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

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

    • 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.

      Reply
  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?

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    • 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.”

      Reply
      • 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.

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        • 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.

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          • 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.

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        • They are highly effective at laying waste to living, ancient forests, animal homes, native ecosystems, soil, and visual/physical integrity. Most of these projects in Southern Utah are utterly inneffective and leave horribly wrecked landscapes that are highly degraded for many decades to come. No level of effectiveness could justify this kind of eco-cide, but the FACT that they are inneffective at acheiving their stated objectives means most projects are just a pathetic and tragic waste of public lands and innocent lives. If you think getting a pathetically small increase in exotic grass, forb and shrub cover for a pathetically short period of time is a good use of public lands and resources, this method of mass murder is for you! If not, visit old chainings, look at the research, match what you find to the stated objectives of these projects that are engineered by big game proponents and livestock operators and let the hypocrisy and waste sink in… then help us fight the lies! I have spent 35 years doing wildlife surveys in areas affected by chaining. Chaining is soul-crushing…

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  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.

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    • Since you’re a government economist then you probably realize that the government wastes a ton of money. They’re spending $50 million feeding wild horses in feedlots because legally they can’t kill them. From what I’ve seen the government has done a terrible job of managing the range. My family has run cattle since way before Utah was even a state. Everyone says that the range is over grazed. I know for a fact that where we graze it’s been under grazed for over fifty years since one of the permit owners left and no one replaced him. According to one paper by the Great Basin Research Center Utah has about half of the number of deer and cattle with about twice as much elk as it did a hundred years ago. One thing they attribute to this is the increase of pine trees. My grandpa used to get two crops of alfalfa in the desert. Now we can’t grow anything because all the pine stands soak up all the water. We own all the water rights where we run cattle, and it’s changed a lot. But we still have the same amount of water on top in the lake where some of the water is stored. We even have pictures from a hundred years ago. When you look at the picture of Paradise you see only about a fourth of the pinyon pine and juniper trees and a lake. Today there’s a dried lake bed and it’s over run with trees and rabbit brush. The state finally did a project to remove some of it. To be honest much of this wouldn’t be an issue. I know a ton of ranchers that would maintain the land, but legally they can’t. I’ve always supported the idea of people owning the land, but with an easement so the land isn’t developed. But we’re stuck working with the government and waiting for them to fund and do projects since we can’t. People may wonder why the government does chaining. I think a lot of it is because of liability. Thirty years ago our allotment was passed for a prescribed burn, but the ranger never did it. He knows if we burn part of it it might get out of hand since the government allowed so much fuel buildup and dead tree stands.

      Reply
      • Kolton,

        The answer you likely don’t want from me is: it’s complicated. But that is the answer you get. But that was also the answer I gave to the many government economists I jousted with when a civil servant. I advocated for many things in government, but “easy answers” to problems dealing with complex, adaptive ecological and social systems was not something I was willing to advocate for.

        Yes, the government does burn through a bunch of money, with plenty of waste, and some fraud. Yes, the wild horses program is a mess IMHO. As for doing a terrible job of managing the range: Many agree, myself included. A lot of the public land is over-grazed, not only by domestic livestock but also sometimes by wildlife. Then again, so is much private land. A friend of mine used to preach the gospel of sustainable grazing to improve landscapes. He advocated practices I’ve seldom seen in either the public or the private sector. I watched many who were amazed at what he and his team accomplished on Deseret Land and Livestock Ranch in N. Utah. So I know that grazing is not a “no no” in the West. But few are willing to promote and apply effective grazing practices. This is yet-another lost opportunity in public deliberation and public education.

        I don’t know about you’re “half of the number of deer and cattle with about twice as much elk as it did a hundred years ago. ” I do suspect that there are more elk. The landscapes have changed due to many things in addition to over-grazing. Climate change is but one. It’s complicated.

        As per: “I know a ton of ranchers that would maintain the land, but legally they can’t. I’ve always supported the idea of people owning the land, but with an easement so the land isn’t developed. But we’re stuck working with the government and waiting for them to fund and do projects since we can’t.” Maybe someday we will get better collaborative stewardship partnerships. I’m retired, and long before retirement, I decided that unless and until we change the way government operates, we aren’t going to see effective collaborative stewardship. Today we can add in the impasse brought on by “political tribalism” at an intensity way beyond what I saw when in government service.

        I am OK with more vegetative manipulation via prescribed burning, but as you note it is not without risks. Slowly, the fire community is beginning to learn how to mitigate some of the risks. So maybe we will see more prescribed burns going forward. Still, it proves to be an uphill battle not only due to the possibility of escaped fires, but also due to smoking up summer settings in the West. This too is interrelated with climate change that is now seldom discussed in federal government settings, again as a by-product of political tribalism. As for chaining, I remain unconvinced as to its worth.

        Not a pretty time to be either a government employee, or a permittee, or a citizen.

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        • I agree about prescribed burning but not sure that it’s all that related to climate change at this point in time. In fact you could argue that climate change will make it more necessary to act together to get more fire on the landscape… in fact many have.

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          • The interrelationship I see between prescribed burning and climate change is political, which ought to come as no surprise—since it is coming from me and I see politics in everything. It becomes harder to justify burning in the mind of citizens, when people in the West see nothing but pictures of forest fires every day during the summer, and have to breathe bad air and smell smoke. As someone who advocates for prescribed burning, climate change suggests more opportunities for prescribed burning—as a preventative move. But it proves hard to sell it, since most everyone still sees fire as bad.

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            • I think if we did the thought experiment “what if there were no climate change?” we would still want to do prescribed burning to either/and
              a) restore conditions to previous either HRV NRV – or many species prefer/need grass sagebrush, water effects of trees vs. grass and so on.

              b) reduce the chance of big conflagrations and associated health and safety issues due to fuels build up by keeping lower levels of fuels.

              More PB anywhere is not an easy sell with or without climate change. In fact, I don’t think it’s a partisan issue at all. Maybe Utah needs a Prescribed Fire Council like Washington State? http://waprescribedfire.org/home
              Living well with fire needs a transformative nonpartisan change but sometimes it seems like many groups are more interested in issues that can be enflamed into partisanship than the slow quiet work needed for transformation.

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              • Agree: Prescribed burning is not really a partisan issue, as issues go. What IS partisan is how the extractive/exploitive industries are aligned with the political right (R) whereas the voices for pristine landscapes and Nature are aligned with the political left (D). This is especially true when dealing with National Monuments, Parks, Wilderness, Roadless, etc. Nothing much has changed in this arena since the days of Pinchot and Muir—except that the intensity of the battle has heightened to where some now call it “political tribalism,” or sustained demagoguery. See, e.g.:
                https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/20/opinion/destructive-political-tribalism.html
                https://forestpolicypub.com/2018/02/28/dueling-ladders-of-inference-are-the-ds-and-the-rs-ever-again-to-find-common-ground/

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                • In many cases, the Forest Service will not just torch off areas without prior commercial thinning. Apparently, that makes prescribed fires ‘questionable’ in the minds of preservationists. It’s like that in the ponderosa pine zones that are overstocked. There’s a reason why Region 5 lags far behind in prescribed burning. (Actually, there are more reasons than just this one but… )

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                • I think if you looked at support for bills, rather than an abstract ideology of “right” and “left” you would find that there are many western Dems that are supportive of industries like timber and oil and gas, that folks throughout the country (and worldwide) use, and provide jobs for folks in their states and districts and taxes to support things that are desirable..

                  Here’s my simple logic.. people of all persuasions, in all states, use wood and oil and gas. Some people on the left have a narrative that says these are “extractive” e.g. bad industries, because they want to save Nature. But why not do that by just not using these bad products, instead of saying bad things about the people who produce them? If you were against eating meat, you would not eat it, and try to educate those around you, not say bad things about ranchers for producing it. ???

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                  • I was speaking of party platforms, positions,etc. I am well aware of individual congressional delegates differing from party positions and platforms. My point re: political tribalism/remains.

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      • Thanks for responding, Kolton. I really appreciate having someone with direct experience participate in the discussion.
        From what you say, you want to manage to return to HRV or NRV … And prescribed burning would be something you all and the critics of chaining could get behind. So maybe this is all about increasing the amount of prescribed burning on the menu of veg management choices?

        To Dave’s point, controlled burning certainly leads to smoke but folks are doing it.. here is another project:
        https://www.sltrib.com/news/environment/2017/09/08/feds-set-to-lop-and-scatter-trees-near-price-to-improve-sage-grouse-habitat/

        “Designed in partnership with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, the BLM’s “North Springs Habitat Enhancement Project” aims to clear some of the ground through prescribed burning, lopping and scattering, hand cutting and piling and mechanical shredding. Actual treatments for specific spots will be determined as the project unfolds over the next several years.

        “We want to keep all the tools, including biomass utilization,” said BLM spokeswoman Allison Ginn, referring to methods of cutting or grinding trees and brush into small pieces that are spread around to serve as a kind of mulch. “We will favor lop and scatter.”

        Parts of the project area fall within the Carbon Sage Grouse Management Area, identified for special conservation measures as part of Utah’s plan to keep the ground-nesting game bird off the endangered species list. The project is an offshoot of the Utah Watershed Restoration Initiative, which seeks to rehabilitate landscapes throughout the state.

        Last month, the BLM issued a decision on a similar project, covering nearly 1 million acres in Utah’s West Desert.

        In general, crews on these projects will avoid removing old-growth trees, which play a critical ecological role. The twisted trunks provide habitat for numerous animals, maintain genetic diversity and preserve long-term climate records in their growth patterns.

        The BLM’s goal, the agency says, is to leave untreated “islands” of trees and buffer areas to create a mosaic of vegetation.”

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  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?

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    • 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!!!

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  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.

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  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.

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    • 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.

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    • 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?

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        • Nice pictures and interesting questions, Steve. But little insight into my concerns. I do wonder, however how seriously these or similar questions were entertained in setting up and/or justifying this particular proposed action and connected actions? Unless someone involved chimes in we will likely never know.

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          • Whoops. Looks like this project is in preliminary “scoping,” so I’ll have to wait and see how my concerns are dealt with, unless they have been dealt with at a programmatic level, else at a policy level.

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  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.

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
  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.

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    • 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.

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      • 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.”

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        • 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).”

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      • 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.

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  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

    Reply

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