The vast Sagebrush Sea in the Intermountain West is one of the least protected ecosystems in the United States. Less than five percent of the landscape receives some level of federal protection as wilderness areas, national parks, national wildlife refuges, national conservation areas, national monuments and similar designations. The lack of protection has contributed to an increasing number of imperiled species in the Sagebrush Sea, most notably the greater sage-grouse. To prevent sage-grouse and other imperiled species from further decline, more sagebrush reserves should be protected from development and other damaging uses.
The federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is the caretaker for half of remaining sage-grouse habitat. Public lands managed by BLM are governed by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) of 1976 (43 U.S.C. § 1701-1787). The law provides few substantive requirements for conservation, though one of them is the identification and designation of “Areas of Critical Environmental Concern” (ACEC) as part of the agency’s resource management planning process. The implementing regulation defines ACECs:
The term “areas of critical environmental concern” means areas within the public lands where special management attention is required (when such areas are developed or used or where no development is required) to protect and prevent irreparable damage to important historic, cultural, or scenic values, fish and wildlife resources or other natural systems or processes, or to protect life and safety from natural hazards. 43 C.F.R. § 1601.0-5(a).
During the resource management planning process, the agency is to “give priority to the designation and protection of areas of critical environmental concern.” 43 C.F.R. § 1601.0-5(a).
The BLM initiated the National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy in 2011 to update dozens of resource management plans with new measures to conserve sage-grouse on approximately 50 million acres of BLM land. Unfortunately, the draft plans released in 2013-2014 were wholly inadequate to conserve the species and must be improved to meet the purpose of the planning strategy. However, even if the agency adopts science-based management prescriptions to reduce harm to sage-grouse from development and other effects, we still need strongholds on the landscape that are proactively managed for sage-grouse conservation.
This is why designating ACECs in the sage-grouse planning process is so important. The BLM could create a system of sagebrush reserves with a mission of maintaining and restoring sagebrush habitat and all the species that depend on it, including more than 350 species of conservation concern. ACEC designation can also buy time to adopt and implement other, more durable forms of conservation protections.
A potential ACEC may only be designated if it meets “relevance” and “importance” criteria outlined in BLM regulations. Almost all of the draft plans determined that potential new sage-grouse ACECs met relevance and importance criteria for designation. The draft plan for Oregon, typical of the others, analyzed more than 4 million acres for protection as ACECs, finding that they contained relevant resources, including sage-grouse leks, seasonal habitats, and high quality sagebrush steppe, which are important because sage-grouse are a candidate species for listing and a high priority to the agency. The Northwest Colorado plan analyzed 926,800 acres for potential designation as ACECs and included a series of maps depicting the overlap between the potential ACECs and other important wildlife habitats in the state, including elk and mule deer winter concentration areas, streams with threatened or endangered fish, and suitable habitat for federally protected plants.
Unfortunately, and although the BLM presents a persuasive case for protecting new sagebrush reserves, the draft plans collectively would only designate a few small areas as new ACECs to conserve sage-grouse. The BLM appears to believe that, while new reserves could benefit the species, the proposed management schemes in the selected management alternatives should be sufficient to “protect the relevant and important values… independent of an ACEC designation” (Oregon 4-222).
The process used to analyze ACECs might have prevented planners from recommending additional areas for protection. Most of the draft plans limited their analyses to simply designating all priority habitat within their planning areas as sagebrush reserves (covering more than 44 million acres in the West). The plans did not consider alternative proposals to protect a biologically defined subset of priority habitat as ACECs. The BLM’s all or nothing approach produced a predictable result: planners determined in every case that designating such vast areas of priority habitat as sagebrush reserves was unwarranted and would prevent the BLM from managing for other multiple uses on the affected lands.
This is in stark contrast to other BLM plans that have designated substantial new ACECs for species conservation. The BLM land use plan for the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation determined that ACEC designation was important to conserve Gunnison sage-grouse—even in a national conservation area. In southeastern Oregon, BLM designated the Borax Lake Area of Critical Environmental Concern to help conserve the Borax Lake chub. Increased protections within the ACEC were a contributing factor in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recommendation to downlist the species from “endangered” to “threatened” in 2012. And the Las Vegas Field Office in Nevada has designated ten ACECs to protect wildlife habitat, six of which were allocated to safeguard designated critical habitat for federally listed threatened and endangered species, including the desert tortoise; southwestern willow flycatcher; woundfin and Virgin River chub in the Virgin River, and numerous others that occur in Ash Meadows. The desert tortoise ACECs protect 1,097 square miles (702,160 acres) of critical habitat as “desert tortoise ACEC reserves.”
ACEC designation is by no means a conservation panacea. Each ACEC is individually crafted – there are no core substantive requirements for how they are managed. They can also be modified, including de-designated, through future resource management plan amendments and revisions. And sometimes restrictions and management prescriptions that accompany designation are not monitored or enforced, leading to degradation of resources for which the areas were established to protect. Asked during the sage-grouse planning process to designate ACECs for sage-grouse conservation, BLM staff repeatedly claimed that the prescriptions they were developing for managing land use and development in grouse habitat would offer equivalent or even more protection than ACECs would provide.
But we contend ACEC designations do matter. They put a line on a map and a sign in the ground that says “this place is special and needs to be managed for conservation.” ACEC designation helps lay the groundwork for more durable forms of protection in the future. The BLM is authorized under existing law and policy to provide durable protection for lands and resources identified for conservation purposes and compensatory mitigation, including granting rights-of-way (43 U.S.C. §§ 1761(a)(4),(7)), securing easements (43 U.S.C. § 1732(b); 43 C.F.R. § 2920), and executing land withdrawals (43 U.S.C. § 1714(d)(1), § 1702(c)) under FLPMA. These actions, however, would benefit from an ACEC framework that outlines the values targeted for conservation and needed management criteria to preserve them.
The BLM should revisit its ACEC analyses for sage-grouse and consider designating a subset of priority habitat as sagebrush reserves in the records of decision for the final land use plans. A thorough analysis would support designating new ACECs, research natural areas, and similar administrative designations on public lands to conserve sage-grouse and other sagebrush-dependent species.