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Are Federal Agencies Using COVID-19 To Attack Federal Lands?

Conservation groups like the Western Watersheds Project and the Center for Biological Diversity are accusing federal agencies like the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management of attacking public lands, using COVID-19 as a smokescreen.
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.

A Center for Western Priorities study 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, the executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, said Interior released the Great Basin Fuel Breaks Project last week. According to Molvar, the project would destroy thousands of acres of sage grouse habitat in Utah and do little to control wildfires.

“The reality is that during extreme fire weather, these fuel breaks don't mean anything,” he said. “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 believes the real purpose of clearing the land is to provide more acres for ranchers to graze their livestock. 

Robin Silver, with the Center for Biological Diversity, said 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. 

“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 said. “So, there's all this other stuff going on under the cover of COVID."

Federal officials say they are following all applicable notification and public-comment rules in issuing the new regulations, but Molvar said 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."

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