Data released today reveals that 54 million acres of land managed by the Bureau of Land Management do not meet the agency’s own “land health standards.” Although standards vary between states and bioregions, they generally measure biological conditions, including soil health, water quality, plant species diversity, and habitat quality for threatened and endangered species. Endangered. The standards define the minimum benchmarks that land managers must meet and maintain for landscapes to function and be used sustainably.
The BLM oversees 246 million acres of land – the vast majority of it in the western United States. The agency’s mission is “to support the health, diversity, and productivity of public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations,” but according to records obtained by the bipartisan public employee watchdog organization for environmental responsibility (PEER), it fails to do so on almost a quarter of the land leased for grazing. “We all need to work together to improve conservation practices on public lands,” said Chandra Rosenthal, director of PEER’s Rocky Mountain office. “This map is a wake-up call for the BLM to not only improve and modernize its data collection and mapping efforts, but also to take action to address the vast amounts of degraded land.”
PEER obtained 78,000 records spanning three decades through Freedom of Information Act requests. The data, which covers 13 western states from 1997 to 2019 and contains information from every BLM field office in those states, plots 21,000 attributions on an interactive map. “This map is useful for individuals to see what’s going on around them, get active, and really work to hold BLM accountable in the areas that are important to them,” Rosenthal said. News from the High Country. “It’s really empowering for people to be aware of what’s happening on their public lands.” (Ddisclosure: Rosenthal is a brother of HCN responsible for the digital editor.)
The data shows that large tracts of land are degraded. Some acreage is not rated at all, and of the approximately 109,000 million acres that are, half fail to meet range health standards. Troubled housing estates, though documented throughout the West, are mostly found in cold desert ecoregions, often in the rain shadow of mountain ranges. These areas are characterized by a lack of humidity and extreme temperature variations.
In six states — California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Wyoming — more than 40% of assessed land does not meet land health standards. In Nevada, 83% of allotments assessed fail to meet standards, while data from Idaho indicates that 78% of allotments assessed fail to meet range health standards. In New Mexico, however, only 2% of assessed assignments fail. High Country News reached out to the BLM with questions, and while they acknowledged the query, they did not return with answers until press time.
Thriving landscapes are integral to the public and economic health of Western Indigenous communities and nations, especially those whose ancestral lands are affected. Research by Headwaters Economics and the Center for Western Priorities documents in detail the tremendous value that public lands have to communities near the Gateway. But a prolonged mega-drought in the western United States poses an ongoing threat to already stressed landscapes and the communities that depend on them, as do overlapping issues including climate change, the spread of invasive species like the cheater and the increasing frequency and intensity of forest fires.
PEER’s analysis reveals that livestock grazing is the main culprit of land degradation. The BLM leases more than half of its acreage to ranchers as pasture for cattle, sheep, and other livestock. While everything from drought and wildfires to all-terrain vehicles can impact rangeland health, livestock grazing is a significant cause of the failure of 72% of land health standards. public lands. It’s about 40 million acres.
PEER’s analysis reveals that livestock grazing is the main culprit of land degradation.
This finding is consistent across the West, sometimes on a massive scale: A massive 950,000+ acre subdivision in the Rock Springs, Wyoming area is just one of the areas that identifies cattle grazing as a major cause of declining land health. Other stressors such as invasive species, feral horses and extreme degradation of waterways account for the poor health of an additional 15 million acres.
BLM pastures that do not meet standards significantly overlap with sage-grouse breeding grounds and habitat. Ecoregions like the Wyoming Basin, the Northern Basin and Range, and the Snake River Plains owe their failure to the presence of livestock on more than 40% of the land surveyed to date. Other animal species are also implicated; for example, some housing estates in the home of the endangered desert tortoise also fail to meet standards.
PEER shared its findings during a meeting in early January with senior agency officials, including BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning and Deputy Director of Policy and Programs Nada Culver. “It surprised us that many of them didn’t even know there was grazing in the wild areas,” Rosenthal said. “I feel like there’s a lot of data misunderstanding on course health standards.” But Rosenthal also called the meeting a “positive step” and said she believed the leaders were “curious and interested in making changes”.
Kylie Mohr is a writing intern for High Country News written from Montana. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. Ssee our letters to editor policy.