(CN) — A U.S. Department of the Interior and Bureau of Land Management watershed restoration project in far eastern Nevada will move forward after a federal judge denied two environmental groups’ bid to stop it Wednesday on grounds that the project will harm local ecology, wildlife, and the cultural landscape.
Located near Great Basin National Park, the South Spring and Hamlin valleys contain over 384,000 acres of federal public land managed by the BLM. The valleys are home to greater sage grouse, pinyon jays, pygmy rabbits, sagebrush shrubland, pinyon and juniper forests, and Utah junipers that are sacred to the Western Shoshone people.
In 2008, the BLM began evaluating the valleys’ watersheds to determine if they met rangeland health standards. The evaluations indicated that the watersheds were not healthy, and that they had a troubling increase of pinyon-juniper trees, which decreased the local grasses and understory vegetation, and made the valleys more susceptible to wildfires. The BLM then devised a project to hand-cut and remove pinyon and juniper trees in sagebrush habitat in order to improve it for the local sage grouse, and in other areas to remove sagebrush to reduce competition for other grasses and flowers. The bureau also proposed putting down a 1,680-acre treatment of limestone chaining within the border of the valleys.
The bureau said this project would not only improve the sage grouse habitat, but it also wouldn’t affect the quality of the environment in the area for humans.
This past March, the Western Watersheds Project and the Center for Biological Diversity sued the BLM and the Department of the Interior claiming that the environmental assessment violated the Administrative Procedure Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, because the bureau didn’t study the possibilities of the project causing serious ecological harm.
The environmental groups claimed the government's restoration plan would actually cause deforestation, eradication of sagebrush, affect the ability of visitors to enjoy the woodlands, and might actually increase the possibility of the growth of an invasive grass in the valleys that could lead to the increased risk of wildfires.
U.S. District Judge Cristina D. Silva, a Joe Biden appointee to the District of Nevada, disagreed.
“The EA [environmental assessment] discusses the magnitude of potential effects on habitats and species including soil resources, vegetation resources, fire management, wildlife, migratory birds, special status species, wetlands/riparian zones, lands with wilderness characteristics, visual resource management, livestock management, and wild horses. It describes effects as major, moderate, minor, negligible, or no effect, and whether the effect would be short term (less than 10 years) or long term (greater than 10 years). Another example of habitat-or-species-specific analysis is sagebrush treatments. BLM determined that treatment within sagebrush habitats needed to be tailored depending on the potential environmental effect,” Silva wrote in her order denying the environmental groups motion for preliminary injunction of the project.
“While the EA’s habitat specific analysis may not meet plaintiffs’ expectations, it does contain habitat-specific analysis,” she continued.
As for the environmental groups' claims that the project would irreparably harm people’s ability to experience undisturbed forests, Silva found that speculative when compared to the federal government's plans and evidence that they considered the environmental impacts of the project.
“We’re disappointed that this activity is going to go forward without proper analysis of the effects,” said Great Anderson, the deputy director of Western Watersheds Project. “Unfortunately it looks like destruction is imminent”
Anderson added that she thinks the government will begin working on the project as soon as this week.
Western Watersheds Project is digesting the ruling considering its next steps in the case, Anderson said.
Attorneys for the U.S. Department of the Interior did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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