Upon a SVIM
Well folks, I am going to talk about BLM's former "Soil Vegetation Inventory Method" (SVIM) and other things that go bump in the night.
But first, a little background going back most of a century.
Following passage of the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934 at about the height of the "Great Dust Bowl", the Mc Carren Holiday, the Reorganization Act, and other sundry happenings; the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) (aka Bureau of Livestock and Mining) decided in about the 1950's that it should figure out how much grazing it actually could allow on the public lands (then called the "public domain" since it was still assumed that those lands would eventually be homesteaded or otherwise disposed of).
Back then they knew that they couldn't get everything right immediately, that inventories are expensive, and that things change over time. So - their strategy was to inventory once to establish a baseline, monitor the results, and make needed adjustments as indicated by their monitoring (does anybody detect the "new" concept of "adaptive management" in this?).
Now the Dust Bowl experts in the form of the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) had developed the "Range Site" approach for inventorying rangelands thanks to the outstanding work of Dr. E. J. Dyksterhuis. The fledgling BLM looked at this approach, but found a few problems. (1) The methodology required quite a bit of knowledge about soils and their potentials, (2) it gave an objective estimate of condition, without directly quantifying cow chow very well, (3) it was expensive.
BLM decided against the Dyksterhuis approach as being too expensive. After all, they were going to monitor and adjust over time - so they needed something to cheaply give some numbers for initial allocation. Enter the Square Foot Density Method, the Ocular Reconnaissance Forage Survey, and the Weight Estimate Forage Survey,
BLM did LOTS of one-time inventories, one time after another time after another. They somehow never got around to a consistent follow-up monitoring program let alone making adjustments (does this ring a bell with West-side Forest Plan folks?), so they were always starting over with a new and different survey. .
Over the next couple of decades a few more statutes were enacted (many under Republican administrations incidentally): Multiple Use and Sustained Yield Act, National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, Federal Land Policy and Management Act, Public Rangeland Improvement Act, to name a few.
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) threw the first big bump in BLM's road, but they tried to make an end-run. Permitting domestic livestock on public lands was merely replacing the Bison, so no EIS was needed - they said!
That didn't play very well, and even BLM's top brass came to realize that it was dead on arrival. So, they went the "programmatic" EIS route and said that everything would be just fine if we did Allotment Management Plans (AMP's) on everything, not withstanding that AMP's had only been developed on a fraction of a percent of BLM administered lands (it is a small percentage even today).
Well, there were some folks who were not quite ready to shell out their cash for this swine in a sack - so they sued - and they won!
While the number changed over time due to various consolidations, BLM was faced with a Federal Court Order to do more than a hundred Grazing Environmental Impact Statements.
This is about where I came into the picture. I was working as a Range Con. (the "Con." is an abbreviation for conservationist or con artist, take your pick) on BLM's Prineville District in the mid 1970's. We were looking up waiting for that grand piano to fall on our heads (deadlines for EIS's) and getting about zip out of the front office in terms of guidance. The bottom line was that they did not know what in the hell to do and were waiting for EIS number 1 (Challis) to set the pattern for the rest of us to follow.
Being somewhat fond of our skins, and trusting the Washington Office about the square root of zero, we started scoping things out for ourselves in order to be prepared for when we would be expected to do the impossible yesterday.
Our bottom line was that, even if we were doing a good job of managing livestock to meet our statutory environmental goals (we thought), we had absolutely nothing to document or prove that fact!
Back to basics. What did we have and what was it capable of? How were we using it and what were the results? What could we have and how could we use it? What did we want?
Well, about three separate BLM offices came up with essentially the same approach pretty much simultaneously and independently: The use of soil surveys and SCS's Range Site methodology (what BLM had discarded as a possibility a couple of decades earlier) would provide objective information on natural potential and present condition.
By supplementing that information with a few things like
wildlife species life histories, susceptibility of soils/sites/condition classes
to erosion, and the like - and doing a bit of modeling - we could say:
Sounds a bit like "adaptive management", doesn't it? BLM's problem is not that adaptive management is a bad idea, it is just common sense after all. BLM's problem is that it HAS NEVER DONE ALL OF THE ESSENTIAL STEPS, and there is no credibility that it ever will!
Anyway, I digress. Back to SVIM!
The Challis EIS bombed, and the bigwigs tripped over themselves looking for a magic bullet. The only rays of hope that they found were some pretty rough-draft proposals from three district offices recommending some kind of adaptation of SCS's Range Site methodology as an ecological base to work from.
So - they directed the resource science teams in the then Denver Service Center (DSC) to use those proposals as a starting point and develop the ultimate inventory - and to do so by day before yesterday.
Along came SIM, slow moving SIM, dollar spending SIM - along came slow and not so lanky SIM. The Site Inventory Method (SIM) pulled together everything that anybody would ever want to know about everything. It pulled together gobs of generally acceptable studies under one undoable umbrella, and it failed to incorporate a meaningful basis for stratification, sampling, and classification of site potentials and plant communities.
Everybody revolted. A "management" task force was assembled, they were afforded the advice of a science advisory committee, and some of us on-the-ground peons gained indirect access through the science committee.
Based upon their recommendations, the DSC teams did their magic and unveiled the results at a meeting where we were told to "Sink or SVIM" (John Baker did have a way with words).
So was born the BLM's Soil Vegetation Inventory Method (SVIM). About $15 million per year was spent in the late 1970's and first couple of years of the 1980's to perform a baseline SVIM inventory on tens of millions of acres of BLM administered public lands. Computer programs and linear program models were developed and, during its hay-day, SVIM was the largest single application to ever run on BLM's mainframe computer.
We didn't have decent online access and database management programs then, and GIS was still a dream, so the results were batch-processed and printed out on paper reports - CASES OF REPORTS compiling and presenting the data in every form that anybody had been able to think of.
Then, something happened that regularly reoccurs during even numbered years divisible by four. It took them about a year and a half, but Jim Watt's crew in Interior EMBARGOED SVIM. Reports that were sitting on the loading dock ready for shipment to the Prineville District, for example, were shipped to Denver's landfill instead - and access to the data (particularly any that had any bearing on grazing capacities) was tightly censored with much of it not even available to the BLM districts that collected it!
BLM rewrote its regulations to prohibit basing grazing allocations on "one-time" inventories alone. SVIM was overhauled to eliminate the calculation of grazing capacities, among other things. A subset of the soil and vegetation methodology became the Ecological Site Inventory (ESI).
That is pretty much the story of "Once Upon a SVIM" except for a couple of addendums:
That's all folks, except to note that this little episode of purging the scientists and burning the books did not take place in Nazi Germany of the 1930's and 40's - it happened right here in the good old U. S. of A. just a score of years ago! Unfortunately, an encore appears to be in the offing.