Mike Coronella
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance joined by Wild Utah Project are arguing against a pinyon juniper tree removal project in Utah's Great Basin region, arguing that federal land managers failed to follow environmental laws on the impacts.

SALT LAKE CITY — Environmental groups are opposing efforts to remove pinyon-juniper in Utah's Hamblin Valley, arguing their mechanical destruction would vaporize trees that are centuries-old.

The Bureau of Land Management projects involving 192,000 acres in the Great Basin are designed to boost rangeland health of imperiled greater sage grouse, wildlife and wild horses and burros.

But the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance said the federal agency failed to take a "hard look" at the impacts of chaining or using techniques like a bull-hog, a mastication machine that uproots and mulches trees. Wild Utah Project also opposed the BLM's tree-clearing efforts by providing a scientific analysis of impacts.

A federal court hearing was held on the matter Friday.

The BLM approved a general plan of pinyon-juniper tree removal in a 2014 environmental assessment, which was not opposed by SUWA at the time. The analysis found there would be no "significant impact" from using mechanical means to clear pinyon-juniper.

Attacking pinyon-juniper density in the West is a practice adopted by not only the BLM but multiple states and conservation organizations to boost populations of greater sage grouse and other wildlife and to improve the health of vegetation like sage brush and grasses.

Conifer encroachment, according to a study by The Nature Conservancy, the University of Idaho and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, can have signficant impacts on sage grouse.

The study found that sage grouse breeding does not occur where pinyon-juniper occupies more than 4 percent of the land area. Wildlife biologists say the trees give a perch to birds of prey, which lead the sage grouse to instinctively avoid the areas.

Steve Bloch, attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said the BLM failed to follow environmental law by not evaluating site-specific impacts of the tree clearing.

Rather, he argued in a federal court hearing Friday, the BLM took a "30,000-foot view" with its analysis and didn't consider specific geographic areas.

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He compared it to proposing to "chain" or do tree removal of Holladay, which would have far different effects than elsewhere.

Bloch also pointed out the trees subject to removal are one, two or possibly even three centuries old with inherent value — like 100-year old rose bushes.

Judge Jill Parrish scrutinized his arguments, asking if the same "irreparable harm" would apply if a patch of noxious weeds were removed that had completely taken over an area of land.

"I don't think you could."

SUWA had sought an injunction against the tree clearing project, which Parrish denied Friday.