OPINION — New vegetation treatments are being rushed to completion on public lands within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Most are intended to reinvigorate degraded “seedings” created in the mid-1900s by chaining pinyon-juniper woodlands and sagebrush and planting non-native grasses. The seedings have mostly died out through years of mismanagement. Now, rather than address the reasons the seedings failed, BLM managers want to do the same thing again and hope for a better outcome.
As usual, the devil is in the details. Each proposal needs to be evaluated from several perspectives, including the plant community, soil type, and, importantly, why the original treatment failed. We should also question the reason for the treatment.
On Grand Staircase, the focus is supposed to be on restoring ecosystems to foster stable, resilient landscapes that support all species, not just livestock.
That means matching the plant communities to the soil type, and not trying to plant grass where it won’t grow. For example, pinyon-juniper forests are best suited for rocky sites and it is foolish to remove them and hope for sagebrush and grasses instead.
Yet, 80% of the Last Chance treatment proposed on Grand Staircase has shallow, rocky soils where pinyon and juniper occur naturally. People mistakenly say these trees are “encroaching” and need to be removed. But they may simply be recovering from the original treatment that removed the trees in the first place. Some of the most degraded lands on the monument occur where trees have been torn down for forage without considering soil type.
Furthermore, Monument staff want to use chaining (dragging massive anchor chains between two bulldozers to tear trees and sagebrush out of the ground) and Dixie harrows to remove trees and shrubs. Both methods can cause heavy soil disturbance.
In fact, the monument plan expressly prohibits chaining that is aggressive enough to tear out live trees. There are less destructive techniques available, and Grand Staircase should not be using methods prohibited by its own plan.
The plan also specifically prohibits treatments solely to provide forage for livestock and wildlife. This is because seedings on Grand Staircase and elsewhere have a history of causing ecological problems. They concentrate animals in one place for too long, which results in overgrazing and degraded soils. The worst conditions on Grand Staircase are on old sagebrush seedings.
That’s not to say they can’t be restored to health. The judicious removal of trees and shrubs, using appropriate methods on the right soils, can improve land conditions. But these effects will only last if, instead of bowing to political pressure, the BLM protects the taxpayer’s investment and manages cattle responsibly afterward.
This has not been the case in the past, or the previous seedings would not have died. (Drought is no excuse – seedings should be managed conservatively so they don’t die when it gets dry.)
This is a complicated subject but it’s important. Hundreds of thousands of acres of treatments are proposed for public lands across the West. The monument alone has five ongoing or proposed seeding projects totaling over 65,000 acres and costing hundreds of thousands of federal dollars.
If Grand Staircase is to be truly managed as a national monument it might be time to entrust that responsibility to a new generation of leaders who are not beholden to entrenched interests or outdated management practices.
Submitted by LAURA WELP, a former Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument botanist who resides in Kanab, Utah. She currently engages in contract work for Western Watersheds Project and other nonprofit conservation organizations.
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