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Groups Say Federal Agencies Hide Behind Pandemic to Attack Public Lands

This area of Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument shows the results of mechanical clearing, also called "mastication," of underbrush to create areas for grazing cattle. (SUWA Photo)
This area of Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument shows the results of mechanical clearing, also called "mastication," of underbrush to create areas for grazing cattle. (SUWA Photo)
April 9, 2020

MOAB, Utah -- Conservationists are accusing federal officials of using the coronavirus crisis as a smokescreen to issue controversial rules on public lands across the West.

A study by the Center for Western Priorities found that the Interior Department has issued 57 separate actions since March 6, when President Donald Trump signed the first COVID-19 emergency bill.

Erik Molvar, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, says Interior released the Great Basin Fuel Breaks Project last week. It orders the destruction of thousands of acres of sage grouse habitat in Utah and does little to control wildfires

"The reality is that during extreme fire weather, these fuel breaks don't mean anything," he points out. "They don't actually stop anything. These fires can spot a mile or two over any barrier. It's foolish to think that clearing a fuel break actually does anything. "

Molvar maintains the real purpose of clearing the land is to provide more acres for ranchers to graze their livestock.

Federal officials say they are following all applicable notification and public comment rules in issuing the new regulations.

Robin Silver, cofounder of the Center for Biological Diversity, says his organization filed a lawsuit this week against the Bureau of Land Management for failing to protect the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area from livestock grazing. He refers to the BLM as "cowboys."

"While they're pretending they can't drive around in their trucks with masks on, the cowboys aren't pulling their cows off, the loggers aren't stopping cutting trees," Silver points out. "So, there's all this other stuff going on under the cover of COVID."

The battle between conservationists and ranchers over grazing on public lands goes back more than a century in many parts of the West.

Molvar says that public input has been all but removed from the debate over public lands.

"The idea that the public is having any voice at all in the management of the public lands has become a complete fiction under this administration," he states.

The San Pedro riparian area in southern Arizona is home to more than eight protected or endangered species, and also is the traditional territory of several tribes of Native Americans.

Mark Richardson, Public News Service - UT