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Savagery in the Great Basin

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The Bureau of Land Management has spent the pandemic churning out rapacious public land projects at breakneck speed. This includes egregious grazing decisions drastically increasing livestock numbers for powerful ranchers. After complaints, Idaho BLM Director John Ruhs responded that ranching was an essential service. At the same time, an avalanche of BLM deforestation projects hit. Ely BLM’s Long and Ruby Valley Watershed Restoration EA decision arrived by certified mail, authorizing more grotesque pinyon-juniper carnage and smashed roller-beaten sagebrush across 136,000 acres of public land. That’s 213 square miles laid to waste within a nearly half million-acre landscape, plus blanket tree removal around all springs. It’s the latest in a dismal series of cookie cutter projects tearing apart the Great Basin. BLM’s 2008 land use plan (the Ely RMP) is based on radical deforestation and sagebrush reduction. At that time, sage-grouse were not the primary excuse for these projects. Hazardous fuels reduction was all the rage. Nowadays, both are knotted together. The RMP has served as a springboard for watershed-by-watershed decimation of native forests and sage communities, and their migratory bird and other wildlife inhabitants across the District’s 12 million acres.

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The Modeling Con: Restoration = Plant Community Destruction = Livestock Forage Grass

BLM concocts models of supposed historical plant communities using inputs that ignore actual historical accounts of sagebrush and pinyon-juniper occurrence and characteristics. The models are acronym laden, confusing, and help facilitate destruction of woody plants that ranchers don’t like. Short fire return intervals and sketchy fuels assumptions from the Landfire website are plugged in to the models. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has been deeply involved in pushing this dubious forest and sage dooming methodology. Once armed with voodoo vegetation models, BLM claims trees should not be growing where they are found across Nevada’s mountain ranges, because the models predict frequent fires would have kept forests from persisting. BLM also adds in a scheme based on arbitrary “phases” (amounts of canopy cover) to justify clearing away trees. Anything to keep a forest from being a forest. This has long been the playbook for obliterating trees in Nevada.

Sagebrush is also deviously targeted by similar use of short fire intervals and broad fuels models where the ideal condition is lots of grass and little sage. Any place with enough cover to hide a pygmy rabbit or sage-grouse (in whose name this treatment frenzy is taking place) is found to be “departed” and “uncharacteristic”, and replaced with bare dirt, wood chips or ashes. BLM applies these model outcomes to grazing land health evaluations. The trees and denser sage, and not the impacts of cattle and sheep, are blamed for degradation.

Great violence ensues — mastication, bulldozer chaining, bullhogging, pile burning, napalming and clearcutting of forests. This is often coupled with mowing, crushing and roller-beating sagebrush, and topped off with dense grass seeding and herbicide spraying, with more barbed wire and cow water developments thrown in for good measure.

South Ruby Valley and the Marsh

I ghosted down to Ruby and Long Valleys, figuring exposing the livestock industry’s treatment brutality underbelly was an essential service too, and far safer than standing in cramped Post Office lines to sign for BLM certified mail decisions. It’s a forlorn drive along the west side of the Ruby Range through long miles of gray dead sage on private ranch lands. At Harrison Pass over the Rubies, areas of the Humboldt-Toiyabe Forest had burned in a recent fire. This was continuous with an older burn along the eastern edge of the range that showed little sage and tree recovery, and far too much oddly continuous grass cover. A hike upslope showed the Forest Service had seeded exotic rhizomatous ground smothering forage grass after the fire. This now chokes the soil surface hindering native shrub, tree and wildflower recovery.

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The Ruby Marsh was irresistible in spring. Snowmelt seeps through the limestone from the mountains above and emerges in valley springs. Waterfowl and marsh birds were abundant and less skittish than I was used to from recent Malheur visits. There were sora rails whinnying at high noon and scads of eared grebes in lustrous breeding plumage, the males with rusty-gold cheek feathering and glowing ruby eyes. Yes, their eyes really are this color.

Reluctantly leaving, I drove south, peering out into the next landscape to be assaulted. I passed what appeared to be an older fuelbreak, where sage had been mowed off and the land was carpeted in flammable cheatgrass in stark contrast to PJ forest on the mountain slopes above. Then a brown clearcut blanketed the mountain toeslopes, part of the joint BLM-Forest Service Overland Pass PJ purge carried out with no heed to the scale of forest loss that had already occurred in the Rubies. This mirrors what is happening across the Great Basin. Agencies are purposefully wiping out remaining forests claiming this will stop fires, save sage-grouse and make springs gush. The end result is that over the past 20 years, mountain ranges are being radically transformed by both wildfires and by agency deforestation into bleak treeless expanses.

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After the beauty of the marsh and then the jarring clearcut, I was increasingly dreading looking at the doomed forests ahead. Puffs of dust rose from east of Bald Mountain to the south, a telltale sign of giant earth brutalizing machinery tearing apart the mountain for Kinross Gold’s profit.

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Delaying, I pulled into the Fort Ruby historical site below the sea of felled pinyon and junipers, meandering to read interpretive signs, expecting the usual bland narrative. A military outpost was established from 1862-1869 near the already defunct Pony Express Trail to quash indigenous resistance and protect the regions’ gold deposits and an overland stage route to California. The fort was soon abandoned, became a ranch, and finally was purchased by the Fish and Wildlife Service. The soldiers had been told they were going to fight in the Civil War, and instead ended up in the Nevada wilderness at “the worst post in the West”.

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I was jolted to a standstill by the devastating Western Shoshone (Newe) oral history account of the signing of the Ruby Valley “Treaty of Peace and Friendship” in 1863. Frank Temoke Sr.’s words are shattering. The soldiers murdered a man, cut him up, cooked him and forced the people to eat the human flesh. They were broken by the atrocity.

The Reese River Reveille feigned surprise “we have not heard the full particulars of this treaty but it is undoubtedly satisfactory to all concerned”. The Newe never even got the six square miles of land promised to them in Ruby Valley, a repeat of the universal story of all the broken treaties and promises white men made. Ranchers claimed the land instead.

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This is the Newe homeland. Billions of dollars in gold have been ripped out of it from the 1800s to the present. Today it resembles a Canadian mining colony. Foreign mines and cattle ranchers rule. They are often one and the same, as the mines hold vast public lands grazing permits acquired through buying ranches for water rights. Canadian giants Barrick and Newmont just combined, and now operate as Nevada Goldmines, controlling 1 million acres of private ranch land and 4 million acres of public lands grazing permits. The mines help perpetuate welfare ranching’s domination of federal policies in many ways.

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The Union needed the Ruby treaty to prove to banks and European governments financing the Civil War that it had unfettered access to gold deposits. In recounting the military atrocity, Frank Temoke Sr. said “We think our treaty has been paid for in blood. And the white man will have to live by this Treaty. All of his conniving and scheming will be for nothing, he will have to live by this treaty. And like the coyote the White Man also has tried to exterminate, he also cannot exterminate the Indians”. The Treaty did not cede the land.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jiDxPSg4KZs PLEASE make the image show. I don’t know how to do this with YouTube.

South Ruby Projects

Gripped and feeling hollowed out by the horror that had taken place here, I drove on into the project zone. BLM plans to drill a new cow well in South Ruby Valley. Conditions at an existing Ruby well foretell the sagebrush habitat obliteration and fragmentation and manure fields to come. Watershed restoration at its finest.

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The tree encroachment claimed to be taking place was nowhere to be found. In many areas of the Great Basin, trees do not appear to be expanding. They are stable or contracting, dying out in places, victims of climate stress and drought. Stringers of very old tiny junipers trail down into the valleys. They are characteristic of central Nevada. Sage-grouse survived for eons in harmony with PJ in the naturally diverse Basin and Range landscape. Today, BLM and TNC’s voodoo vegetation models are used in an elaborate ruse to make us believe lands occupied by trees were “historically” sagebrush, all without any consideration of history.

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Paris Seeding Restoration Project

In Long Valley, sagebrush has had the audacity to grow back into the Paris crested wheatgrass seeding (named after a local ranch baron). Many years of severe grazing has nearly wiped out the coarse exotic grass. BLM plans to purge the sage, specifically terming its purge a restoration project.

BLM may lie and deceive, but animal sign doesn’t. The Paris Seeding is home to pygmy rabbits and sage-grouse. Tiny rabbit pellets cover the ground in areas of denser sagebrush, and by burrow entrances. There are piles of sage-grouse roosting scat from male birds this spring, and scattered sign throughout the sage. The only trace of crested wheat is a few seed heads on scrawny plants completely protected from livestock by dense sage structure.

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This spring, news surfaced of rabbit hemorrhagic disease spreading across the West. All native rabbits and the pika face a new killer calcivirus: “Death is due to massive internal hemorrhaging and liver impairment. Of susceptible rabbits, 80-100% that develop the disease may die … It is very readily spread …”. Pygmy rabbits are already greatly threatened by BLM’s forage treatments which have been destroying sage since the 1960s. They face grazing-caused cheatgrass invasion, cattle breaking down protective sage structure and collapsing shallow natal burrows, fires, mining, energy projects and the climate crisis. Rabbits, like pine nuts, were crucial to indigenous cultures across the region. They are a foundational part of the food chain supporting coyotes and golden eagles. The last thing jackrabbits or pygmy rabbits need is more purposeful BLM destruction and fragmentation of sagebrush expanses. A footnote in the Ruby-Long Valley project EA allows “excessive shrub cover” to be destroyed in every treatment unit across 213 square miles.

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An encroacher under BLM models, invading for several centuries now. BLM plans to expand the Paris Seeding outward, smashing sage, slaying trees, seeding cow grass, and then surround it all with grouse killing barbed wire fencing. This is BLM sage-grouse restoration in a nutshell – destroying the habitats the birds actually use. The Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) failure to tell BLM No is complicity in this wanton sage destruction.

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A utilization cage in Long Valley south of the Paris seeding illustrates the level of grazing abuse BLM allows to take place across this landscape. The plants inside the cage are native squirreltail bunchgrass and Nuttall’s saltbush. BLM refused to analyze grazing levels in the project EA and claimed more fences and water developments would correct the few problems found. In a “conformance determination” for the nearly 500,000 upland acres, BLM blamed only the wild horses of the Triple B Herd Management Area country for upland degradation. Hordes of livestock grazed in the project area (including under mine held grazing permits) get a complete pass.

Maverick Springs Range and Butte Mountains

At Red Hill and other springs, BLM plans to build more fence even though ranchers have not maintained the existing fence, re-gut the spring, try to suck out more water, kill all trees around the spring including beautiful old pinyon pines on steep slopes above, and pipe the water to a distant tank. There’s not enough water to pipe anywhere anymore. BLM’s EA is silent on the Bald Mountain mine’s aquifer depletion footprint.

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Several of BLM’s project units contain areas obviously burned decades ago. There’s often evidence of cut trees and limbs along with the burn sign, indicating an old BLM deforestation cattle forage project. Trees growing back are re-occupying sites where forests naturally occur. Sites are persistent pinyon-juniper forests, not sagebrush as BLM and TNC models claim.

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Ancient gnarled junipers.

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Note the lack of cheatgrass. Just wait until it gets treated. BLM restoration will fix that, destroying the microbiotic crusts that protect the soil surface.

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Deforestation as Mega-Mine Mitigation

The deforestation depravity in Nevada knows no bounds. Forest destruction is an everyday occurrence. The photo above is from a ridge overlooking the Bald Mountain mine in the Ruby-Long Valley area. Ancient trees have been bulldozed. Barrick sold the operation to Kinross, another Canadian entity, after a major expansion was authorized by BLM in 2016. This is a very dry area, and it’s only getting drier, not just from the western mega-drought, climate crisis heat, and grazing desertification, but also due to mine aquifer drawdown and depletion.

BLM and NDOW view trees as disposable weeds. This helps distract from their own impotence in the face of cattlemen and mines. It benefits the mines. Cows and sheep grazed on public lands under permits held by the mines get access to more forage if forests are leveled, and sage mowed off and replaced with grass. Mitigation for their own forest destruction is minimal. Off-site clearcuts make future mine exploration easier. When sagebrush habitat is devoured by mines, a convoluted mitigation scheme kicks in. Mitigation funds can be channeled into more deforestation off-site, snowballing habitat harms including collateral damage to sage from PJ projects.

The Nevada Grouse Plan

A state plan was prepared to enable mining to continue apace and grazing damage to be ignored during the long lead up to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s 2015 finding that sage-grouse did not warrant ESA protection. Governor Brian Sandoval assembled a typical stakeholder group (the Sagebrush Ecosystem Council) dominated by ranchers and the mining industry. The group was handed detailed grouse plan elements including a cumbersome mitigation scheme with heavy involvement from TNC and the mines that established a very complicated “conservation credit” system. The 2016 Bald Mountain mine expansion EIS decision used this system. Barrick had a “credit obligation of 5,251 to 6,039 units” to “fully offset the anticipated temporary impacts”. The Long and Ruby restoration EA doesn’t specify project costs or funding sources. I don’t know if it will be partially funded with mitigation dollars, as mine expansion phases are dynamited in.

Kinross (now the Bald Mountain owner) hype states:

“Bald Mountain … recently received a reclamation award for Leadership in Conservation Planning for their enrollment in the Nevada Sage-grouse Conservation Credit System … Bald Mountain has implemented conservation efforts such as limiting new disturbance and infrastructure, removal of pinyon and juniper trees, maintaining fencing and implementing grazing management to preserve habitat”.

Kinross has gotten Bald Mountain credits for throwing mitigation dollars at their own private ranch lands! Mines can also throw money at habitat projects on ranches they don’t own to get credits, further propping up the livestock industry in Nevada by paying inflated sums to ranchers, as “the sale price of credits is based on market value and determined in private negotiations between landowners and mitigation buyers”. This is redundant. The federal government already has NRCS programs galore to improve habitat” on private ranch lands. Heaven forbid mitigation entail purchasing private land and transferring it into public hands, or the foreign mines retire their welfare ranching grazing permits.

Barrick Mitigation “Bank” on Battle Mountain and Elko Lands

Battle Mountain BLM’s Toiyabe Fingers project shows the embrace of public lands deforestation as mega-mine mitigation through a “public-private partnership conservation bank” system added into the mix. BLM states:

“… in the southern and eastern portions of the project area, pinyon pine (Pinus) and juniper (Juniperus) (PJ) trees are encroaching into adjacent shrublands at an increasing density … The Barrick BEA Public Land Project Plan and Private Land Project Plan identify the conservation actions, and associated credits and schedule, that Barrick would undertake within the Bank Property … to restore and/or enhance habitat to benefit GRSG [sage-grouse] and sagebrush ecosystems in exchange for mitigation credit … Barrick established the Barrick Bank Enabling Agreement (BEA) with the U.S. Department of Interior, acting through USFWS and BLM” for … proposed mining activities”.

It seems BLM and Fish and Wildlife Service let Barrick chew up whatever it wants after going through the motions of NEPA analysis as long as projects claimed to save sage-grouse take place on Barrick private land or public land. TNC was a partner in setting up this bank scheme lavishly praised by Sally Jewell (who later did a stint as interim TNC head and is now a TNC Board member specializing in “science-based collaborative resource management”). A Barrick article shows law students being indoctrinated in the partnership on a trip to the Barrick JD ranch. TNC modeling machinations and “future forecasting” blithering nonsense underly it:

“The credit and debit metrics for the Bank were established using the Sage Grouse Conservation Forecasting Methodology, developed by The Nature Conservancy (TNC Methodology). The TNC Methodology uses statistical models to estimate existing habitat value to sage-grouse using the metric of functional acres. Functional Acre is the unit of value that expresses the assessment of quantity (acreage) and quality (function) of habitat at the time of assessment or in the future through the quantification of a set of observed or predicted local and landscape conditions (Provencher et al. 2017) …”.

Here’s the rub: Sage-grouse are a landscape species with complex habitat needs. Populations may move over vast areas in the course of a year or may be highly localized. In either case, if a mine obliterates a crucial habitat area for the population or disturbs the land so much that birds can no longer live there, the birds will be toast. You cannot just go chop down junipers or plant lots of sagebrush or string barbed wire around a spring and claim it “compensates” for eliminating key sagebrush real estate in the complex Basin and Range landscape.

TNC has long involvement in Nevada’s hydra-headed deforestation racket. Their operations are akin to NGOs the U.S. supports in other countries advancing imperialism and corporate agendas. On the western public lands frontier, TNC pushes collaborative groups, generates feel good narratives about ranching and other industries, and provides soft science cover for land exploitation as manifest destiny (including the inalienable rights of foreign mines to destroy public lands) rolls on. BLM often funds TNC to do deforestation veg studies. For example, BLM’s Cave-Lake Restoration EA described “Data gathered by The Nature Conservancy mapping Biophysical Setting (BPS) locations … was utilized to help determine the treatment unit boundaries … work that The Nature Conservancy conducted based on mapping BPS models …”.

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How do you suppose this lovely intricate inch tall pinyon-juniper lousewort will fare smothered by wood chips, uprooted by chaining, pile burned to oblivion, or having its seeds unable to germinate due to BLM’s cheatgrass herbicide poison?

SNPLMA Land Sale Funds Funneled to Treatments

The Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act (SNPLMA) Funding Spigot

Sales of BLM land in Clark County facilitate Las Vegas sprawl, and help fuel the treatment machine. Revenue is lavishly used for vegetation studies underlying federal deforestation projects. SNPLMA funds may pass through BLM and the Forest Service to TNC. SNPLMA was passed in 1998. The purpose of this Act is to provide for the orderly disposal of certain Federal lands in Clark County … After land is sold: “up to 10 percent of amounts available, to be used for conservation initiatives on Federal land in Clark, Lincoln, and White Pine Counties, plus more funds “to carry out the Eastern Nevada Landscape Restoration Project …”. Ka Ching!

Here’s an example of SNPLMA public land sales setting the stage for several massive Ely BLM tree and sage killing projects: “Characterization of Sage Grouse Habitat in Priority Watersheds: The objective is to develop an ecological understanding of sagebrush dominated plant communities of Nevada specifically located in nine watersheds with high priority sage grouse habitat: Newark, Butte; Jakes Valley; Cave Valley; Mid Spring Valley; Steptoe B; Steptoe C; South Steptoe; and White River North and the role of disturbances or disturbance regimes in the dynamics of those systems. An ecological understanding sensu BLM leads to scenes like this in the South Steptoe Valley and Egan Range:

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An Interior Department SNPLMA document from 2011 shows planning to spend $741,671 over the years in plotting to attack the Long Valley watershed, now come to fruition.

A 2019 Press Release from Trump Interior Secretary David Bernhardt heralds land sale generating funds for conservation stewardship, which certainly includes major deforestation under these headings: Eastern Nevada Landscape Project $6,176,618, Conservation Initiatives $13,271,086, Hazardous Fuels Reduction: $5,182,291. A total of $106,865,253 was raked in. The Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition has received many millions over the years. It resembles a mini-TNC set up to facilitate agency treatments. Spring Valley in the Ely District was ground zero for the Southern Nevada Water Authority pipeline that may (or may not) be dead, as described in this OpEd by Delaine Spilsbury. I’ve long thought that SNWA lusting after the water that trees transpire has driven many of these elaborate mechanisms in Nevada’s deforestation industry.

A New Clark County Bill? SNPLMA’s Spawn SNEDCA

There’s a problem. Las Vegas is running out of public land authorized for sale. So the Clark County Commission proposes to sell off 120,000 more BLM land. If the Southern Nevada Economic Development and Conservation Act (SNEDCA), hyped on this website and video gains traction, it’s expected to rake in $8.5 billion from “expanding the ring of disposal”. There’s no explanation for where water to support more ballooning of Vegas would come from. The Center for Biological Diversity describes:

“The commission has asked Nevada’s members of Congress to support a bill to dramatically expand Las Vegas, allowing the city to sprawl into the open desert …. The measure would earmark more than 120,000 acres of public land for residential sprawl and industrial development … also pave the way for up to 300,000 acres of desert tortoise habitat to be destroyed …”.

The restoration cut from selling off this much public land would likely be enough to finish off every tree and sagebrush plant in Nevada.

And of course, federal fire and sage-grouse appropriations are major staple funding sources for these projects. Politicians have thrown enormous sums at sage-grouse. Figuring out where all that funding has gone, and which pot of money funds for projects have come from, would be a gargantuan undertaking in Nevada. The mix of funding sources makes it difficult to tally just how very expensive the projects are.

Scale of Projects Already Authorized

The scale of authorized projects north of the Loneliest Highway in America from Eureka to around Ely is mind-boggling: Duck Creek in the Schell Creek Range west of Highway 93 (contiguous with Forest Servic North Schell deforestation), then Egan-Johnson Basin, Long-Ruby Valley, Overland Pass, and Newark-Huntington Valley projects. BLM’s typical EA bristles with a dozen or more projects to be carried out over a decade.

The Great Basin is being stripped of forests at an astounding rate, made hotter, drier and weedier using federal tax dollars, public land sale proceeds that are supposed to be used for conservation, and mitigation funds that are to magically compensate for habitat lost to mine pits, roads, transmission lines and the like. Beautiful forests and trees recovering from past white settlement mine and ranching deforestation, or from past BLM forage projects, are ground into heaps of wood chips, or piled and burned polluting the atmosphere. Intact sage patches that provide the best remaining structurally complex habitats for nesting songbirds (and sage-grouse too) are smashed and fragmented. Meanwhile, sage-grouse populations nosedive, and the pinyon jay population is in freefall.

Grouse Modeling, and the Treatment Machine Spinning Further Out of Control

The 2015 Obama-Jewell grouse plans were designed for slow drip extinction. Things are not going as planned. The bird’s decline is fast moving to four alarm mode. Elaborate statistical exercises are used by some agency researchers to mask population declines. Other modeling is used to proclaim all trees must die across many miles surrounding leks, lest wayward raptors perch and swoop down on grouse. No heed is paid to forest migratory bird diversity wiped out.

There is a shocking new BLM proposal to fast track projects across 38 million acres in Nevada, Idaho, Oregon, Utah, California and Washington. Trees within 6.2 miles of sage-grouse leks and mule deer winter range are targeted for eradication. This totals 34 million acres of the landscape! The sage is to be torn up, too, just like in the Ruby-Long Valley project. BLM predictably labels its NEPA analysis a Programmatic Restoration EIS. Projects tiered to it would rely on a proposed new PJ Categorical Exclusion with no actual NEPA analysis, only a checklist ok’ing 10,000 acres of vegetation clearing at a time.

I’m still stricken by the words of Frank Temoke Sr. They evoke great sadness, haunting thoughts of Ruby Valley. BLM and its conspirators are ensuring that if the Western Shoshone by some miracle ever get their land back here, it will be bereft of forests, pine nuts and sage too, with most animal life extinguished. Pinyon jays, scrub jays, Clark’s nutcrackers, sage-grouse displaying on leks gone.

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More mining impacts:

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A mine-gashed landscape as far as the eye can see.

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A new mine truck freeway.

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Both mining destruction and BLM treatments injure pinyon trees. Insects are drawn to the wounds. Insects then move outward, killing surrounding pinyon.

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Ancient forest destruction from mine activity looks identical to BLM chaining restoration projects.

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How much more will be destroyed?

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It helps to have a navigator drop in on trips to BLM’s planned ecocide zones.

 

Katie Fite is a biologist and Public Lands Director with WildLands Defense.

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