The Bureau of Land Management is “chaining” our public lands, and BLM’s next stop could be within Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

In my opinion, “chaining” looks straight outta Isengard from Lord of the Rings.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) has launched a statewide television and online media campaign in Utah to focus public attention on the Bureau of Land Management’s destructive practice of “chaining” native pinyon and juniper forests to create more forage for cattle on public lands. Now the BLM wants to chain in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Call the BLM at 801-539-4010 or learn more at suwa.org/chaining

28 Comments

    • I first heard about “chaining” about 15 years ago. Thanks, Steve, for posting some research that looked into the effects of “chaining.”

      The first paper had the following highlights (emphasis added)

      • We examined the long-term effects of chaining in P–J woodlands in southern Utah.

      • Past treatments had long-term effects (both intended and unintended) on the ecosystem.

      • Treatments increased perennial grass, shrub, and non-native species cover.

      • Treatments decreased biocrust cover and increased bare mineral soil cover.

      Treatments increased juniper dominance and increased surface fuel loads.

      Meanwhile, the second study had the following implications (emphasis added):

      This study was retrospective and not set up as a controlled comparison experiment, limiting our inferential ability to compare among different treatments and environmental conditions. However, observed differences between chained and burned sites were dramatic. Results demonstrate that chained sites can be rapidly recolonized by trees and achieve pretreatment densities within a few decades, whereas the prescribed burn treatment we resampled proved resistant to tree invasion over a multidecadal period.

  1. What is your objective in posting SUWAs alert on the NCCFP blog? Discuss Pinion Juniper encroachment on the Colorado Plateau? Recent Pinion Juniper management in SE Utah? (Fishlake NF has done a lot) Past PJ and Sagebrush management vs modern techniques? Discuss the efficacy of “chaining” or Dixie Harrow on public lands? Discuss if “real” objective is to restore to HRV or wildlife habitat improvement or increase cattle grazing? Some other reason?

    • Um, raise public awareness about a federal public land issue? All of the above? None of the above? What’s your objective in wondering why I would post this?

      P.S. About this blog

      “Our goal is to solicit broad participation from a cross-section of interests in a respectful atmosphere of mutual learning on topics related to the Forest Service and public lands policy.”

      • Just curious. Chaining has been used in this region for over 100 years. The Fishlake NF has developed new techniques that are supposedly highly effective. Lots of recent and ongoing projects here in SE Idaho as well. I’m surprised more NCFP folks aren’t familiar with these efforts.

        • I think it’s all about where you live or work.. I can’t tell where most NCFP people live/work but probably most are not in the “south of Montana” Interior West (Dave Iverson and you and me?). So I wouldn’t expect readers to necessarily know about oil and gas and coal leasing nor ski areas, nor water storage controversies.

          • I have no idea what this means as oil and gas and coal leasing and ski areas and water storage controversies happen throughout the entire western U.S. and also throughout a fair amount of the eastern U.S. too.

  2. As a government economist I could never figure out how to justify the costs relative to benefits of these type chaining operations. If the BLM is proposing such in or adjacent to Grand Staircase-Escalante then it seems a particularly egregious proposal. But that is just my first impression. I guess I need to read the BLM’s arguments in favor of the proposed action.

  3. Hey, it’s 2018! Aren’t we supposed to have a better understanding of native ecosystems than we did in the days of extractive & extreme clearcutting in the National Forests? Clearing to create more grazing for cows on public land is complete B.S. now!
    As a group of folks interested in science-based resource mgmt. (new century of planning – right?) it seems we should be pretty opposed to this practice.
    What do folks think of this land “management” practice?

    • The Fishlake NF has developed new mechanical PJ treatment techniques and are using something like a modified Dixie Harrow. You can see hundreds of acres of recent treatments along US 6 and I-70. These projects also utilize proscribed fire and timber cutting. Over the last dozen years or so the issue has been the subject of many studies, panel discussion, and my favorite… Field trips!!!

  4. Interesting take on an old practice. The National Forests in Florida chained thousands of acres of scrub hardwoods growing on cut-over dry sites back in the 50’s and 60’s and planted the land to longleaf pine. The chaining created considerable concern with environmentalists (yes, we had them back then) and I remember having to explain the process to a group of W.O. folks who came down to see what all the fuss was about.

  5. This is interesting.. looks like it was controversial way back in 1990.
    https://www.deseretnews.com/article/129216/BLM-CONSIDERING-WAYS-TO-AVOID-PUBLIC-OUTRAGE.html

    It sounds like an alternative to prescribed burning, but some folks (including fellow geneticist Ron Lanner) feel that PJ isn’t encroaching it’s returning to where it used to be before .. so it’s got fascinating aspects of “when do we need to return to to return to the right time?”. So some folks like the PJ Alliance are against pb also.

    FWIW I have a call in to BLM to get their side of the story.

    • Please help me try and understand some of your logic here Sharon. Why are you focusing on a 1990 article? Do you not think that “chaining” has also been “controversial” in the past 28 years too? Sure seems like it’s controversial right now to some folks in Utah.

      Also, regarding that chaining “seems like an alternative to prescribed burning….”

      Ok, sure. Did you see what some of the science and research has found about that ‘alternative?” Steve posted two studies above.

    • Sharon,
      As you inquire with BLM folks try to get some intel as to overall costs of chaining, even generic info, and what percentages are usually contributed by States and by ranchers. I’m still skeptical that the substantial moneys spent can be justified as investments. Maybe the real reasons for these actions come from tradition, rather than justified federal action. Anybody else have any insights?

  6. FWIW here is the link to the BLM NEPA documents for this project: https://eplanning.blm.gov/epl-front-office/eplanning/projectSummary.do?methodName=renderDefaultProjectSummary&projectId=88916

    It’s still in scoping, so everyone should have plenty of time to submit their two cents. Whether the sites should be treated, and whether chaining should be considered as one of the treatment methods, are different issues IMHO. If range health objectives are not being met (as suggested in the scoping letter), the sites should be actively managed to meet objectives. Treatment methods, as always, should follow best available science.

    • Thanks for posting the link.

      Regarding public comment, here are the specifics, including the deadline.

      Public Input Needed
      This project and supporting documents are available from the BLM’s national NEPA register:
      https://go.usa.gov/xRATn.

      We would like to hear from you regarding any issues or concerns you feel we should consider in
      development of the projects and associated EA. If you are interested in providing us with
      information, potential issues, or alternatives, please contact us in the following ways:

      • Address letters to Allan Bate at 669 South Highway 89A in Kanab, UT 84741 on or
      before January 22, 2018.

      • E-mailed comments submitted to blm_ut_gs_comments@blm.gov Please include
      “Alvey Wash, Coal Bench, and Last Chance Vegetation Restoration Projects” in the
      subject line.

      • Fax your comments to 435-644-1252 with “Alvey Wash, Coal Bench, and Last Chance
      Vegetation Restoration Projects” in the subject line.
      Those who submit comments will be added to the project mailing list.

  7. Would it make a difference if these treatments of degraded sagebrush communities benefited wildlife species that depended on those communities? Not every treatment is 100% undesirable. The GSENM plan might shed some light on why this project is being prioosed.

    • Tony’s right — lots of people don’t like clearcuts, but they can be appropriate silvicultural treatments. Chaining juniper and pinyon could be the best option in concert with other actions, such as Rx fire.

      • Or else, it COULD BE that the science and research you shared with us about chaining is actually true Steve.

        Such as…. Chaining “treatments increased….non-native species cover….Treatments decreased biocrust cover and increased bare mineral soil cover….Treatments increased juniper dominance and increased surface fuel loads…..and “observed differences between chained and burned sites were dramatic. Results demonstrate that chained sites can be rapidly recolonized by trees and achieve pretreatment densities within a few decades, whereas the prescribed burn treatment we resampled proved resistant to tree invasion over a multidecadal period.”

        • Right — COULD be. It’s not black and white. It depends on the site, the management goals, and the tools (and funding) available. “Pinyon-juniper chaining and seeding for big game in central Utah,” Journal of Range Management, 1989, found improved big-game forage.

          https://journals.uair.arizona.edu/index.php/jrm/article/download/8345/7957

          Or “Sharing the Land with Pinyon-Juniper Birds,” 2006, found on the webs site of the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, states that chaining is “still considered a versatile and effective management tool for removing pinyon-juniper where warranted.” Also note that chaining costs were one reason it fell out of favor.

          https://birdconservancy.org/wp-content/uploads/…/PJ-manual-Nov-08-low-res.pdf

          “A common pinyon-juniper management technique during the 1940s to 1960s was chaining or cabling to remove trees. This basically involved dragging a ship’s anchor chain or a heavy cable between two tractors driving parallel paths in order to pull down and/or uproot trees. Uprooting the root ball left behind a shallow basin, which collected water. Removing the pinyonjuniper reduced competition for resources, thus allowing the herbaceous understory to flourish. Chained woodlands with a depleted understory were reseeded, often with plant types palatable to cattle. Chaining was also done to increase water yield, improve watershed conditions, and improve big game habitat. However, careful analysis of chaining showed that the costs of treatment often exceeded the benefits from enhanced livestock forage (Clary et al. 1974, Dalen and Snyder 1987), highlighted the unavoidable damage to archaeological sites that occurred (DeBloois et al. 1975; Haase 1983), and called into question its effectiveness as a pinyon-juniper control method (Aro 1971). For these and other reasons, chaining as a management activity gradually fell out of favor among state and federal land management agencies, although it is still considered a versatile and effective management tool for removing pinyon-juniper where warranted. A thorough review of the rationale and methods is available (Stevens and Monsen 2004).”

      • I am not well versed on recent research regarding chaining, but did see the following information in the scoping letter. There is a table of 7 potential treatment methods (not including fire?), and the following criteria are given for anchor chaining:
         Areas that contain late seral stage sagebrush stands
         Remove woody vegetation while leaving understory
        species and small shrubs intact
         Avoid use to remove pinyon and juniper trees
         Avoid use in Primitive Management Zone
         Following hand thinning or bullhog treatments to
        incorporate seed into the soil
        I have no idea how well these criteria are followed (in principle or practice), but it seems chaining is no longer used in quite the same way it was 50+ years ago.

  8. Juniper encroachment on sagebrush habitat has been identified as a threat to greater sage-grouse conservation. This scoping letter says, “The proposed projects would be in conformance with the GSENM Management Plan (MMP), as amended by the Utah Greater Sage-Grouse Resource Management Plan (RMP) Amendment.” One of the purposes of the project is “Restore sagebrush habitats to maintain populations of sagebrush obligate species.” (Another is livestock grazing.) It apparently can be effective for sage grouse, but there are some reservations: https://eplanning.blm.gov/epl-front-office/projects/lup/36511/45862/49563/Western%20Watersheds/MechTrt_LitReview_Draft.March2013pdf.pdf

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