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County at odds with BLM plan that lacked public input

Changes could affect oil and gas leasing, travel management, grazing, water use and sage grouse habitat

By Katherine Nettles

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released a long-awaited proposed resource management plan (RMP) for the region on June 28, and unexpected changes to the final draft have caught Gunnison County commissioners off guard. The commissioners are now working on a protest of some policies in the report.

The BLM’s report came out of the agency’s Uncompahgre Field Office, and according to a press release issued from the BLM that day, the proposed plan updates and combines the 1985 San Juan/San Miguel and the 1989 Uncompahgre Basin RMP, guiding public land use on approximately 675,800 acres of BLM-managed surface lands and 971,220 acres of federal mineral estate in southwest Colorado. The plan includes elements of alternatives analyzed in the draft RMP/Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

The commissioners are objecting to apparent changes in policy alternatives that have lacked public comment, having been introduced only at the final stage of the review process. They plan to file this before the protest period ends on July 28.

Commissioner John Messner raised the subject of the policy changes at the regular commissioners meeting on July 2, stating that he had just finished studying the first volume of the BLM draft (approximately 650 pages) and had concerns about how changes could impact Gunnison County and adjacent counties.

As the report’s cover letter states, “The BLM prepared the Proposed RMP/EIS in consultation with cooperating agencies, taking into account public comments received during this planning effort. The Proposed RMP provides a framework for the future management direction and appropriate use of BLM- administered lands in Montrose, Ouray, Gunnison, Delta, San Miguel and Mesa counties, Colorado. The document contains both land-use planning decisions and implementation decisions to guide the BLM’s management of these public lands.” The letter is signed by state BLM director Jamie E. Connell.

Messner said he found the report to be “substantially different than the draft management resource plan that has been worked on over the past few years.” He said that during the last iteration, the agency-preferred alternative was “Alternative D,” “which I think was a pretty good compromise amongst the different public comments and stakeholders and alternatives. The BLM has, without public comment, created an ‘Alternative ‘E,’ which is now the new agency-preferred alternative,” he said. “That alternative is problematic, to say the least.”

“We all should pay attention and take some time to really understand what the ramifications are of that ‘Alternative E’ and make comments within that window,” said Messner.

“The differences aren’t just with oil and gas leasing. It also has to do with travel management, it has to do with grazing, it has to do with water use, it has to do with Gunnison sage grouse,” Messner noted.

Commissioner Roland Mason wondered about the reasoning behind the sudden changes.

While Messner speculated that these changes came from the Department of Interior in Washington D.C., county manager Matthew Birnie mentioned a High Country News article, “The Colorado Valley at stake in Trump’s oil boom” (July 19, 2018), about the federal agency, “which talks in very broad strokes,” about what the publication speculates are the reasons for this change—for example, the article warns of a Trump administration effort to expand the fossil fuel industry and “to open millions of acres across the West, all owned by taxpayers, to private oil and gas companies.”

Commissioner Jonathan Houck chimed in as well. “I think some federal policies are being laid way over community interests and community input—that’s the thing I struggle with, is that not representing any single [entity], whether it’s oil and gas or mining or recreation or grazing… there’s been for this plan a huge amount of robust public input from citizens, from local government, from industry. I share John’s kind of ‘eyes wide open’ approach… This came out of nowhere. It’s surprising. I’ve not seen any kind of plan come out of Interior [agriculture] like this, where it’s come through a draft plan, public comment, then just a massive curve ball,” he said.

“With a 30-day comment period for the final determination,” added Messner.

As far as the county’s response, Houck stated, “I think we’ve got to come out pretty strong.”

Messner said he thought the commissioners should be very specific, initially talking about the process, saying, “At the same time, there’s not everything that’s wrong with it. I think we have to dig into it, and … contain our comments to Gunnison County. There are some things in other counties that I think are horribly problematic, but are out of my purview.”

Houck cited “a significant lack of thoughtfulness in general BLM and federal policies around sage grouse habitat,” and said he finds the methods of Colorado Parks and Wildlife transporting these birds to other areas where their habitat is not being thoughtfully protected, to be a problem.

Messner also said there were issues in the North Fork, such as how to address oil and gas development plans, that had been “thrown out the window,” despite the review process having indicated “the value in what the North Fork brings as far as the highest concentration of organic farms in the state of Colorado, and the need to protect certain water qualities in that area.” Last, he mentioned wildlife protections that had been changed and were problematic.

The plan is to provide comments to both the Department of Interior and the state of Colorado, since it was Messner’s understanding that Colorado Governor Polis has standing to sign an executive order to approve or disapprove the final draft. “Considering that the Forest Service plan is going on, it affects so many other things,” Messner added.

Procedurally, county attorney Matthew Hoyt made it clear that this county response would not be a comment, but a protest based on where the draft process is. “I do understand this to be the final stage and we are in a protest period, not just at public comment,” Hoyt said.

Messner said he hadn’t been aware that the agency could put together an entirely different alternative; Hoyt said this isn’t unprecedented, but certainly not common.

The commissioners discussed taking different sections of the report and preparing their individual comments, which Hoyt said he could then put together. Messner said he has made it through only volume one of three, and Hoyt estimated that the entire report is anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 pages. Houck said he had taken only a preliminary look so far.

As noted, the period for “protest” is 30 days from release, or July 28. The BLM press release states, “Any person who participated in the planning process … and has an interest that is or may be adversely affected by the planning decisions, may protest approval of the planning decisions.”

The press release states that the plan is expected to contribute approximately $2.5 billion in total economic output to the region, supporting up to 950 jobs over the next 20 years.

“We listened and took the public’s valuable input into account, which will help us move forward in a way that balances use, resources and conservation,” said BLM Uncompahgre field manager Greg Larson. “This plan will continue BLM’s tradition of supporting the local economies while maintaining the quality of life and recreational opportunities we all enjoy.”

The report can be found at https://go.usa.gov/xnpgD, and instructions for filing a protest can be found at https://eplanning.blm.gov/epl-front-office/eplanning/planAndProjectSite.do?methodName=dispatchToPatternPage&currentPageId=86004

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