LAS VEGAS (CN) — Environmental groups sued the U.S. Bureau of Land Management on Thursday to stop a massive vegetation removal plan near Great Basin National Park in the eastern part of Nevada near the Utah border.
“The bureau’s plan would brutalize broad swaths of the sagebrush landscape using bulldozers, chains, mowers, choppers, fire, chainsaws and chemical herbicides,” said Adam Bronstein, director for Nevada and Oregon for Western Watersheds Project, in a statement. “This isn’t a ‘treatment,’ it’s more like torture, and the animals that live on this land will have their homes permanently destroyed.”
The bureau's project, approved in September 2022, involves 380,000 acres of federal land.
According to the lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court in Reno by Western Watersheds and the Center for Biological Diversity, the bureau's intent is not a "restoration plan" but a prescription for widespread deforestation and sagebrush eradication over a 384,414-acre area encompassing nearly all of the federal public land in South Spring and Hamlin valleys.
The groups claim that the Bureau of Land Management's approval of these “treatments” and the associated environmental assessment uses an approach previously rejected by the courts because they fail to specify where the activities will occur and do not provide site- or species-specific information about the affected environment.
The bureau also failed to adequately describe the project’s direct, indirect and cumulative impacts on the human environment, as required under the National Environmental Policy Act, and did not provide a sufficient basis for informed decision-making and public participation, the complaint says.
“There’s a century-old project in the Great Basin and Utah of cutting down Pinyon and Juniper trees,” said Patrick Donnelly, Great Basin director for the Center for Biological Diversity, from his office in Carson City, Nev. “Ranchers have long-prioritized cutting down trees to create more forage for cattle.”
Donnelly said the bureau's current narrative is that the trees are “encroaching” on native ecosystems and are “invasive.”
The project harms sagebrush habitats for imperiled greater sage grouse, pygmy rabbits and pinyon jays, animals whose populations are plummeting, the plaintiffs claim. They say these habitats are disappearing because of livestock grazing, invasive species and unnatural fire cycles. Wood collection for building and mining operations has decimated Pinyon-juniper forests since the mid-1800s.
The lawsuit says the bureau failed to analyze the harm from the project or comply with land use plans for the valleys. The organizations are asking the court to overturn the decision.
“Spring Valley is the heart of the eastern Great Basin and a critically important landscape for wildlife and biodiversity. We’re not going to sit by while the Bureau of Land Management drives bulldozers through it,” Donnelly said.
“The BLM has been playing games with inadequate analysis of these projects for years, and now we’re holding this agency accountable for breaking the law,” he added.
The lawsuit claims the agency erroneously concluded that the project would have no significant environmental impacts, ignoring the harm to Rocky Mountain elks, pronghorn, mule deer, bighorn sheep, sage-grouse and sensitive fish and reptiles in the area.
Native Americans have used pinyon pine and juniper trees for food, medicine and ceremonial purposes since time immemorial. Pinyon pine nuts are a traditional food source for area tribes and a focal point of traditional ways of life. Tribes and their members today maintain ties to historical pine-nut gathering locations and hold ceremonies to coincide with the annual pine nut harvest.
Donnelly said the environmental groups are working in “close collaboration” with tribal members in the Spring Valley area, including tribal elders Rick and Delaine Spilsbury, who are members of the Western Shoshone tribe and live within their ancestral homelands near Ely, Nev. and regularly visit Spring Valley.
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