Sunday, September 15, 2019

Commissioners consider citizen soapbox on BLM’s Signal Peak

Seeking clarity on role of county as supporting agency 

by Toni Todd

The Bureau of Land Management’s open comment period for proposed trail enhancements at Signal Peak has come and gone, but Gunnison County commissioners continue to hear comments, most notably from those opposed to the plan. Commissioner John Messner addressed this ongoing comment barrage at the board’s June 6 meeting.

“What is the mechanism for having people comment to us as a cooperating agency?” Messner asked.

County manager Matthew Birnie said, “There is no mechanism,” since Signal Peak is BLM land and falls under their process. “What other input are we going to get that the BLM can’t or hasn’t already gotten?” he asked.

“There is heavy lobbying going on, even though the comment period is closed, from folks opposed to any type of trail development on Signal Peak,” said commissioner Jonathan Houck, who said he often finds himself going to the grocery for a quart of milk and ends up in discussion for an hour on the subject.

“It’s a public perception out there that it is our process,” said Messner.

“But it’s not,” said Birnie.

“If the BLM is not going to have a public process, then we should have a process so that the perception is not that we’re hiding something,” said Messner.

According to BLM realty specialist and NEPA coordinator Marnie Medina, the agency’s comment period for the Signal Peak trails proposal was 30 days, ending May 22. The Gunnison Trails proposal, she said, formed the basis of the BLM’s proposal for the area, but it had to be “tweaked,” Medina said, to account for wildlife and environmental considerations. Medina said the BLM is in the process now of reviewing comments.

Commissioner Phil Chamberland explained the federal agency’s approach. “Typically, they’ll come out with four choices, A through D, and open those back up for public comment before final implementation,” he said. One of those is always no action, Chamberland said; another is to implement the plan as originally proposed, with two compromise approaches in between. “The BLM could take no action, could accept the Gunnison Trails proposal, or they could take all the concerns about wildlife, game, sage grouse, etc. and incorporate those into their final decision,” said Chamberland.

While the BLM will take all concerns into account, Medina said it’s not assured that the A through D list will be offered up for further comment. She said that depends on the comments already received. Medina explained the BLM may simply make a decision based on the information they have.

“We have publicly come out and supported the Signal Peak plan, assuming other elements besides trails, like wildlife and sage grouse, would be incorporated into the discussion. What they want is for the board of county commissioners to send a letter to the BLM saying we think Signal Peak is the worst thing ever and we don’t support it,” said Houck.

“In my opinion,” said Messner, “it would be good to have a work session to give people a forum where they can share their opinions on Signal Peak. That would make me feel more comfortable. Is that going to generate anything different from what we’ve already heard? I doubt it. But it would give people a chance to understand the role that we’re playing and to comment.”

“I see what you’re driving at, John, and it makes sense,” said Chamberland.

Birnie cautioned that the public needed to be aware that the commissioners were not the final decision makers.

Medina said it’s common for people to misunderstand the roles of various agencies in these processes, and also for some to misunderstand the proposals themselves. “It’s incumbent upon us to make sure the proposal is clear,” Medina said, but hopes people will actually read it.

The comment period is closed, but Medina said anyone with a burning desire to speak their mind on a public lands issues may do so, at any time. “It’s just that they’re most useful if they come in on time,” Medina said, because it’s tougher to include them if reviewers are already halfway through the process of incorporating concerns into the final proposal. “But we always accept comments,” she said.

Commissioners agreed to schedule an opportunity for citizens to share their views on Signal Peak at an upcoming work session.

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