Cedar Ridge, within the Desolation Canyon Wilderness Study Area on the Tavaputs Plateau, where the Bureau of Land Management had planned to remove pinyon pine and juniper trees via heavy machinery. Courtesy (c) Ray Bloxham/Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah ― Last week, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) withdrew a 2018 decision authorizing the destruction of more than 2,500 acres of pinyon pine and juniper trees within the Desolation Canyon and Jack Canyon Wilderness Study Areas (WSA) in the Tavaputs Plateau region of eastern Carbon County, Utah.
The BLM’s decision came on the heels of the filing of a lawsuit in federal district court by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), which challenged the removal project as unlawful and in violation of federal laws.
The BLM had proposed the destruction of the trees by mastication, a destructive and heavily surface-disturbing method of vegetation removal that involves uprooting trees where they stand and shredding them by means of a wood chipper/mulcher mounted to a large front-end loader, which is driven cross-country throughout a project area.
In its lawsuit, SUWA alleged that the BLM’s decision—to use heavy machinery including bullhog masticators to remove pinyon pine and juniper forests on the Tavaputs Plateau just one mile from the western rim of Desolation Canyon—violated the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) and the agency’s legal obligation not to “impair” wilderness suitability in designated WSAs.
Shortly after SUWA filed its lawsuit, the BLM withdrew its approval of all portions of the vegetation removal project that would have occurred within the Jack Canyon and Desolation Canyon WSAs.
In response to the BLM’s withdrawal of the project, SUWA Wildlands Attorney Kya Marienfeld issued the following statement:
“Although we certainly wish the BLM had made this decision sooner, it’s encouraging to see that the agency realizes the unlawful nature of its plans to masticate pinyon-juniper forest in two pristine and remote Wilderness Study Areas. We are pleased that the agency made the right decision to follow its mandate to protect these remarkable locations from harm and from all actions that impair their world class ecological and wilderness values.
“Using large vehicles and heavy machinery—whether bullhog masticators or anchor chains—to systematically wipe out thousands of acres of forest is completely incompatible with the protection of wilderness values and the preservation of wildlands and ecosystems.”
Far from the only project that threatens to destroy wilderness values and other remarkable resources in an alleged attempt to save those same values, the BLM recently approved a similar vegetation destruction project in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. SUWA and other conservation groups have appealed that decision to the Interior Board of Land Appeals. In addition, the BLM is actively considering several other similar projects in the monument and Utah’s west desert.