Mary O'Brien

There is a big reason why U.S. Oil Sands initiated its Utah tar sands mining on School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) lands, rather than on adjacent BLM lands. Similarly, there’s a big reason why the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources dumped exotic mountain goats on SITLA lands rather than the adjacent U.S. Forest Service alpine area easily reached by the mountain goats.

That big reason is NEPA – the National Environmental Policy Act – and its regulations developed by the federal Council of Environmental Quality. Under NEPA regulations, federal agencies (but not state agencies) planning to undertake, permit, or fund projects or activities that may have significant environmental impacts – like polluting the air, or depleting rare alpine species – need to first prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). They begin the EIS by issuing a scoping notice, inviting the public or other agencies to raise significant issues or suggest alternatives to the project.

The federal agency then issues a Draft EIS, comparing the environmental consequences of a “full range” of reasonable alternatives, including “No Action” (e.g., not digging for tar sands; not sending exotic goats into a fragile alpine area). The public then has a chance to comment on the accuracy and objectivity of the agency’s alternatives analysis. In the Final EIS, the agency has to tell the public how it has responded to each comment. If the agency has blown off valid information or comments, the public can go to court to challenge the EIS, though this is rarely done.

Understandably, lobbyists and elected industry hacks gun for and chip away at NEPA in Congress because it requires that both science and public information be respected. Many ill-conceived projects have been dramatically improved – or even abandoned – as a result of EIS processes.

The bad news is that too few citizens who otherwise care about the environment, democracy, and scientific evidence, make use of NEPA opportunities. The good news is that there is an important NEPA process going on right now, in southern Utah: The BLM has begun an EIS to determine how and where cattle will continue to graze in the 1.8 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The deadline for this round of public comments is January 20, 2015.

Some brief background: In 1996, President Clinton established this monument on BLM desert lands south of Escalante and east of Kanab, Utah. Within three years, a Monument Management Plan had been drawn up to implement the values (scientific research and public visitation, native ecosystems, geology, archaeology) for which the monument had been established – except for a plan for grazing cattle, which was to soon follow. It didn’t. Nineteen years after establishment, 96.4 percent of the monument is open to annual cattle grazing, but has no grazing plan. The BLM has been tearing out sagebrush and planting exotic grasses for the cattle to eat; springs are trampled; biological soil crust is depleted or eliminated; water is fouled and hikers stumble upon dead cattle in slot canyons.

But in December 2013, the EIS process began, and three environmental organizations submitted a particular grazing proposal, called The Sustainable Grazing Alternative. Last month, in December 2014, the BLM showed five alternatives it is considering for analysis in the Draft EIS. It’s asking, “Did we get these right?”

Admirably, one of the five alternatives is the Sustainable Grazing Alternative, called “Alternative C” — except several key provisions are missing. One missing provision is that if a permittee voluntarily retires his/her permit to graze cattle on the monument, and another person or organization offers to buy the permit, but not graze cows, that allotment might remain free of cattle. Another provides that if someone (e.g., a hiker) documents a real resource problem due to cattle grazing, the BLM would commit to at least discussing how to solve the problem. A third missing provision is that wildlife would need to be taken into consideration in how and where cattle graze.

It’s great that BLM has started a grazing plan EIS; it’s great that it is considering a range of alternatives (including Alternative D by Garfield and Kane County commissioners, which calls for grazing more cattle; and a BLM “blend” of Alternatives C and D called “E”). You have the opportunity to weigh in by January 20 by letting the BLM know what you think of its potential range of alternatives. You might even encourage the BLM to include those few, but important, elements of the Sustainable Grazing Alternative it ignored when writing Alternative C. Just type “Grand Staircase Comment Card” on the web and then send in your comments.

Participating in an EIS process is like voting: Those who show up with good ideas can make a real difference for Utah’s future.

Mary O’Brien lives in Castle Valley and works with Grand Canyon Trust, a conservation organization focused on the Colorado Plateau.