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Questions & Answers: Rapid Ecoregional Assessments (REAs) 

What are Rapid Ecoregional Assessments (REAs)?

What are ecoregions?

Do REAs only consider data about the public lands within an ecoregion?

Where are the REAs being conducted?

Why are they called “rapid” assessments, if they take about 18 months to complete?

Do REAs make resource management decisions?

When will the BLM issue specific findings on the REAS? 

How will the BLM use the REAs?

How confident are you in the REA’s depictions of future ecological conditions?

Why didn’t the BLM cover grazing in its REAs?

What about assessing the effects of wild horse grazing or Off-Highway Vehicles (OHVs) as change agents in REAs?

Why aren’t you assessing cultural resources in your REAs?

Why don’t REAs address the economic issues of the ecoregions they cover?

What is the relation of the REAs to the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCCs) that are being established by the Department of the Interior (DOI)?

Are other organizations conducting large-scale assessments similar to BLM’s REAs?

How do these other assessments relate to BLM’s REAs?


What are Rapid Ecoregional Assessments (REAs)?
REAs are assessments aimed at sustaining the health and productivity of America’s public lands.  They use existing scientific information to identify resource conditions and trends within an ecoregion, providing the BLM with area-wide looks at entire regions of the west that we hadn’t had before.  REAs are designed to increase our knowledge and understanding of our natural resources and to establish baseline conditions needed to assess changes in conditions over time.   

REAs gather and synthesize existing data for all the lands in an ecoregion.  They help identify important habitats for fish, wildlife, and species of concern.  REAs also help identify areas that are not ecologically intact or readily restorable; and where development activities may be directed to minimize potential impacts. REAs then gauge the potential of these habitats to be affected by four overarching environmental change agents: climate change, wildfires, invasive species, and urban and energy development.  Their large-scale approach is designed to help us identify patterns of environmental change that may not be evident when managing smaller, local land areas.   In contrast to more traditional BLM studies, the REAS do not assess the conditions of specific areas, such as grazing allotments, nor do they describe desired future conditions.

What are ecoregions?
Ecoregions are large geographic areas defined by their shared ecological characteristics.  They contain the same types, qualities, and quantities of natural resources.   Ecoregions cross traditional administrative boundaries such as county and state lines and typically encompass areas much larger than those managed by individual BLM field offices.

The BLM adopted the geographic boundaries used in the Environmental Protection Agency's "Level III ecoregions," which are widely accepted by other federal and state government agencies and academic researchers.  The North American continent currently contains 182 Level III ecoregions.  Examples of Level III ecoregions include the cactus-dotted Sonoran Desert and canyon lands of Colorado Plateau.   The ecoregions the BLM is assessing in the lower 48 states range in size from 13 million to 89 million acres.  The REAs underway in Alaska are considerably larger.   

Do REAs only consider data about the public lands within an ecoregion?
No. REAs use information about the natural resources of all the lands within an ecoregion.  In this way, the REAs can provide a foundation for formulating coordinated strategies that can respond more effectively to climate change, wildfire, and other environmental challenges that transcend land management boundaries.  Including all the lands in an ecoregion also helps us understand how important wildlife habitats are connected today, recognize opportunities to strengthen or maintain connections and identify potential threats to existing connections.  In short, REAs can help us identify where the best opportunities exist for conserving or restoring key areas.   

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Where are the REAs being conducted?
In addition to the REA for Colorado Plateau that the BLM is releasing now, we plan to release additional REAs for Central Basin and Range, Mojave Basin and Range, Northwestern Plains, Middle Rockies, Sonoran Desert and the Seward Peninsula in Alaska this year.  In 2014, the BLM also plans to complete REAs for the Northern Basin and Range/Snake River Plain, Wyoming Basin, and Yukon/Kuskokwim/Lime Hills, all of which began in 2011.   

The BLM is conducting pre-assessment work for potential REAs on the North Slope, Chihuahuan Desert, Southern Plains, and Madrean Archipelago.   

Why are they called “rapid” assessments, if they take about 18 months to complete?
When compared to studies that conduct research or collect new data, or to the preparation of a BLM land use plan, which typically take from 36 to 48 months to complete, REAs are relatively rapid.

Who else did you invite to participate when creating your REAs?
For each REA, the BLM led an Assessment Management Team that includes other Federal and state land managers.  Each of the REA teams guides the assessment and oversees the work of the contractors who perform the technical data management and analysis tasks. The contractors have been hired by the BLM for their special expertise in natural resource assessment, data management, and conservation planning.

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Do REAs make resource management decisions?
No.  REAs do not make management decisions or allocate resource uses. They provide science-based information and tools for land managers and stakeholders to consider in subsequent resource planning and decision-making processes, such as Resource Management Plans (RMPs) and Environmental Impact Statements (EISs), which are used to make resource management decisions.  In contrast to more traditional BLM studies, the REAS do not assess the conditions of specific areas, such as grazing allotments, nor do they describe desired future conditions.  Consequently, the REAs do not use some of the conepts the BLM uses in its local assessments, such as “functioning” or “functioning at risk.”
 
When will the BLM issue specific findings on the REAS?
REAs do not contain findings and recommendations.   The REA data will, however, be used as the BLM creates RMPs, EISs, and other documents that will make resource management decisions.

How will the BLM use the REAs?
The BLM will use the REAs to inform resource management at local and regional levels. At the local level, the REAs will enhance the quality of land use planning and environmental analysis conducted by BLM district and field offices.  The information, maps, and tools provided by the REAs will strengthen analyses of the projected and cumulative effects of climate change and other environmental modifications on important natural resources.  Information from the REAs should also help focus local land management efforts and integrate them with larger, region-wide initiatives.

At the ecoregional level, the BLM will use the REAs, along with input from partner agencies, stakeholders, and American Indian Tribes, to inform or develop broad-level management strategies.  We are working with our offices at all levels and with our partners to make sure this information is used in areas where we are dealing with broad-scale issues, such as Greater Sage-Grouse conservation.  We also will be working on implementation plans to fit this data into other efforts we’re making to manage at appropriate scales. Information from the REAs should also prove particularly useful to states with established, multi-agency landscape restoration efforts such as Restore New Mexico and Utah Partners for Conservation and Development.  

At the national level, the BLM will use the REAs to help us formulate budget proposals and to establish funding priorities.  Information from the REAs may also help us review national-level programs and identify areas where we need to develop new policy.

Other Federal agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service, the Federal Highway Administration and the Defense Department are looking to use the information from the BLM’s REAs in their planning processes as well.

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 How confident are you in the REA’s depictions of future ecological conditions?
The REA results are the prouct of scientific modeling.  They are “snapshots” based on the best available data at the time they were preapared.  They depend on both the assumptions that went in to developing the model itself and the quality of the data that was used in running the model.  Changes in the assumptions used in the model or the data inputs can result in radically diffent results.  Anyone applying the results produced by the REAs should look closely at the model designs and assumptions as well as the data that was used within the model itself.  This more detailed information is available on the REA website and in the written reports.  Additionally, the data on the website are accompanied by a disclaimer statement which spells out the limitations on its use.

Why didn’t the BLM cover grazing in its REAs?
The BLM considered including grazing as one of the “change agents,” along with climate change, wild fire, invasive species and development when it was developing the REA concept.  After reviewing available grazing data, the BLM decided that its grazing data, while effective for its local-level decisions, did not provide the consistently-gathered, cross-comparable digital data coverage necessary to successfully complete a regional assessment.  Consequently, the BLM’s REAs do not cover grazing as a change agent. 

The BLM has recently taken steps to address the issue of data availability and consistency in all of its programs, including the grazing program.    In May 2012 it adopted a new Assessment, Inventory and Monitoring (AIM) strategy.  This strategy will help ensure that, for all of the lands which it manages, the BLM will collect a core set of digital data on topics such as soil stability, hydrologic function, and biotic integrity – the basic building blocks of our rangeland health programs.  This data collection effort will be done in a uniform manner that is both statistically valid and useful at multiple scales for BLM management:  local, regional and national.  The AIM strategy data management plan will ensure that these data are available to other agencies such as the USGS and the Natural Resources Conservation Service and outside partners.  The AIM strategy contains specific elements to help BLM’s rangeland managers develop and integrate remote sensing and field-based tools to improve their abilities to detect and adapt to changes in land cover composition over time.

What about assessing the effects of wild horse grazing or Off-Highway Vehicles (OHVs) as change agents in REAs?
As with grazing, the BLM could not identify sufficient region-wide data or appropriate analytical models to incorporate wild horse grazing or OHV use into the development of its REAS.  If we can find such data and models, future REAs could assess these or other change agents.

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Why aren’t you assessing cultural resources in your REAs?
Cultural resources and tribal values are important components for landscape-scale ecoregional assessments.  The BLM is piloting four projects in 2014 that address integrating cultural values into landscape assessments. One study is a collaboration with the Northern Cheyenne Tribes to identify and incorporate tribal values within the Northwest Plains and Middle Rocky Mountain ecoregions; another incorporates cultural resources and tribal values into a modified REA that is being conducted in  the San Luis Valley. Two other projects address issues relating to effective use of cultural resource data derived from multiple sources and with different standards.  Each pilot study addresses a particular challenge and each will yield lessons learned and best practices. Taken together these pilots form a fairly comprehensive platform to instruct future efforts to integrate cultural and tribal values in to landscape-scale ecoregional assessments.
                                    
Why don’t REAs address the economic issues of the ecoregions they cover?
REAs are primarily assessments of exsiting and projected ecological condition.  They complement the Energy Policy and Conservation Act (EPCA) Inventory of Onshore Federal Oil and Natural Gas Resources that the Departments of Agriculture, Energy and Interior prepared in 2008 and the on-line Economic Profiling Systems that the Forest Service and BLM are supporting.  Taken together these tools provide local resource managers with a significant amount of information about social, economic and natural resources trends.

What is the relation of the REAs to the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCCs) that are being established by the Department of the Interior (DOI)?
The Department of the Interior is in the process of establishing 21 LCCs which span the nation.  These LCCs are composed of private, state, Tribal, and Federal representatives who will work toward a shared vision of landscape health and sustainability. The LCCs are generally based on the Environmental Protection Agency's "Level II ecoregions," which encompass multiple “Level III ecoregions.”   The LCCs and the BLM’s REAs are complementary processes that will become more fully integrated as they progress.  The BLM will be providing the data and results of its REAs to the LCCS.  Once the LCCs are established and fully functioning, they could become involved in, or assume management of, future REAs.  They also may assist in “stepping down” the results of the REAs into specific management actions. 

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Are other organizations conducting large-scale assessments similar to BLM’s REAs?
Yes.  We are aware of several ongoing assessments, including work by the Nature Conservancy and the Western Governors’ Association.

How do these other assessments relate to BLM’s REAs?
These multiple assessment efforts are important and needed.  They are working to provide scientifically-grounded information needed to conserve crucial wildlife habitats in an era of complex and widespread environmental challenges.   Although these efforts share common goals, they are different in some key aspects:  Some focus on different environmental stressors, others cover different geographic areas.  BLM encourages people who use the REAs to consider the results of these other assessments at the same time.