Western Watersheds Project, the Oregon Natural Desert Association and the Committee for Idaho's High Desert have filed a lawsuit in federal District Court in Portland, Oregon against the Bureau of Land Management to stop a proposal to seed 55 square miles of public lands in Oregon with non-native plant species.
The proposed BLM action, which the agency calls "emergency fire rehabilitation," would seed non-native plant species on 1,500 acres of public lands burned in the recent Jordan Creek Fire and 33,787 acres of public lands burned in the Jackies Butte Fire. The seeding would consist primarily of crested wheatgrass with some forage kochia, both exotics. The BLM decision fails to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA).
"The BLM seems more interested in destroying the public lands of the West than in obeying the law," said Jon Marvel, executive director of WWP.
The affected lands border the Owyhee Wild and Scenic River canyon corridor. They are an important component of the area's sagebrush steppe ecosystem, which is wholly unsuited to non-native seeding.
"The Owyhee region's sagebrush steppe wildlands provide crucial habitat for diverse native plants and animals," said Katie Fite, conservation director of CIHD in Boise. "In stark contrast, however, the vast expanses of exotic crested wheatgrass seedings across the BLM's Vale District are biological deserts, devoid of nearly all native wildlife species."
Though degraded and fragmented by overgrazing, past and present, the Jackies Butte area features many important natural resource values, including habitat for sage grouse and California bighorn sheep, and winter range for mule deer and pronghorn antelope. The burned areas in Jackies Butte and Jordan Creek once comprised Wyoming big sagebrush overstory and bluebunch wheatgrass/Sandberg's bluegrass and bottlebrush squirreltail understory. Relentless overgrazing has left the area infested with exotic weed species, including cheatgrass, pepperweed and tumble mustard.
The lawsuit also notes that the BLM is obligated by law to manage public lands "without permanent impairment" and without "unnecessary or undue degradation." The agency has acknowledged that "the lack of sagebrush cover in and around the Jackies Butte area has long been considered a limiting factor and threat to sagebrush steppe wildlife identified in the existing environment."
The groups are ably represented by ONDA attorney, Mac Lacy, of Portland.
Eight conservation groups, including Western Watersheds Project, have filed a formal protest with the Bureau of Land Management that challenges the adequacy and legality of a mammoth land management plan released by the agency's Vale District in Oregon.
The protest charges that the BLM's Southeastern Oregon Resource Management Plan fails on three counts: to account fully for the impacts of livestock grazing; to address the region's escalating invasive weed crisis; and to protect public resources from a range of threats, including off-road vehicles and water pollution.
The proposed land-use plan, released by the BLM in November, charts a 20-year future for 4.6 million acres of public lands in Malheur, Harney and Grant counties. The scope of the plan includes some of southeastern Oregon's most treasured -- and vulnerable -- landscapes, including the Owyhee Canyonlands.
"The BLM has completely failed in this plan to address the concerns of the American public for healthy watersheds," said Jon Marvel, executive director of Western Watersheds Project.
"Within this remote extension of the Great Basin lies some of our nation's most important roadless areas," added Bill Marlett, executive director of Oregon Natural Desert Association in Bend. "It's incumbent upon our federal land managers to ensure that these special places get the protection they so richly deserve. This plan merely perpetuates the status quo of resource extraction."
Most of the lands to be managed under the proposed plan comprise fragile high-desert and sagebrush steppe, territory that is wholly unsuited to cattle grazing.
Despite these conditions, the BLM plan will not reduce the level of grazing or remove a single cow from the entire 4.6 million-acre area, according to conservationists who analyzed the proposal.
Less than 2 percent of the area is currently off-limits to cattle grazing, and less than one-half of 1 percent is closed to destructive off-road vehicles.
"The BLM is obligated by law to manage these lands for multiple use, yet when you look at actual numbers of acres, it becomes clear that this plan is strongly biased toward the continuation of widespread livestock grazing and motorized access over all other uses and resource values," said Mac Lacy, staff attorney for ONDA.
"Not only does this fly in the face of the multiple-use mandate, it leads to the ecological demise of an area comparable in size to most New England states."
WWP and ONDA are joined in the formal protest by the Committee for Idaho's High Desert, Oregon Natural Resources Council, Northwest Environmental Defense Center, Columbia River Conservation League, American Lands Alliance and the Oregon chapter of the Sierra Club.
The protest, which closely resembles an appeal, will be reviewed by BLM officials in the agency's Washington, D.C. office.
WWP anticipates that litigation may ultimately be necessary to fully engage the attention of the Bureau of Land Management in this matter!