Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Gunnison Public Lands Initiative heads to Washington D.C.

County commissioners send letters to Sen. Bennet for support

By Katherine Nettles

After approximately eight years, a significant proposal that covers Gunnison County’s widely varied land uses is ready for legislative consideration. Gunnison County commissioners signed a letter to Colorado Senator Michael Bennet on Tuesday, August 4 endorsing the Gunnison Public Lands Initiative (GPLI).

In a second letter to Bennet, they also expressed their general support for and interest in legislation that holds oil and gas industries accountable for orphaned wells and ensures federal bonds can cover the costs of reclamation in those areas.

GPLI endorsement

The GPLI proposes what it suggests is a holistic plan for the Gunnison Valley’s future land management, including ways to protect and integrate the sometimes-competing needs of wildlife, ranching, various types of recreation and general development. The proposal recommends designating three new wilderness areas and additions totaling 83,984 acres within the county. It also recommends designating 23 Special Management Areas (SMAs) totaling 368,237 acres.

While there remain a few details in the document to iron out among local stakeholders, the idea is that Senator Bennet can begin his own vetting process to develop the bill at the legislative level, as he has previously indicated he would.

The letter states, “We are writing to you regarding the multi-year effort by the [GPLI] to reach balanced agreements and make recommendations on how best to manage key wildland areas in Gunnison County. After years of discussion and compromise, the proposal has received broad community support, and we respectfully request that your office craft legislation based on the group’s recommendations.”

The letter also recalls the history of Bennet’s involvement with the original concept of the GPLI. “In the summer of 2012, you came to Gunnison County to meet with citizens, advocacy groups, and local officials on the banks of the Slate River to discuss the future of our treasured public lands. You said at the time that if the community were to bring to you a well-vetted proposal based on dialogue and collaboration among numerous interests in the county, you would consider introducing legislation based on that in the Senate.”

In the time since, commissioners convened a working group consisting of motorized, mechanized, and quiet recreation interests, ranchers, conservation groups, water interests and wildlife advocates. “The group utilized a professional facilitator, and agreed to operate based on respect for all views, open dialogue, and compromise,” the letter notes.

In 2017, the working group released an initial set of recommendations, and held several public forums to gather feedback from citizens and interest groups. It then released a revised plan based on much of the input in January 2019, and county commissioners have since endorsed it.

“Throughout this process, Gunnison County participated in the discussions and provided needed information and community-wide perspective. The county did not take positions on individual areas, rather served as conveners and supporters of transparent, equitable, and productive dialogue,” the letter states.

“The working group believes this represents an appropriate balance to the protection and management of the natural, biological, recreational, scientific, agricultural and other values these lands offer in abundance. Several areas near the County boundaries remain under discussion, though the GPLI plans to resolve those in the near future. The County Commission believes that the proposal is ready for further action, and officially endorsed the recommendations in our July 29, 2019, comment on the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest Working Draft of Revised Land Management Plan,” reads the letter.

The letter concludes with a request “that your office begin drafting a bill reflecting the balanced approach and broad community support for the GPLI proposal. We recognize the ongoing challenges that exist related to the COVID-19 pandemic, but we believe that the protection of our public lands will be crucial to the well being of our community and our economic recovery in the months and years ahead. We stand ready to assist in any way as this process continues, and we look forward to continued partnership and dialogue.”

County commissioner Jonathan Houck has been involved in the process for many years and emphasized that new designations will not prohibit any activities currently happening. “Essentially, the things that exist on the landscape have not been compromised. Current uses will not go away. But it gives protections for those uses into the future,” he said.

Commissioner Liz Smith said she has had a full dive-in with GPLI project coordinator Maddie Rehn and feels comfortable with the level of compromise and collaboration the document represents between numerous interests.

Commissioner Roland Mason agreed. “The collaboration involved and particularly these special use areas really diversify our county. I think it’s about time we should get it going,” he said.

Rehn also spoke. “The working group has really put a lot of work into this…and some fine tuning is definitely ongoing and we are continuing the conversation… but the working group is excited and ready for that.”

Regarding oil and gas development

The commissioners also took an official position, in the form of a second letter to Senator Bennet, that any oil and gas developers should also have the responsibility to perform the reclamation work created by their extractive practices. “It’s not supporting any specific legislation, but the generalized idea that oil and gas development on public lands would require that,” according to Houck.

“While oil and gas development is an important part of our economy in western Colorado, its value is undercut when costs associated with cleaning up drilling sites are shifted to taxpayers and government agencies,” states the letter.

It refers to Government Accountability Office (GAO) documentation that the federal onshore oil and gas-bonding program does not provide adequate financial assurances to prevent orphaned wells from becoming a taxpayer liability.

It also refers to a recent state study on the need to address orphaned oil and gas wells, stating, “The current economic situation in the oil and gas industry is likely to increase the scope of the problem. We would like to see the current risks from orphaned wells addressed, but we cannot afford to keep adding to the root of the problem on federal lands by neglecting to address bonding reform.”

The letter supports legislation considering options to address needed remediation and reclamation of existing orphaned wells more broadly, and espouses the potential economic benefits these clean-up efforts can bring to rural communities.

“Gunnison County has invested heavily in protecting our highly valuable public lands from the impacts of oil and gas development, such as our work together to protect the Thompson Divide from new leasing through the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act. We are interested in ensuring oil and gas development that does occur is fully reclaimed in order to protect our public lands resources, such as wildlife and recreation, which contribute to our outdoor economy and sustain a healthy environment for Gunnison County residents,” the letter states.

The commissioners agreed unanimously to add their signatures to both letters.

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