BLM 'ecoregional assessments' aim to guide energy projects, improve wildlife management

Posted: Feb 27, 2013

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Colorado Plateau

The Bureau of Land Management today released the first in a series of in-depth ecological assessments that ultimately will cover more than half a million miles of public lands across the West in an effort to better protect sensitive wildlife habitat and guide energy development.

The first of seven "rapid ecoregional assessments" (REAs) covers more than 32,000 square miles of public land in the Colorado Plateau region that stretches across eastern Utah and western Colorado but also includes parts of Arizona and New Mexico.

The first REA was conducted by two contractors and included researchers with BLM, the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Park Service and others. It provides a wide-ranging assessment not only of current conditions in the plateau region but also of areas where habitat restoration efforts should be focused for maximum impact, as well as other spots where renewable energy, transmission lines and other development activity might be most suitable.

In addition to the four-state Colorado Plateau region, BLM plans to complete six more rapid ecoregional assessments by year's end, with the total effort covering 13 states and more than 500,000 square miles, said Mitch Snow, an agency spokesman in Washington, D.C. The effort drew praise both from environmentalists and the renewable energy industry.

The work, funded by American Recovery and Reinvestment Act dollars, does not involve new scientific studies. Rather, the government and private research teams reviewed existing data, studies and reports to compile the detailed assessments that are designed to take a broad look at large areas that share similar ecological characteristics.

Among the benefits is allowing federal and state land managers in neighboring states to plan coordinated strategies to address issues such as climate change and wildfires, and to "help us identify where the best opportunities exist for conserving or restoring key areas," Mike Pool, BLM's acting director, said today in a statement.

"Their large-scale approach is designed to help us identify patterns of environmental change that may not be evident when managing smaller land areas," Pool said.

The REAs contain no recommendations. But researchers in the Colorado Plateau assessment compiled dozens of maps that could be used to identify areas in the four-state region most susceptible to climate change impacts, or to track where invasive plant species like cheat grass are moving.

"With their specific focus on climate change and other related factors altering the landscape of the West, the REAs will help the BLM better focus its efforts to meet President Obama's call to 'act before it is too late,'" Pool said. "They offer the BLM a way to integrate its conservation, restoration and development programs in a cohesive manner as it works with its partners to maintain the health and prosperity of the public lands."

The seven total REAs planned this year are funded by a $2.8 million allocation in Recovery Act funds, Snow said.

The next six assessments, all of which have been under way for some time and can take 18 months to complete, include the Mojave Basin and Range, the Northwestern Plains, the Middle Rockies, and the Sonoran Desert in Southern California and southwest Arizona.

At least five other REAs covering regions in Alaska, Wyoming and other states are expected to be completed next year, Snow said.

The Colorado Plateau assessment area encompasses 16 separate BLM field offices, and the agency could use the data in the REA when revising individual resource management plans that govern land management in those field offices.

But the greatest benefit of the rapid assessments could be aiding resource managers in guiding the siting of large-scale transmission lines and renewable energy projects. Much of the area covered in the seven REAs this year is in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts in California, Nevada and Arizona that have been targeted by renewable energy developers.

Though the REAs are not designed to address specific renewables projects and, according to the BLM, are to be used as "informational tools, not decision documents," they can be used by land managers to highlight areas suitable for energy development.

"The solar industry is encouraged that BLM has released these regional assessments," said Katherine Gensler, director of government affairs for the Solar Energy Industries Association, an industry trade association.

"Many factors go into the decision about where to site a power plant, and making this information available to developers in one place is helpful," Gensler added. "Thoughtful, efficient permitting of solar power plants will help diversify our nation's energy sources and put people to work."

But the REAs can also be used to identify areas where development is not compatible.

Ileene Anderson, a Los Angeles-based biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the REAs could be a valuable tool.

"I think this 30,000-foot view that the Rapid Ecological Assessments provide is a step in the right direction -- a landscape-level snapshot in time of what's on the ground," Anderson said.

She said such an effort is long overdue.

"There is something to be said about treating large areas in the Western states the same way in gauging ecological parameters," she said. "BLM has over the years, as their mandate has changed, there really hasn't been an effort before on their part to coordinate and access the resources they're managing in a comprehensive or even a systematic way.

"In addition to having this snapshot of where we are right now, the REAs could also be used to look back years later at the cumulative impacts from all of these things, not only with energy development but climate change and other impacts," she said. "I think there's a real benefit to that."

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