A pinyon-juniper treatment area on Spruce Mountain, NV. (Photo courtesy Laura Cunningham, Western Watersheds Project)
Federal land managers were given the thumbs up to remove trees from thousands of acres of pinyon-juniper woodlands in Nevada in an effort to reduce fire risk, a move environmental groups are calling a “scorched-earth plan.”
Last month, a Nevada federal judge refused to block the Bureau of Land Management’s plan to clear more than 380,000 acres of pinyon-juniper woodlands from two watersheds near the Great Basin National Park following a lawsuit by two conservation groups.
Weeks before the federal government’s tree removal plan was set to start in October, the two conservation groups — the Center for Biological Diversity and Western Watersheds Project — filed a motion for a preliminary injunction in Nevada federal court to halt the project.
The groups initially sued over the project’s approval in March, arguing that the BLM’s environmental assessment violated several federal laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act, by neglecting to study the possibilities of the project causing serious ecological harm.
“Spring Valley is one of the centers of my universe in the Great Basin—my work takes me there, I visit there in my spare time, and it is truly one of the most special places in the whole world to me,” said Patrick Donnelly, the Great Basin director for the Center for Biological Diversity at the time.
U.S District Judge Cristina Silva denied the groups request to halt the project while the lawsuit moves through the court system, explaining that the groups failed to show that their claims are likely to succeed on the merits of the case or raise serious questions moving forward.
Located near Great Basin National Park, the South Spring and Hamlin valleys contain about 384,000 acres of federal public land managed by the BLM. The watersheds are home to greater sage grouse, pinyon jays, pygmy rabbits, sagebrush shrub land, and pinyon-juniper forests considered sacred to the Western Shoshone people.
Attorneys for the conservation groups said they were disappointed by the ruling, and are assessing their options and considering next steps.
“BLM’s plan for this area is the product of regressive thinking, and it promises to irreparably damage the landscape in Spring and Hamlin Valleys. BLM is employing the same practices in this project that it used in the last century to eliminate native forests for the benefit of domestic livestock, with disastrous results for native wildlife,” said Center of Biological Diversity attorney Scott Lake in a statement.
‘Chaining’ and cheatgrass
Attorneys for the U.S. Department of the Interior did not respond to a request for comment. However, in legal filings, the BLM took issue with conservation groups characterizing the tree removal plan as an “indiscriminate destruction of pinyon-juniper woodlands.”
Federal land managers say the project to remove thousands of acres of pinyon-juniper woodlands from the two watersheds is part of an ongoing effort to restore sagebrush communities, preserve habitat for sagebrush obligate species, and reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire.
Last fall, the bureau’s plan was approved, which includes the use of “chaining” — a practice that involves dragging a Navy ship anchor chain between two bulldozers to uproot large swaths of forest. In some landscapes, the controversial practice has shown to cause irreparable harm to the land, according to the bureau’s own management plan.
The first two implementations of the tree removal project are scheduled to take place this fall: a 1,500-acre treatment of hand cutting pinyon-juniper with chainsaws and a 1,680-acre chaining treatment around the border of South Spring and Hamlin Valleys.
According to the BLM, removal of encroaching shrubs and trees in the two sections would connect sage grouse habitat in South Spring Valley with neighboring Hamlin and Lake Valleys, creating a more robust sagebrush habitat.
Greater sage-grouse populations have declined significantly over the last six decades, with an 80% range-wide decline since 1965 and a nearly 40% decline since 2002, according to a recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey.
Federal land managers argue the encroachment of pinyon and juniper trees into areas historically dominated by sagebrush not only displaces sagebrush, but also increases the risk of severe wildfire. In an environmental assessment, the BLM found that about 32% of sagebrush communities in Ely are at high risk of displacement by pinyon-juniper trees.
Conservation groups dedicated to protecting the Great Basin called the plan “a prescription for widespread deforestation and sagebrush eradication.” Conservationists argue “chaining” may also increase the presence of highly flammable invasive grass in the valleys that could lead to the increased risk of wildfires.
Research has found that ground-disturbing projects, like chaining, can lead to a recurring “cheatgrass-fire cycle” that prevents sagebrush reestablishment and permanently eliminates sagebrush habitat.
The BLM argued their tree removal plan is “well-considered and legally permissible” and that delaying the project would increase the risk of severe fire, noting several wildfires in the southern portion of Hamlin Valley, including ones in 2009, 2012, and 2020.
According to the BLM, 86% of the 384,414-acre project area is at moderate risk of fire, with only 2% at “high” risk of “losing key ecosystem components” to fire.
Attorney’s for the conservation groups, however, argue that BLM has not established an “imminent” danger of catastrophic fire despite saying the tree removal project was established to reduce fire risk.
The BLM said their environmental assessment does acknowledge the risk of cheatgrass invasion and includes multiple measures to prevent it, including pre-treatment identification, post-treatment monitoring, seeding of competitive species, and herbicide if necessary.
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