Vera Smith and Kya Marienfeld: Restore science and accountability to BLM’s management of western landscapes

Biden administration can reverse plans that would damage public lands.

(Susan Walsh | AP photo) In this March 10 photo, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt testifies before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on the FY'21 budget in Washington.

2020 was a big, strange and heartbreaking year. While Americans were busy trying to survive a pandemic, fight battles for justice and face other travails in their daily lives, the Trump administration used our nation’s upheaval and unrest as cover for changing major aspects of federal policy, including those that govern our national system of public lands.

Over the last year, U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt stealthily and significantly undermined how the Bureau of Land Management manages forests and other native ecosystems across much of the American West.

Under Bernhardt’s direction, the BLM, which administers 245 million acres of public lands in the West, issued a series of new rules and programs that aggregately waive further environmental and public review for an unlimited number of logging, chaining, bulldozing, intensive grazing and other vegetation “treatment” (i.e. removal) projects across millions of acres of habitat across the West.

This type of broad discretion is unprecedented, and for good reason. Landscape manipulation at this scale can cause vast, irreversible damage and needs to be carefully planned and vetted. Federal public lands provide habitat to over 300 threatened and endangered species and another 2,500 at-risk wildlife and plants, and some of these species occur nowhere else.

Prior to the Bernhardt rewrite, BLM had the authority to carry out these types of projects. The difference being that the agency had to announce the project and consider public feedback, as well as conduct an environmental and scientific review — changing the proposed project accordingly depending on scientific study and citizen input. Under the new policy paradigm, the BLM can simply send out the bulldozers.

The advertised purpose of many of these projects is fuels reduction or ecological restoration. While this sounds admirable, scientific examinations of these kinds of massive-scale, hurriedly planned “treatments” show that at best they yield mixed results for wildlife, habitats and fire prevention. At worst, the treatments facilitate weed invasions, destroy the fragile soils that support arid ecosystems and increase fire risk and severity. Consider that the BLM already conducts vegetation treatments on over 1 million acres every year, yet ecological conditions continue to decline.

The hasty landscape manipulation that would be approved carte blanche under the BLM’s new rules not only risks imperiled species, but will worsen our climate woes by reducing carbon storage and sequestration in native forests and shrublands, and producing dust that accelerates mountain snowmelt. This phenomenon in the Colorado Rockies alone threatens the water supply on which 40 million people and 15% of the nation’s agriculture rely.

We do not take issue with the fact that restoration is often warranted. But BLM’s approach to bypass careful consideration of the implications of large-scale vegetation manipulation for native wildlife and ecological integrity flies in the face of science-based land management.

Ecosystems and ecological restoration are complicated. You would want your surgeon to consider all the non-invasive alternatives before operating, utilize the most current science and craft a treatment plan that considers your overall health. Similarly, before revving up the heavy machinery on hundreds of thousands of acres at a time, our land managers should be carefully assessing treatment options, consulting with scientific experts and the public and making sure that all actions added together will improve the health of our public lands and the wildlife that live there.

Bernhardt, instead of embracing science and inclusion, chose to rewrite policy to deliberately curtail public oversight and scientific review of its vegetation removal and clearcutting activities across the West.

The Biden administration can halt these ill-conceived decisions, and make science, inclusion, and accountability the hallmarks of its Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management’s ecological restoration program.

Vera Smith | federal lands policy analyst at Defenders of Wildlife

Vera Smith is a senior federal lands policy analyst at Defenders of Wildlife, a national non-profit organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.

Kya Marienfeld | Wildlands Attorney Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance

Kya Marienfeld is a wildlands attorney at the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, an independent non-profit whose mission is the preservation of the outstanding wilderness at the heart of the Colorado Plateau and throughout wild Utah.