Here at Sierra Mountain Center we care very much about our local outdoor environment. Despite everything we and our friends have been coping with lately, the government persists in adding yet more strain to our day: they want to torch the Great Basin because piñon and juniper trees are growing back where they were once cut down. This planned activity will affect portions of California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington.
We see this as misguided, extremely dangerous, and devastating for our beautiful natural environment which has only been recovering since miners and settlers cut down most the forest in the 19th century. Please join us in resisting such destructive moves. If you would like to learn more about the ecology of such a plan from someone who knows more than us, please review George Wuerthner’s writing at thewildlifenews.com.
Here is our letter to the BLM (comments were only accepted for a very brief period, ending June 2).
To Whom it May Concern,
As a resident of the western Great Basin between Tonopah, NV and Bishop, CA I have read over the PEIS for Fuels Reduction and Rangeland Restoration in the Great Basin with a sense of horror and dread. The BLM is proposing a massive scale modification of the Great Basin with seemingly little concern for both immediate and long term consequences.
The PEIS report is extensive, and there are a large number of problems and inconsistencies within it which are extractable even on a quick scan. On a deeper read, it makes less sense.
- The period for public comment upon a project of this scale is far too short. I became aware of it only a week ago and have scrambled to read the document. It falls within mandated Federal guidelines for review but this is a huge project with long term consequences for all Great Basin states that deserves far greater scrutiny.
- The document fails to make a case for the need of this large scale modification. Yes, PJ (piñon-juniper) has been expanding, but primarily as the response to human action. Studies indicate expansion since the late 1800s but there is little to no study to define what the conditions were like prior to that time. Pinon was cut at the rate of sixty acres a day to fuel the furnaces and smelters in the Ely area in the 1860s. Even the BLM today would be hard-pressed to match this record. The role of Native Americans has been debated but it is near impossible to reach a conclusion. The BLM has decided that the state to return to is open sage prairie. I live surrounded by PJ forest and my viewscape is entirely PJ. Most of the modifications to PJ populations nearby were by human activity: mining and Department of Defense. If there is a recent increase, it is a rebound. This area was cleared in the 1950s, with the forest bulldozed into piles and set fire to in an early fire study to emulate the results of atomic weapon-created firestorms on a “Prometheus city." The PJ is reclaiming the areas devastated by this assault.
One researchers expansion is another’s reclamation. BLM seeks to stop the clock at their determined period of time. The BLM seeks to destroy one environment and replace it with one of its choice.
- The document misinterprets the frequency of fire in the Great Basin and cherry picks research to support its hypothesis of 20-30 year fire returns. Other research indicates much longer fire returns of 171–342 years for Wyoming big sagebrush and 137–217 years for mountain big sagebrush.
- The document fails to account for loss of sagebrush habitat to grazing use. As the biggest western proponent of grazing to tackle this issue would be antithetical to the agency. As a trained scientist who has wandered the mountains of Nevada grazing is the biggest threat to environmental diverstity. If the Agency is serious about preserving and increasing sagebrush communities then grazing is the issue to address. Although the document admits that “intensive livestock use" is one of the contributors to the increase in PJ it quickly moves past this to look for other factors to blame.
- There is little correlation between creating sage habitat and the survival rates of the Tri State Sage Grouse. Fire and chemical use certainly will not help their survival.
- The document finds reasons for the increase in PJ to also include "changes in climate conditions, rising temperatures, and increased atmospheric carbon dioxide”. Well beyond the scope of the BLM to tackle alone, the failure of humanity to address these primary causes will always result in a no-win for the BLM projects similar to these. Temperatures will rise and carbon dioxide will increase, locking the BLM into a constant cycle battle again expanding PJ.
- The document makes mention of the possible destruction of biotic soils but minimizes the long term consequences. Areas cannot be chained, driven over, and disturbed extensively without permanent damage. Destruction of these crusts leads to erosion, channelizing of the terrain, and eventual desertification. Yet these effects are not taken into account.
- Cheat grass and other invasives love disturbed soils. This project will disturb millions of acres, not to mention approach routes, and will result in an explosion of invasive such as cheat grass and Russian thistle.
- The PEIS map included for areas the BLM proposed to “enhance” is inadequate. It is impossible to determine what areas will be subject to the BLM treatment. For example, I can only make a rough guess as to where my lands fall on the map and if there is proposed removal of PJ here. I live in a very hot and windy area. Is my property and home at risk for out-of-control man-made fire?
- There is a lack of site-specific analysis. The document treats the Great Basin as a uniform, homogenous landscape where the same approach can be followed in all areas at all elevations. It is not.
If the BLM is hell bent upon improving the landscape, it needs be a local, small scale process that takes into account local variations, not this broad-blanket approach.
In short, this proposed program is potentially an unmitigated disaster for the Great Basin as a whole. The plan is yet another example of agency hubris and meddling in landscape scale modification. It has little scientific basis and could easily create far more problems than it claims to fix. It is simply an extension of what has been the BLM's unspoken mandate since the BLM's inception in 1946, combining the Land Office and the Grazing Office. The names might change but the goal is the same; to provide grazing on public lands.
The BLM proposes to change what we now know as the Sagebrush Ocean into the Cheatbrush Ocean.
I truly hope that this project goes no further. The two million dollars spent on it could well have been better spent.