Wednesday, October 16, 2019

County finalizing protest for BLM Resource Management Plan

Arguing NEPA violations, MOU violations, lack of comprehensive sage grouse protection

By Katherine Nettles

Gunnison County is set to deliver its formal protest of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) proposed Resource Management Plan and Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Uncompahgre Field Office in hopes of triggering a more thoughtful public process and rigorous analysis for the proposal.

The formal protest letter is to be finalized and submitted to the federal agency by the end of the week in advance of its deadline at the end of the month.

County commissioners first discussed their interest in protesting the BLM’s long-awaited proposal in its final draft on July 2, following the BLM’s release of the proposal on June 28, as reported in the Crested Butte News. They discussed their input more thoroughly with deputy county attorney Matthew Hoyt on Tuesday, July 23.

Having taken a few weeks to divide and read portions of the report among themselves, the commissioners weighed in more about the specifics of the letter Hoyt and county attorney David Baumgarten are drafting for them.

Although the BLM’s plan for three million acres within the Uncompahgre area includes only one corner of the Gunnison area (the North Fork Valley), the commissioners discussed that other areas within the plan would affect Gunnison County indirectly. The current plan was issued in 1989, and it is expected that the next version will also endure for 30 years or more.

The BLM produced a draft and provided four alternatives, all with substantial public input and feedback. Then in the last draft the report added a fifth alternative, and selected the new alternative as not only its preferred alternative, but as its selected alternative.

“So now the only way to comment is to protest,” reviewed Hoyt.

The county’s assessment, as commissioner John Messner described it, is that the BLM takes a position of having vetted its new alternative E because it has borrowed some elements from the other previous alternatives—A, B, C and D. “So they think they have shown these elements in other areas,” he said.

The county is making three arguments against the final draft. Hoyt said the first argument is, “the selection of an alternative without full public notice and full vetting is a violation of NEPA [the National Environmental Policy Act, a process that begins when a federal agency develops a proposal to take a major federal action]. This provides a basis to challenge the plan.”

Messner described the second argument. “It is also in direct violation of the MOU [memo of understanding] that the BLM signed with Gunnison County. That’s another important element of it,” he said.

Gunnison sage grouse management issues and their effect on the future of the species is the third reason to challenge the final draft, said Hoyt.

“Considering we have the lion’s share of the bird’s population, at 85 percent or so … actions that impact the recovery impact plan are going to impact us as well. So I think it’s important for us to use comments from Jim Cochran—our wildlife biologist—to make sure that we make that connection in a way that supports the overall health of the Gunnison sage grouse and the desired outcomes we have for the recovery plan with the Division of Wildlife,” said commissioner Jonathan Houck, referring to The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Messner said while previous drafts did not have these elements, the newest version has made unprecedented changes, “and that is the major problematic area of this, including the elimination of areas for the sage grouse that are of critical concern.”

Houck wanted to point out another aspect, a lack of sufficient overlap in certain goals between related agencies. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the BLM are part of the Department of the Interior, he noted, “But it sometimes seems like there’s a firewall between them … if both plans have significant impacts on future decisions, especially around the Gunnison sage grouse. And that agency responsible for the public land that this threatened species lives on, if they are not cross-walking those plans, that’s a problem. That’s a big problem,” he said.

Hoyt said probably because the two federal organizations are offering feedback between the agencies, it would appear that criticism is a little “softer” and more subtle.

“I feel like, if they’ve given us a plan that we have to say either we’re okay with it or not, then—probably not,” said Houck.

Hoyt pointed out, “Alternative E, the alternative plan that was not properly vetted, is arguably the most pro-oil and gas development of the selected alternatives.” He said there is an additional alternative (Alternative C) that is “even more pro oil and gas,” but that was not selected by the BLM. 

The commissioners considered that comments on how this Alternative E relates to watershed protection, wildlife and clean air act issues might also be appropriate.

Messner said one of the things he wants to make clear is that the RMP needs to acknowledge Senate Bill 19-181 “and in turn, local authorities on oil and gas permitting.” SB 19-181 states that the environment and public health and safety are a priority when considering oil and gas activity and gives local governments the power to regulate oil and gas activities within their land-use and planning authority.

“There is no mention or acknowledgement of the right of the state’s authority to permit oil and gas within our jurisdictions,” said Messner.

Commissioner Roland Mason also had concerns that mineral extraction is not addressed in any aspects of the plan. “There could be some new interests in mining,” he said of the future.

Messner said he believed the plan showed a bias toward the extracting industries.

“The other challenging part of this Alternative E and the significant change in this last draft is the skewing of the economic analysis as well. There is the inclusion of this county in the economic analysis, even though this county is not in the Uncompahgre field office. And the lack of utilization of sound data around the economic benefits of recreation on public lands and the skewing of the economic benefits of extracting industries, so that it’s trying to tell a story that is just inaccurate. Because there’s no question that there are benefits of extracting industries from an economic standpoint, and there are benefits of outdoor recreation from an economic standpoint. All I ask is that the analysis uses real data and real numbers to make it really a clear and balanced analysis. Which is not what occurred in this particular draft,” said Messner.

Hoyt said county attorney David Baumgarten has taken the lead on this, and would incorporate this input and other significant comments the commissioners sent to him by Thursday, July 25, in order to have 24 hours before submitting the final letter to the BLM.

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