Conservationists seek more information about proposed habitat restoration project in Iron County

File photo: A male sage grouse trying to impress a group of hens. Sage grouse range across the Intermountain West (including those pictured here in Wyoming) and have been identified as one of the species that may benefit from a proposed vegetation treatment in Bear Valley, April 10, 2014 | Photo by Alan Rogers/The Casper Star-Tribune via The Associated Press, St. George News

ST. GEORGEThe public comment period for an expansive wilderness management plan in Bear Valley, located in Iron County, is nearing its end, but members of the public can still offer comments through Monday. 

For illustrative purposes: a portion of southern Bear Valley near the bottom of the BLM’s proposed treatment area, file photo, Iron County, Utah, Jan. 25, 2015 | Photo courtesy of Iron County Search and Rescue, St. George News

The Bureau of Land Management announced the Bear Valley Habitat Restoration Program on Aug. 19, proposing to improve up to 2,894 acres of public lands over a three- to five-year period. According to a press release describing the project, the goal is to restore wildlife habitat and reduce wildfire fuels.

Vegetation management is needed in this area to help the BLM return a portion of the valley to its historic condition and to help prevent catastrophic wildfires,” Cedar City Field Manager Paul Briggs said in the release. “We are encouraging comments from the public to further inform the analysis of the proposed action.”

To accomplish these objectives, the BLM plans to use mechanical and hand-thinning techniques to clear thousands of acres of pinyon-juniper and seed previously treated areas with a mix of grasses, forbs and shrubs. 

These improvements will help native species like sage grouse and mule deer by providing forage and shelter that is lacking in areas dominated by pinyon-juniper, according to the BLM. However, some wilderness conservation groups have expressed doubts about the project’s primary benefactors. 

Laura Welp, ecosystems specialist with Western Watersheds Project, said the environmental analysis accompanying the project plans was too superficial in coverage of the effects of livestock and big game in the planned area.

A graphic depicting the locations and techniques planned as part of the Bear Valley project, Image courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management Cedar City Field Office, St. George News

“We’ve got to look at the role of livestock grazing, and even though the BLM guy said it’s within acceptable limits, in some instances the limits are too high,” Welp said. “They’re hoping that it’s going to be, ‘Well, we’ll just take out the pinyon and juniper, and that will take care of that problem.’ And, coincidentally, it will provide forage for livestock and for game animals. So that’s always in the back of my mind: is this really a forage project?”

In addition, the project targets pinyon-juniper as a primary danger for wildfires and asserts that treatments would be effective in curbing the risk of future fires.

“As far as reduction of wildfire fuels, it’s not that close to any urban areas and also wildfires tend to be really tied to weather,” Welp said. “You can never tell where lightning’s going to strike or when somebody’s going to forget to put out a campfire, so to barge ahead and reduce pinyon and juniper is not necessarily going to solve your problems.”

Concerns aside, Welp said she was grateful for the detail in the rest of the environmental analysis. She said that the BLM had done a good job in making more information available than in some previous projects but hopes the agency will do more to outline specific, measurable goals so that it can be externally accountable.

The land in Bear Valley, as with all BLM lands, is managed under the agency’s multi-use, sustained yield mission – meaning the agency is tasked with overseeing public lands while balancing the needs of energy development, livestock grazing, recreation, timber harvesting and preservation.

For more information or to submit public comments to the BLM, visit the ePlanning webpage for the Bear Valley Project. Written comments can also be mailed to 176 East D.L. Sargent Drive, Cedar City, Utah, 84721.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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