The Bureau of Land Management today announced it has finalized new categorical exclusions under the National Environmental Policy Act, which streamlines the agency’s review of routine timber salvage projects and operations and the review of projects across the West designed to address the rapid spread of pinyon-juniper woodlands on sagebrush habitat.
These categorical exclusions will contribute to rural economies, reduce waste of salvageable timber, and reduce future wildfire fuel loads, while diminishing hazards to wildland firefighters, the public, and infrastructure from dead and dying trees.
“Under the leadership of President Trump, the Department of the Interior has consistently set historic records for fuels treatments across the West,” said Deputy Secretary Kate MacGregor. “After yet another difficult fire season, it is measures like this that will help BLM better protect human life and property by aggressively addressing dead and dying timber and pinyon-juniper encroachment, and I hope to see it used immediately to reduce fuel loads before next summer.”
“Finalizing these important categorical exclusions are a further manifestation of President Trump’s aggressive agenda to actively reduce fuel loads and the threat of catastrophic wildfires,” said Casey Hammond, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management. “In turn, we are enhancing economic and job opportunities for families in rural communities that depend on timber harvests, in addition to streamlining the process in order to protect millions of acres of public lands, restore important wildlife habitats, and reduce wildfire risks.”
“More than 130,000 acres burned in my county in September and a lot of it has dead or dying but salvageable timber still standing on it. The economic value disappears very rapidly due to insects and rot, so expediting NEPA work is essential,” said Douglas County Oregon Commissioner and President of the Association of O&C Counties Tim Freeman. “We thank the DOI for finalizing a Categorical Exclusion that will allow the BLM to move more quickly.”
“The removal of encroaching pinon pine and juniper into sagebrush habitat has proven to significantly improve habitat for mule deer and other wildlife,” said Miles Moretti, President/CEO of the Mule Deer Foundation. “In addition, the ability to move quickly after wildfires can be the difference in successful restoration of big-game winter ranges and other important wildlife habitats. The judicious use of categorical exclusions can reduce the amount of time for project implementation and jump start recovery.”
The categorical exclusions are a 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 the Department of the Interior 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.
From this, Interior treated 5.4 million acres to reduce wildfire over the past four years, which is a 49% increase in comparison to 2013-2016.
The categorical exclusion focused on pinyon-juniper removal will increase the agency’s flexibility to respond to pinyon-juniper encroachment on sagebrush-steppe areas up to 10,000 acres in size to address fire risk as well as maintain and restore habitats that are essential to mule deer, sage-grouse, and other important wildlife species. This effort aligns with Secretary’s Order 3356, which directed the BLM to develop a categorical exclusion for “proposed projects that utilize common practices solely intended to enhance and restore habitat for species such as sage-grouse and/or mule deer.
Pinyon and juniper species can be aggressive invaders of other vegetation communities. 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. At the same time, sagebrush ecosystems occupy only about one-half of their historical distribution.
From 2000 to 2017, wildfires burned an average of 6.8 million acres annually in the U.S. For BLM-managed forests, fire has affected an average of 279,630 acres annually from 2009 to 2018. The threat of wildfires is exacerbated by the presence of dead and dying timber. Insect and disease survey data collected in 2015 by the Forest Health Protection Program of the U.S. Forest Service identified 70 different mortality-causing insects and diseases across 5.2 million acres in the conterminous United States. The BLM assembled data from the U.S. Forest Service Aerial Detection Survey from 2008 to 2017 and found nearly two million acres of forest mortality were observed over that period on BLM lands.
“The new 3,000-acre Categorical Exclusion would accelerate actions the public already broadly supports: recovering dead and dying trees after a fire, insect infestation, and other catastrophic events; converting dead timber into sustainable wood products we all use while creating jobs and revenue for local services; improving forest health and reducing future public safety risks; and ensuring there’s a forest for the next generation,” stated American Forest Resource Council President/CEO Travis Joseph. “After Western Oregon’s deadly and devastating wildfire season that torched more than 125,000 acres of BLM-managed forests, this is a timely and critical tool that should be supported by all those who care about our forests, impacted communities, and their recovery.”
“The finalized categorical exclusion authority to expedite post fire salvage projects could not have come too soon,” said Communities for Healthy Forests Executive Director Javier Goirigolzarri. “We have all seen the horrific images of the hundreds of thousands of acres of complete mortality resulting from this fire season. Many of those are BLM managed forestlands. This authority will allow the BLM to take a triage approach by focusing salvage projects on the most critical areas to reduce future fire threats, ensure firefighter safety, reforest lands where all seed-bearing trees were killed and ensure the return of a healthy, vibrant, productive landscape within decades, not centuries.”
“The ability to treat up to 10,000 acres versus 250 acres found in this categorical exclusion will dramatically improve the ability of land managers to begin to step up the need to not only reduce fire loads, but to also increase the pace and scale of forest restoration efforts in those areas that are still prone to insect, disease and catastrophic fire events,” stated American Loggers Council Executive Vice President Daniel J. Dructor.
“We applaud the efforts of the Bureau of Land Management to finalize new categorical exclusions under the National Environmental Policy Act that streamline review for routine timber salvage sales,” stated Montana Wood Products Association Executive Director Julia Altemus. “The use of categorial exclusions, as a tool to address the critical need to reduce the risk of wildfire, is pivotal in improving forest health and addressing climate change. We look forward to working with the BLM as they seek to implement categorical exclusions on their timberlands.”
Given the threat of wildfires across millions of acres of forests – and the threat this poses to native wildlife and the lives and livelihoods of people and communities across the West – the new categorical exclusion affects certain routine timber salvage projects smaller than 3,000 acres exempting them from more extensive environmental analysis when appropriate. While wildfire affects hundreds of thousands of acres of BLM-managed lands each year, the BLM currently allows use of a salvage harvest categorical exclusion that may not exceed 250 acres. This additional categorical exclusion increases the agency’s flexibility to harvest more salvageable timber before it loses market value and before it becomes fuel for future fires.
NEPA requires federal agencies to consider the potential environmental consequences of their decisions before deciding whether and how to proceed. The appropriate use of categorical exclusions 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.
The BLM has completed a review of scientific literature and previously analyzed and implemented actions and found that salvage harvest at the levels proposed would have a positive effect on reducing fire severity. Removing dead and dying trees and active forest management can accelerate forest development and benefit native wildlife species that rely on early successional habitat, while reducing the potential for catastrophic wildfires.
Additionally, the agency found that removing encroaching pinyon pine and juniper vegetation from areas of up to 10,000 acres using the covered actions has no significant effects. Reducing pinyon pine and juniper density/cover in areas of their expansion improves and increases native plant communities. Current literature shows that the native plant communities re-establish after mechanical pinyon pine and juniper tree removal treatments, becoming dominant (over non-native species) either immediately after treatment or within a few years.
For more information on the BLM’s forest management activities, visit https://www.blm.gov/programs/natural-resources/forests-and-woodlands.