Monday, July 29, 2019

Final BLM Planning Documents for Revised Bears Ears National Monument Reveal Agency’s True Colors

The BLM released its final EIS and proposed Monument Management Plan for the two new units of the modified Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah on July 26. The new units comprise 201,876 acres in total (reduced from 1.35M acres by President Trump’s 2017 Proclamation). In the proposed EIS, released last summer, the agency had considered only four alternatives, but the final EIS reveals a fifth alternative (the preferred alternative), developed from comments received on the draft EIS. As expected, the final preferred alternative allows for virtually unrestricted resource uses (other than mineral development, which has been excluded from the final plan due to Trump’s withdrawal in the Proclamation) in the reduced units, along with “more discretion” for the agency to review individual proposals on a “case-by-case basis.”

BLM's original alternatives were: A) the no-action alternative[1], which would require the agency to manage monument lands consistent with terms of the pre-2016 BLM and Forest Service multiple-use plans under FLPMA and NFMA, “to the extent they [we]re compatible with” the 2017 Trump Proclamation reducing the Monument (essentially, managing Monument lands as though they were still multiple-use BLM and Forest Service lands); B) a traditional monument management plan alternative, which would prioritize protection of Monument objects and values over other resources and uses, and require the agency to identify areas for additional long-term protections of resource values; C) an adaptive management alternative, which would “emphasize protection” for Monument values and use adaptive management “to protect the long-term sustainability” of those values; and D) the formerly preferred alternative, which is a restricted multiple-use approach that “would allow for the continuation of multiple uses of public lands and would maintain similar recreation management levels while protecting Monument objects and values.”

The summary report from 2018 contained some details about Alternative D, the agency’s former preferred alternative, which incorporated a similar level of recreational vehicle use as under the pre-Monument plans, limited restrictions on recreational activities such as camping, reduced protections for cultural resources (due to nearly unrestricted off-road vehicle use and near unlimited access for recreation). It also proposed to authorize grazing on over 90% of Monument lands, including sensitive riparian areas, and timber harvesting on 130,000 acres. The new preferred alternative, Alternative E, incorporates those elements of Alternative D from the proposed EIS, along with isolated new management criteria and guidelines, but draws more heavily from Alternative A (the so-called “no-action” alternative). In short, the new preferred alternative is mostly less restrictive than the agency had indicated in is proposed EIS last summer, with a few exceptions.

Highlights from the former category include criteria under the “Recreation” heading stating that BLM’s preferred alternative will implement group size restrictions for recreational sites within the Monument, although the summary report specifically carves out impacts to cultural resources from rock climbing, noting that adverse impacts are to be addressed using an “adaptive approach” (seemingly, as impacts arise). The agency also declined to include management strategies for Wilderness Study Areas in the revised Monument units, stating that these areas “will continue to be managed to protect the areas’ suitability for preservation as wilderness” under statutes other than the Antiquities Act.  However, it is clear from the chart of resource topics attached to the summary report that increased OHV damage is expected because BLM halved the number of wilderness-eligible acres closed to OHV use from the proposed EIS projection. Finally, the agency declined to require ongoing evaluation and study of wilderness-eligible lands within the revised Monument, stating that the Forest Service will oversee these processes and decisions as part of its revisions to the Manti-LaSal National Forest plan (which are ongoing).

In the category of increased restrictions, the agency made a few changes of note. BLM declined to carry forward the topic of mineral development because all federal lands within the boundaries of the new Monument were withdrawn from entry by the Proclamations (Obama and Trump). Also, renewable energy was dropped because the agency determined that the identification of renewable energy zones was “not appropriate” within the Monument. Finally, BLM will allow timber harvesting on roughly 80,000 acres only, although this number could increase in areas the agency designates for “fuels management.” In those areas, a variety of timber harvesting methods, including chaining, would be allowed if BLM determined that fire prevention was the optimal method of managing wildfires.

In the latter category of restrictions, the final EIS notes that private and commercial recreation will be permitted in the revised Monument, consistent with Alternative D from the previous EIS. As in the proposed EIS, the agency continues to predict that cultural resources will be particularly affected (possibly damaged or even potentially destroyed), with over 60,000 acres containing documented archaeological sites now open to off-road vehicle use and “right of way applications” (under R.S. 2477). There are also planned impacts from increases in livestock grazing activity, as well as non-OHV recreation. The final EIS summary states that an “American Indian Tribal Collaboration Framework” will involve the tribal proponents of the original Bears Ears Monument (along with other interested tribes) in the management of cultural resources, although there is little detail offered about the level of tribal consultation this framework will require. The report notes that more than thirty tribes were invited to participate in consultation meetings leading up to the agency finalizing the EIS and Plan, but less than half of those tribes participated in one or more of the consultation meetings or calls. (This is not entirely surprising, though, given the statements and actions of the Department of Interior leadership before President Trump reduced the size of the Monument in 2017, an action that no tribe supported and that many vocally opposed.).

These final planning documents reflect that Bears Ears National Monument has been effectively downgraded into a monument in name only.  The agency continues to be transparent about its goal to manage the new units in a manner that allows more off-road vehicle use, livestock grazing, and recreation of all types, but particularly high-impact recreation.  The management goals and plan seem to ignore the Antiquities Act prioritization of monument values above other resources and uses, replacing them with a multiple-use style framework found on unprotected Forest Service and BLM lands.  Throughout the alternatives chart appended to the final EIS summary, whenever a category identifies specific numeric values of impacts, the agency almost always chose the option that allows the greatest potential harmful impact.[2] While BLM indicates some intent to safeguard certain historical, archaeological, biological, and cultural resource values that President Obama included in his original proclamation establishing this monument in 2016 (which Trump retained in the 2017 Proclamation), it is hard to see how that will be possible given the negative impacts that will undoubtedly result from increases in grazing, hunting and consumptive resource uses, timber harvesting, aggressive wildfire planning (fuels reduction), and heavy recreational vehicle use.

- Hillary Hoffmann


[1] Although BLM labeled this the “no-action” alternative, it might properly be labeled the “Monument elimination” alternative, given that it would impose the most basic, multiple-use management regime on these lands and resources. Aside from the ban on mineral development, this alternative would only nominally protect any values identified in the Trump Proclamation, while subjecting them to the multiple-use decision making framework applicable to unprotected BLM and Forest Service lands generally.

[2] One exception to this is found in the category of Cultural Sensitivity. Where the original no-action alternative allowed for adverse cultural impacts throughout the entire Monument, the preferred alternative (E) restricts the worst of the potential harms to the Indian Creek unit, with only up to 822 acres of the Shash Jáa unit identified as areas of potential harm. There is also a very minor reduction in the number of acres subject to impacts from livestock grazing in the new preferred alternative, but it is an almost negligible adjustment from the draft EIS.

July 29, 2019 | Permalink