land management decisions possibly be a good thing? Our iconic western woodlands are not just a nuisance to get out of the way. They are our heritage. Please, BLM, manage them with some finesse.

Kristen Rogers-Iversen and Ed Iversen live in Millcreek and are the author and photographer of “Interwoven: Junipers and the Web of Being,” published by University of Utah Press.