April 16, 2002
Contact: Jon Marvel, Western Watersheds Project (208-788-2290)
Katie Fite, Committee for Idaho s High Desert (208-429-1679)
Anne Martin, American Lands Alliance (775-786-1658)
Todd Tucci, Land and Water Fund of the Rockies (208-342-7024)

The Bureau of Land Management is on a fast track to turn 47 square miles of old-growth and mature pinon and juniper forests in Lincoln and White Pine counties of Nevada into as much as 945 millon pounds of wood chips.

Western Watersheds Project, the Committee for Idaho's High Desert and American Lands Alliance have filed a lawsuit to stop the proposed action in the Ely and Mt. Wilson areas of Nevada.

The lawsuit, filed in federal District Court in Reno, seeks to halt two schemes that the BLM dubs urban interface fuel reduction projects. The location of the Mt. Wilson project -- 90 miles south of Ely and about 20 miles from the Utah border -- is one of the most sparsely populated areas in the United States. BLM land ownership maps indicate there are only two parcels of private land in the entire area.

The BLM contends that the Mt. Wilson project, which covers 34 square miles of public lands, is necessary to protect a 1.2 square mile enclave of private homes. The Ely project comprises 13 square miles of public lands.

"The BLM has again proposed radical land alternation without a hint of scientific justification or required environmental analysis," said Todd Tucci, staff attorney in the Boise office of the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies. "Each and every stone that we have overturned in the Ely district of the BLM has exposed scientifically untenable land management practices, ecologically destructive proposals and bloated pork-barrel projects.

Combined, the Ely and Mt. Wilson schemes will cost $3.5 million per year for four years.

 These projects will result in massive alteration of forests that are not contiguous to private lands; that, in general, are nowhere near private lands; and that are not, by any stretch of the imagination, in an îurban interface zone, said Anne Martin, field director for American Lands Alliance in Reno, Nevada.

The lawsuit maintains that the projects are ecologically destructive and lack scientific basis. It also charges that the BLM failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act. According to the conservation groups, the BLM failed to act on repeated requests to collect baseline data on the effect of the timber clearing on wildlife and habitat.

U.S. Forest Service studies demonstrate that removing fuels within 40 feet of structures and reducing the flammability of these structures is more effective than the wholesale thinning of surrounding forests in reducing fire risk in urban interface zones.

 The Mt. Wilson and Ely projects are a flagrant squandering of millions of dollars of federal fire funds earmarked for urban interface projects, said Katie Fite, director of CIHD. The projects will kill hundreds of thousands of trees and impact wildlife habitat in order to grow cow grass or produce biomass energy fuel on huge areas of public lands that aren t a part of any urban interface.

The BLM justifies the projects as a means of reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfires, despite the fact that the agency has not produced any data on fuel loads and understory vegetation and has not conducted an assessment of fire risk and fuel hazards that would result from the project.

The Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition is charged with executing the BLM plan with funds funneled from the agency. The projects are among the first of this scale proposed under the National Fire Plan adopted by Congress after western wildfires burned large areas of several western states in the summer of 2000.

In both schemes, 30-ton track-mounted feller-bunchers would clearcut drainages and strip slopes. In their wake, track-mounted chippers would pulverize the trees, leaving 315 million to 945 million pounds of flammable wood chips 2 inches high over most of the nearly 50 square miles of clearing. The massive field of wood chips would prevent the recovery of native vegetation, an impact that was not addressed in an environmental analysis of the scheme.

The BLM s own budget request notes that the felled trees could be exported as biomass for electrical generating plants. Biomass requires removing more pinon and juniper than is necessary for restoration, causing more ecological degradation.

 WWP believes that these projects are probably designed to open up new forage areas for public lands ranching and to provide a cheap source of fuel for a proposed, federally subsidized, biomass-powered electrical generating plant, said Jon Marvel, executive director of Western Watersheds Project.

 Though these projects are trying to reduce fire risk, they could increase that risk across the landscape, Martin noted.

WWP and its partners are represented by Tucci and Boise attorney Laird Lucas. Local counsel in Nevada is provided by Henry Egghart of Reno.