PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) – The Bureau of Land Management cannot use off-road vehicles to thin juniper trees in a 79,000-acre wilderness study area in the Oregon desert, a federal judge ruled.
The BLM announced in 2007 that it would thin trees on 336,000 acres in the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area in Southeast Oregon, 79,000 acres of it in wilderness study areas. Congress designated the Steens Mountain Wilderness in 2000. The state calls the 170,200 wilderness “one of the crown jewels of the state’s wildlands … some of the wildest and most remote land left in Oregon.”
The Oregon Natural Desert Association sued BLM in 2008. While it agreed that “‘some degree’ of juniper removal was warranted, it worried about impacts to sage-grouse and sagebrush habitat as well as the effect on wilderness and roadless areas,” U.S. District Judge Garr King wrote in his Aug. 19 ruling.
Juniper trees are native to southeast Oregon, but their range and density has greatly expanded due to wildfire suppression, changes in grazing patterns and climate change. The BLM says the thinning is needed to protect other native species, such as mountain mahogany, quaking aspen, and old-growth juniper.
King ruled in 2011 that the BLM properly considered the impact its plan would have on the grouse. The association then claimed that the Steens Act prohibits the BLM plan to use motorized vehicles to pile trees for burning in wilderness study areas.
Last week, Judge King agreed. He ruled that the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Act prohibits off-road driving in wilderness study areas, even in a juniper removal project that is widely supported by environmentalists, government scientists and hunting and fishing groups.
“The statute takes as its starting position a prohibition on off-road motorized travel,” King wrote. “The fact that the statute mandates that the BLM ‘shall’ manage juniper does not mean the BLM must drive in Wilderness Study Areas to do so.”
There are other reasonable methods to reach the same goals, King found.
“In planning the Juniper Treatment Project, the BLM identified other methods of implementing its mandate that would not require vehicle use (backpack flame throwers, terra torches, natural wildfire),” King wrote.
The BLM plan may be easier and cheaper than the alternatives, but that is not enough to justify driving in roadless areas, King ruled.
“The BLM expresses concern about the difficulty and expense of implementing its statutory mandate on a landscape level without the ability to use mechanized vehicles off-road,” King wrote. “I am sympathetic. Nevertheless, I agree with ONDA; considerations of cost and challenge are not statutory factors. Off-road travel is simply prohibited in Wilderness Study Areas for the purpose of projects like the Juniper Treatment Project.”
King directed the bureau and the association to jointly develop and submit a better plan. If they can’t agree, each party should submit a 5-page proposal.
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