The Public Lands Restoration Apocalypse

Jackpot burning of ancient western junipers in the Owyhee Canyonlands. BLM helicopter napalmed the forest incinerating the trees. Jackpot is a term used by the US military to describe a lethal strike on the enemy. 

The Bureau of Land Management’s latest assault on the West’s biodiverse pinyon-juniper forests and sagebrush communities dwarfs its many predecessors. The Trump regime is finalizing a “Restoration” EIS targeting 38.5 million acres of public land across 6 states – Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, Washington, Utah and California. The 60,156 square mile land area is larger than Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware combined. This wrecking balls’ official title is “Programmatic EIS for Fuels Reduction and Rangeland Restoration”.

BLM’s falsely named “restoration” focuses on woody plant destruction projects that turn beautiful wild places into dirt, grass and often flammable weeds. The beneficiaries of this mammoth taxpayer-funded wildlife habitat destruction scheme will be the 18,000 public lands Welfare Ranchers who have the revocable privilege of holding federal grazing permits. The EIS is a surefire way for cattlemen to maneuver for increased grazing, especially if the “restored” sites become infested with flammable cheatgrass or other weeds. After BLM smashes sagebrush or grinds pine nut forests into wood chips under its new EIS, the agency can turn right around and intensify livestock use in a “targeted grazing treatment” by claiming cows will reduce flammable weeds generated by the project.

Targeted Grazing – A Cattlemen Con from the Get-go, Tied to the Public Land Grab Effort

In recent years, “targeted grazing” (livestock eating plants down to low levels) has been heavily promoted by the cattle industry as a panacea for wildfires. This dust bowl grazing is a major part of both the Restoration EIS and separate Fuelbreak EISs. Severe grazing won’t stop the climate catastrophe’s weather-driven wildfires where the large Western acreages burn. It will only create worse weed problems and ruin wildlife habitats.

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Bull amid dense of patch of cheatgrass in Challis Upper Pahsimeroi allotment – a place that 20 years ago was claimed to be immune from the cheatgrass that is now invading because of abusive cattle grazing. Cows cause cheatgrass!

Here’s how this gained traction. I first heard of cows hyped as firefighters in the wake of Nevada blazes more than a decade ago. Those fires had flashed right through hundreds of thousands of acres heavily grazed by cows and sheep. Grant Gerber, long-time theocon sagebrush rebel and agitator was the chief huckster. The 1/14/10 Elko Daily newspaper reported:

Local lawyer Grant Gerber has mounted a “Smoked Bear” campaign to spread the word about his concerns that current fire-fighting and grazing policies for public lands are destroying wildlife. He said increased livestock grazing is the key to controlling the grass and weeds that fuel range and forest fires.

“The environmentalists’ goals are to get everything back to natural, when there weren’t deer here. I want it to be the best it can be, and the only way is if agriculture manages the land. Federal agencies can’t manage it,” he said. “They’re fire watchers, not firefighters …”.

Gerber or minions in a “Smoked Bear” costume appeared at rallies and state capitols, and stomped around ashes in the aftermath fires with Land Grab leader Ken Ivory from Utah, head of the American Lands Council (ALC), seizing opportunities for promoting grazing and bashing the Feds fire response. In finest grifting fashion, an LLC was set up to take donations for radio ads and propaganda like this Scorched Bunny video – one for the ages. I recall seeing polyester-furred “Smoked Bear” greeted with open arms in the Idaho legislature at the same time that Occupy Boise protestors were harassed by Statehouse cops for wearing hats inside meeting rooms. While this seems rather humorous, regrettably it was an effective way to gain rural politician attention, and ultimately pressure BLM to adopt this scam.

Gerber worked in tandem with Ken Ivory who was zealously pushing Land Grab bills to legislatures and county commissions. Both preached that state takeover of public lands was needed because the Feds couldn’t control fires. The Land Grab is deeply rooted in Mormon theo-constitutionalism and many sagebrush rebels like Gerber have been LDS. He opportunistically latched onto grievances against agencies and blew them up into a big deal, like Ammon Bundy has repeatedly done. Antics helped attacks on environmental protections for rare species on federal lands. He orchestrated the Jarbidge Road Shovel Brigade that tied the Forest Service in Nevada in knots for years. Gerber and followers removed a boulder placed by the Feds to block vehicles driving in the East Fork Jarbidge River. They trashed Bull Trout habitat with impunity, never facing charges. He organized the Klamath Bucket Brigade (helping force irrigation water releases that endangered Coho Salmon and rare Suckers), and the copycat Tombstone Shovel Brigade (Smoked Bear and Ken Ivory at an Arizona fire, and donations going to ALC). With the Argenta Grass March, Gerber up until his death was haranguing BLM that uneaten grass was a fire danger, and bullied weak DC leadership under BLM Director Neil Kornze into opening Argenta allotment pastures. The lands had been closed to grazing in an extreme drought by the Battle Mountain Manager trying to protect Sage-grouse habitat.

Nevada has been the epicenter of this push for scorched earth grazing. Cows beating and BLM treating public lands into biological wastelands enables industry to more easily slide through mining and remote-sited industrial scale “renewable” projects. In Nevada, foreign mines hold vast public lands grazing permits. The deforestation treatments benefit their herds and provide something to toss paltry sums at as they pretend to mitigate unmitigatable impacts to Great Basin ecosystems.

Livestock industry apologists at land grant college range departments have obligingly dubbed land denuding cattle grazing “targeted grazing” – a term initially applied to penning goats or sheep into relatively small enclosures to eat down knapweed and the like. It gained momentum during Sally Jewell’s tenure as Interior Secretary, and was a big gift to the livestock industry embedded in the 2015 Sage-grouse non-ESA listing Plans. Heartily promoted by the Trump Interior Department under Zinke and Bernhardt, it remained in the Trump tweaks to the Grouse plans, and now is part of both Restoration and Fuelbreak EISs and an unfinalized Trump grazing regulation gutting attempt.

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BLM targeted grazing schemes frequently involve “temporary” water hauling. Water troughs peppering the landscape concentrate cows and cause new vegetation obliteration zones, and more permanent weed infestations – and also drown birds, insects and small mammals.

Looming Mutilation of Public Lands

This map of potential BLM projects under the Restoration and Fuelbreak EISs and other new Trump authorities shows the enormity of the campaign. It’s sickening to think of all the lovely places jeopardized. New BLM rules enable warp speed destruction of wild land communities and the wildlife habitat they provide. Categorical Exclusions fast-track deforestation including a 10,000 acre Pinyon-Juniper CX that limits public review and environmental effects disclosure, and a new salvage logging CX.

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Under the Restoration FEIS:

BLM would use a full suite of methods to restore degraded vegetation states … Manual, Mechanical, Chemical, Prescribed Fire, and Targeted Grazing methods could be used to remove undesirable vegetation and to establish and or encourage the expansion of desirable vegetation”.

Yep, those would be the same “degraded vegetation states” caused by the agency’s long time disastrous grazing and fire rehab policies.

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Bullhog ripping cross-country in the Egan Range, Ely Nevada. Unfortunate small animals and insects sheltering in the trees are instantly ground up by this monstrous roaring machine that spits out a cloud of sawdust and body remains.

Buried in Buzzwords

How has “restoration” come to represent such sheer destruction? It’s because range science is confected pseudo-science and deception centered around the lie that grazing is sustainable or relatively benign in the arid West. This is what festers underneath the buzzword surface of the Restoration and Fuelbreaks EISs. Jargon is used to legitimize forage production schemes — treatment, restoration, resilience, resistance, desired condition, prescription. Voodoo vegetation and fuels models are spun off to damn pinyon expansive enough to support Pinyon Jays, western juniper thick enough for a Hermit Thrush to nest and sing in, or sagebrush dense enough for Pygmy Rabbit persistence. Artificial vegetation categories put a treatment bullseye on these habitats. Places deviating from a grassy “desired condition” are “unhealthy” and labeled a threat to Sage-grouse. The mere presence of mature native forests and unbroken sagebrush expanses is “degradation” under BLM’s junk science range models.

The EIS proclaims: The purpose of the project is to enhance the long-term function, viability, resistance and resilience of sagebrush communities through vegetation treatments to protect, conserve, and restore sagebrush communities and to provide for multiple use opportunities. “Multiple use opportunities” = more cows. BLM also states its actions support the goals of the Sage-grouse plans. Regrettably, that’s true. Those plans weren’t based on effectively controlling livestock impacts. Instead, they scapegoated native forests, “unhealthy” sagebrush and wild horses as demons that must be slain or vanquished for the bird to endure, and they gave a big boost to these radical deforestation and sage killing projects.

A BLM modeling scheme (FIAT, Fire and Invasives Assessment Tool) tied to the Grouse plans zeroed in on 5.6 million acres (outside Wilderness, WSAs and ACECs) for various forms of mutilation. Riffing off the FIAT scheme, Trump’s Restoration EIS ballooned the project acreage over six-fold, to 38.5 million acres described as “current and historical extent of sagebrush on BLM-administered land within the project area with wilderness areas, WSAs, ACECs removed”. After BLM tears up the country, it doesn’t even have to seed native plants. Non-native crested wheatgrass and forage kochia can be planted at BLM’s whim if the agency finds “resource management objectives cannot be met with native species”.

Besides bullhogs, bulldozers, chaining, mastication, rollerbeaters, mega-mowers and clearcutting, the EIS’s “prescribed fire” includes broadcast, jackpot, and pile burning and bulldozing fire lines. Doses of chemical cocktails of one or more of the following: 2,4-D, bromacil, chlorsulfuron, clopyralid, dicamba, diuron, glyphosate, hexazinone, imazapyr, metsulfuron methyl, picloram, sulfometuron methyl, tebuthiuron, triclopyr, imazapic, diquat, diflufenzopyr (in formulation with dicamba), fluridone, aminopyralid, fluroxypyr, and rimsulfuron can be applied in both an air and ground campaign – and not just to kill non-native plants. Toxics like Tebuthiuron are used to kill trees and shrubs as a “treatment”. The EIS’s major sleeper element is the transformation of the cows that have caused land degradation and weed proliferation into saviors of the range.

What This Means for Native Plant Communities and Wildlife Habitat

Owyhee Juniper Mountain Landscape Juniper Purge

In the Owyhee Canyonlands jackpot burning of ancient Western Junipers, contractors cut down tens of thousands of trees so they fell into ancient trees or covered the ground surface. They were left to dry out for a year. Then napalm ping pong balls lobbed from contractor helicopters rained down on the forest, generating an inferno.

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The dogs in photos are sitting in the cooler of shadows cast by the remains of the torched ancient trees.

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Ancient juniper similarly destroyed by Owyhee BLM several years ago, Dense cheatgrass now surrounds the skeleton.

BOSH Deforestation

The Bruneau-Owyhee Sagebrush Habitat (BOSH) project in the Owyhee Canyonlands aims to obliterate nearly all western juniper trees outside wilderness and ACECs over 600,000+ acres of public lands, wiping out nesting habitat for dozens of species of migratory birds, and winter berry food sources for Robins, Flickers, Townsend’s Solitaires and other wildlife. Joe Balash

in the Interior Secretary’s office signed the BOSH decision which blocked any public opportunity for administrative appeals.

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Red needles of cut trees on hillslopes above stream. Understory cover is stripped bare and eliminated by cattle. There is no “greenline” on the stream – just dirt and manure spilling into water. Green is water cress in the stream.

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Old growth juniper sawed down – but hanging on for dear life. The green live needles are growing on a single branch that escaped being cut the whole way through.

Steens Mountain Deforestation Burns BLM

Impacts of BLM’s vast clearcuts are worsened by the purposeful insanity of pile burning. BLM pays contractors as much $500+ an acre to saw down trees and cut them into hundreds of pieces densely heaped in piles. After they dry out, the piles are set ablaze, producing thousands of new scalded soil sites primed for cheatgrass invasion and outward spread. Soil patches are burned so hot they stay bare for years. Meanwhile, the treeless hotter, drier, windier sites suffer cattle grazing that aids and abets cheatgrass takeover. In just a few years, BLM’s “restoration” projects transform a site that had a tough drought-resistant native tree hard at work shading and cooling the ground surface, fixing CO2 cleansing the atmosphere, ameliorating the climate crisis by storing centuries of carbon in its wood – and whose complex intricate structure provided bird nesting substrates and homes for small mammals, lizards and insects – into a barren grassy weed land with the carbon now moved into the atmosphere cooking the planet.

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Old growth western juniper destruction.

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Profusion of cheatgrass in pile burn aftermath surroundings. The intricate tree mini-ecosystem with lichens and mosses, cavities and nesting sites for birds and bat roosting reduced to ashes and weeds.

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Bare dirt, cheatgrass, thistles, cows, post-clearcut and burn along the “scenic” Steens Loop road.

Ely Forest Annihilation

A war on PJ has long been raging across the Ely region’s 11 million acres. This BLM outpost delights in depraved forms of ecocide such as hooking a ship’s anchor chain between two bulldozers that roam cross-country uprooting trees, toppling songbird nesting habitat and tearing up cultural sites. The range literature calls this an “Ely chain”. Public outrage at chaining around 25 years ago crimped BLM’s most sadistic ravages a bit. But when huge pots of federal funds became available for “fuels suppression”, Ely opportunistically branded trees “hazardous fuels”, proclaimed the land was “unhealthy” because of the mere presence of trees, developed vegetation models of “desired condition”, and pumped out a new Land Use Plan based on this nonsense. Treatment mania gained more momentum as BLM flailed trying to distract the public from plunging Sage-grouse numbers.

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Who does this kind of thing to trees and sleeps at night?

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Incredibly slow growing tenacious Utah Junipers destroyed – it’s often impossible to discern growth rings with the naked eye.

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Piles of PJ – first chained with bulldozers, then heaped with bulldozers. The forest obliterated for cattle grass.

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Bullhog spoor. Grinding obliteration of trees, and understory ruined by heavy equipment.

Elko Spruce Mountain PJ Treatments

Elko BLM spent much of the past decade plotting to kill ancient tiny trees at Spruce Mountain, mirroring the Ely full spectrum tree destruction arsenal – like this chaining of old growth forest where 10 ft. tall trees that were several hundreds old had endured previous “treatments”..

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Elko Sagebrush Destruction Treatments.

BLM tears up and fragments occupied Pygmy Rabbit sagebrush habitat by mowing, crushing, roller-beating sagebrush with heavy equipment so sage can be replaced with cattle grass.

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Fuelbreak mowing of sagebrush, a Pygmy Rabbit and Sage-grouse habitat destruction and fragmentation project.

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Spruce mountain area beaten crushed sage – previously the densest Pygmy Rabbit habitat in Elko lands.

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Herbicide sprayed on a Spruce Mountain PJ kill killed sagebrush that had managed to survive the tree elimination.

Winnemucca BLM Montana Mountains and Thacker Pass Fuelbreaks

Fuelbreaks have proliferated in Nevada’s southern Montana Mountains west of Orovada. Sagebrush has been extensively mowed, crushed and destroyed, near the site of a proposed mammoth open pit lithium mine and sulfuric acid plant (right now being controversially fast-tracked by Trump with a decision imminent, and the mine claiming it’s an oh so “green” venture). Shrubs here have been destroyed by BLM despite the major climate-driven Holloway wildfire in 2012 taking out sagebrush in the region. BLM pre-mine development habitat destruction cloaked as a “fuelbreak treatment” reduces sage loss directly attributed to the mine.

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Severe cattle trampling and grazing in portion of fuelbreak.

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Tractor seeding drill rows are still visible in a failed BLM planting attempt after the sage was destroyed. Nothing grew but tiny stunted tumbleweeds and bur buttercup.

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Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area Fuelbreaks, and Forage Kochia Proliferation

Lavish seeding of non-native forage kochia in the Birds of Prey Area has produced wastelands of this runty half-shrub. Kochia thwarts recovery of sagebrush, foreclosing on habitat recovery for declining migratory birds. It’s too short in height and lacks complex woody structure essential for nesting Sage Sparrows, Brewer’s Sparrows and Sage Thrashers. It spreads weedily and chokes out slickspot peppergrass rare plant habitat. Besides obvious fuelbreak seeding, BLM has prolifically strewn kochia all over the place in fire “rehab” projects with minimal NEPA review. Tumbleweeds now thrive in the cow-trampled kochia interspaces in years with summer rains. Fall winds blow tumbleweed swarms that lodge in fences forming an impenetrable prickly barrier to Pronghorn movement. This prompts BLM to conduct fence line tumbleweed burns polluting the air. A parallel non-native crested wheatgrass monoculture situation exists in the Jarbidge country, and millions of other acres across the West, where densely seeded crested wheatgrass has been spread in wildfire rehab seedings – seedings through which many later fires have ripped right through.

This is where public lands management all based on range science has gotten us – ugly utterly screwed up landscapes with no hope in sight. BLM’s response to degradation has been inflicting even more, and often worse, forms of degradation.

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Cattle-trampled soil, manure and forage kochia monoculture. Heckuva way to run an NCA.

Imagine 38.5 million acres subjected to these same forms of “restoration” in the service of the livestock industry.

Deb Haaland has a mighty task at hand if she tries to turn BLM’s thrashing smashing vegetation destruction apparatus around before the West becomes a vast weed land. Change will require deprogramming and reprogramming agency staff, and slaying range science myths. BLM’s grazing and vegetation management empires are based on circular reasoning justifications found in regulations, policy manuals, gigabytes of NEPA documents and phony models. Mountains of entrenched BS must be swept away to protect our native forests and shrub lands so they aren’t labeled “unhealthy”, and destroyed simply because they exist.

Over the past decade, billions of dollars that should have gone to finding an answer to cheatgrass, the real Doomsday threat hanging over the West, have been squandered. A moratorium on all this madness, and a sweeping ecological science review are desperately needed. Defeating some projects in litigation won’t be enough. The range foundation for BLM’s vegetation destruction rampages has been built up over decades and pervades plans. Unless public lands are freed from their capture by the livestock industry, substantial change will not happen.

Last, I can’t help but note that besides wrapping up a torrent of terrible projects, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, whose Park Service issued the permit for the January 6th Coup Rally, is twiddling away his final days at Interior tweeting claims of glory about BLM’s role in the Trillion Trees Initiative.

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