In southwestern Idaho, the Snake, Boise, Payette, and Weiser rivers course through mountains, desert, and brush—areas of widespread public lands that are popular among a wide range of outdoor enthusiasts. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oversees more than three-quarters of a million acres in the Four Rivers planning area, which is interspersed with private, state, and U.S. Forest Service lands.
The BLM recently released a draft plan with several options for how these lands and rivers should be managed for the next 20 to 30 years. Its preferred alternative—foreshadowing the direction the agency is likely to take in the final plan—walks back existing conservation management and would be a loss for the people who use these lands and the wildlife that lives there. Specifically, this option calls for eliminating existing protections on 18,720 acres, known as Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACECs). Among these is habitat for the long-billed curlew, even though the BLM identifies the bird as being in decline and warranting protection.
The region was shaped by glaciers, floods, and volcanic activity that left caves, lava tubes, and sagebrush steppe, which today feature forests of Ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, grand fir, and quaking aspens. Some 280 miles of perennial streams and rivers flow through BLM public lands there.
Here are some of the species that live in the Four Rivers planning area. Many could face significant threats if the BLM opens more of their habitat to development.
In developing its plan, BLM analyzed existing ACECs and Research Natural Areas (RNA), as well as ACECs newly nominated by BLM scientists and the public, to determine how to address key issues such as groundwater recharge, habitat for sensitive plants and animals, and management of spectacular scenery.
Unfortunately, in southwestern Idaho—as in BLM plans for other areas around the West—the agency’s preferred option in the draft plan would eliminate vital conservation elements. It would remove 13 existing ACECs and RNAs, opening the lands to off-highway vehicle use and potentially destructive grazing in several areas. Although the BLM’s preferred option would expand one ACEC significantly, it would cut another by about 60 percent. It also does not include designation of nine new ACECs that have been proposed, even though a BLM interdisciplinary team analyzed the nominations and found that all nine meet the criteria for ACEC designation. All in all, the proposal would remove protection from more than 18,000 acres of ACECs and RNAs.
And although the BLM itself found that 8,000 acres met the criteria for wilderness characteristics—natural areas with excellent opportunities for solitude or primitive, unconfined recreation—the agency’s preferred option includes none of those areas.
Ken Rait is a project director for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. public lands and rivers conservation program.
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