BLM proposes expedited review of pinyon-juniper restoration projects
The Bureau of Land Management today 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.
“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.
“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,” said William Perry Pendley, BLM Deputy Director for Policy and Programs.
“Time is of the essence when it comes to the spread of invasive species on sagebrush habitat. Wyoming recognizes the threat that juniper spread has particularly on sage-grouse habitats, which is why I built a directive into Appendix C of Executive Order 2019-3 Core Area Protection Strategy to encourage habitat treatments that are designed to improve sage-grouse habitats, such as juniper removal. Expedited review and approval for juniper treatments is an important means to get these projects on the ground,” said Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon.
“The Mule Deer Foundation thanks Secretary Bernhardt and the staff and leadership of the Bureau of Land Management for finalizing this draft categorical exclusion that, once finalized, will result in the restoration and creation of hundreds of thousands of acres of habitat for sage-grouse, mule deer, antelope and other sage dependent species,” said Mule Deer Foundation President and CEO Miles Moretti. “This issue has been a top priority for our organization because it will allow MDF and our conservation partners to move quickly on habitat restoration projects absent unnecessary and redundant red-tape. Quality habitat leads to quality hunting and we know our members and other western big game hunters will benefit from the on-the-ground improvements that will result from this policy.”
“The Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation (CSF) applauds the Department of the Interior for moving forward to further advance the directives provided through Secretary’s Order 3356,” said CSF President Jeff Crane. “This proposed rule is critical to enhancing habitat for mule deer, sage-grouse, and other sage dependent species by allowing our nation's wildlife managers and conservation partners to conduct restoration and conservation efforts in a timely manner. We are grateful for the continued commitment from the Department to advance sound conservation practices.”
“Habitat management for species like mule deer and sage grouse requires effective and strategically-located treatment projects,” said Whit Fosburgh, President and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We appreciate the Department taking action on this important issue and look forward to working with them to conserve these species and the sagebrush ecosystem.”
“This announcement is about two of the most important things needed for habitat today,” said James L. Cummins, Boone and Crockett Club Policy Committee co-chairman. “It's about active restoration of habitat, and sensible streamlining of paperwork in approving projects. Range managers know how to restore sage habitats. They have analyzed it many times. Now they will be able to do more projects.”
“Restoration of habitat is an urgent priority,” said Keith Balfourd, Director of Communications, Wild Sheep Foundation. “Big game habitats across the West would benefit from this approach to expediting the approvals of projects. It is a welcome complement to the Department's emphasis on improving habitats.”
“For decades, counties have been victimized by catastrophic wildfires that were exacerbated due to ineffective federal land management. Pinyon-juniper now occupy more than 74 million acres in the West and are a significant contributor to this problem. Providing targeted treatments while reducing bureaucratic red-tape will yield important benefits. This proposal will also result in significant habitat restoration for the greater sage-grouse, mule deer and other sagebrush-dependent wildlife. I applaud Secretary Bernhardt for his leadership and for taking action to address a critical issue plaguing rural communities,” said former Western Governors’ Association’s Sage Grouse Task Force Co-Chair and Current Colorado Counties Inc., Executive Director John Swartout.
“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 which sage-grouse, mule deer and other species rely on,” said Tammy Pearson, Commissioner, Beaver County, Utah. “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.”
“Club 20 applauds Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt and Acting BLM Director Perry Pendley for taking action to expedite the process for addressing the spread of pinyon-juniper woodlands in sagebrush habitat. Sagebrush restoration is critical to preserving habitat for greater sage-grouse and mule deer, two species that are extremely important to Western Colorado. This level of commonsense management is long overdue and is a welcome change in our region,” said Christian Reece, Executive Director, Club 20.
“Clearing pinyon-juniper has been one of the most effective ways to restore sagebrush habitat and protect sage-grouse. The State of Utah's habitat restoration plan has been especially effective, and it's widely recognized that halting pinyon-juniper encroachment is effective conservation. It only makes sense to categorically exclude projects where the environmental benefit has been proven,” said Kathleen Sgamma, President, Western Energy Alliance.
“This is a giant step forward for stewards of natural resources,” said Caren Cowan, Executive Director, New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association. “The West has long suffered the calamity associated with a dysfunctional NEPA process. The eventual issuance of this new CX as well as the new NEPA regulations that are in process will enhance conservation of land, water and animals. This is also another step toward providing security for the millions of family ranches and farms across the West.”
Today’s announcement opens a public comment period that closes 30 days from the date the proposed categorical exclusion is published in the Federal Register. The proposed changes and the new proposed Categorical Exclusion (CX) Verification Report can be reviewed online at: https://tinyurl.com/w8t4jx2. Comments can be submitted using the BLM National NEPA Register at https://tinyurl.com/w8t4jx2. Follow the instruction at this website.
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) 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 (EA) or an environmental impact statement (EIS).
Scientists estimate that pinyon and juniper woodlands occupied less than 7 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.
The proposed pinon-juniper CX aligns with Secretary’s Order 3356, Hunting, Fishing, Recreational Shooting, and Wildlife Conservation Opportunities and Coordination with States, Tribes and Territories, which directs the BLM to develop a proposed CX for “proposed projects that utilize common practiced solely intended to enhance and restore habitat for species such as sage-grouse and/or mule deer” (section d(5)).
The proposed CX is also part of a larger national wildfire reduction strategy guided by President Trump’s Executive Order 13855 – Promoting Active Management of America’s Forests, Rangelands, and Other Federal Lands to Improve Conditions and Reduce Wildfire Risk, as well as Secretary’s Order 3372 – Reducing Wildfire Risks on Department of the Interior Land through Active Management.
The two orders direct Department of the Interior and Department of Agriculture agencies to implement policies to improve forest and rangeland management practices by reducing hazardous fuel loads, mitigating fire risk and ensuring the safety and stability of local communities through active management on forests and rangelands.
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 fuelwood, 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.
The BLM manages more than 245 million acres of public land located primarily in the 11 Western states and Alaska. The BLM also administers 700 million acres of sub-surface mineral estate throughout the nation. In fiscal year 2018, the diverse activities authorized on BLM-managed lands generated $105 billion in economic output across the country. This economic activity supported 471,000 jobs and contributed substantial revenue to the U.S. Treasury and state governments, mostly through royalties on minerals.