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September 12, 2023

Terrestrial wildlife, protected birds and impacts of energy development were among the topics analyzed for land management decisions.

Fort Collins, Colo. —  A study of Environmental Assessments completed by the Bureau of Land Management in Colorado identified the types and topics of science that may be needed to inform decisions on federal public lands. This collaborative study was conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey, BLM and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service. 

Federal agencies are committed to grounding their decisions in the best available science to manage public lands wisely and efficiently. To better understand how managers are currently using science and identify priority topics, the interagency team examined 70 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analyses conducted by the BLM in Colorado. The study brought together scientists and resource managers with more than 60 years of collective experience in public land management. 

They found that the BLM, which manages the largest area of public lands in the U.S., most commonly considers proposals for oil and gas development, livestock grazing, land transactions (including rights-of-way for energy transmission and renewable energy projects), and recreation. Resources for which there is frequently concern when those actions are proposed include big game species such as deer and elk, protected birds, vegetation, and soils. 

“This work will result in new and improved actionable science and data that land managers are looking for as they make decisions about management of our public lands,” said Steve Hanser, Deputy Director of the USGS Fort Collins Science Center, where the study was conducted. 

The study highlighted a need for research that better aligns with these priority topics, especially developing clear methods for quantifying environmental impacts and field-testing mitigation actions for effectiveness. Developing methods and models to better understand and predict cumulative effects of different proposed actions over time could help advance landscape level management of public lands and resources.  

To address this gap, the researchers propose a new framework that can help scientists plan studies that are most relevant to the needs of land management agencies like the BLM. 

They identify four types of science information that are key for informing public lands decisions, the “Four Pillars”: 1) quality data about resources of concern, 2) scientific studies about the likelihood that actions proposed on public lands will impact those resources, 3) methods and models for quantifying impacts of a proposed action, and 4) information about effective actions that can mitigate any negative impacts. These four pillars correspond to the types of science information managers most need to complete different parts of an environmental impacts analysis. 

The authors are optimistic that these findings can help researchers see their work in a new light – through a lens of public lands decision-making – and consider how their own research could help fill key knowledge gaps to strengthen the science foundation for public lands decision-making. 

For example, scientists often focus on the first two pillars and may not be aware of the considerable need for methods and models to quantify potential impacts of proposed actions and for field-tested mitigation actions. 

"Federal management and science agencies working together to identify and provide land management agencies with more of the specific types and topics of science that land managers need to inform their decisions can help strengthen the use of science across government," said Karen Prentice, BLM’s National Science Advisor

The study was published in the journal Frontiers of Ecology and the Environment and is available here.  


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