BOISE, Idaho — The Bureau of Land Management has ordered the Idaho National Guard to stop building a tank crossing on a road in a national conservation area in the state until an environmental analysis is finished and the BLM decides whether to grant a permit.
A formal cease and desist letter was sent to the Idaho Military Division last month, stating that the construction project — which involves extensive digging and trenching on Simco Road — was a trespass on the BLM-managed Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey Conservation Area.
Both sides characterized the issue as the result of a rare misunderstanding in a long-standing positive relationship in the area that contains key habitat for eagles, falcons and hawks.
"The Guard is an active and positive partner with the BLM in their environmental stewardship of the Orchard Combat Training Center," BLM's Snake River Birds of Prey Manager Amanda Hoffman said in an email.
Idaho National Guard officials said they were working with Elmore County officials to upgrade part of Simco Road to make it strong enough to allow tanks and other heavy machinery to cross. The Guard obtained an Elmore County permit to construct the crossing, but Guard officials didn't seek approval from the BLM.
"It was not until after construction began that we learned that while the road belongs to Elmore County, it sits atop property administered by BLM and therefore requires their approval as well," the Idaho National Guard wrote in a prepared statement.
There are many different land uses and property managers and owners within the conservation area that experts say has the greatest concentration of nesting raptors in North America.
The Idaho National Guard uses several thousand acres as a training area, with one portion designated as a heavy force training area where tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles can maneuver and guardsmen can fire artillery.
The Guard also works to fight wildfires and restore the natural sage brush habitat in the area.
The Guard and BLM work together to keep training maneuvers to areas with fewer natural resources for wildlife, Maj. Chris Borders said.
The rehabilitation efforts have been so successful that the Guard now doesn't have enough space to train, Borders said.
The Guard is looking to migrate training to a nearby state-managed parcel leased from the Idaho Department of Lands that's within the conservation area. But to reach it, tanks will have to traverse more BLM-managed land and cross Simco Road.
The Idaho National Guard has applied for a right-of-way permit from the BLM, but that proposal must still undergo an environmental analysis and public comment period before land managers can decide whether or not to approve the permit.
In the meantime, the Guard has to restore Simco Road and the BLM land on the shoulders back to original condition.
The Snake River Birds of Prey Conservation Area includes about 760 square miles (1,223 square kilometers) along the Snake River and about 215 square miles (346 square kilometers) of that makes up the Orchard Training Area used by the Idaho National Guard.
The Guard has been using the training area since 1953, according to BLM documents.