Jamie Connell, a veteran land manager with a long history in Colorado, is returning to the state to direct the Bureau of Land Management as the agency grapples with a pending record oil-and-gas lease sale and a growing battle between conservation interests and energy interests.
As part of a BLM shuffling by the Interior Department, Connell moves from the head of the Oregon-Washington office to the top agency post in Colorado, where she spent a decade working for both the BLM and Forest Service in Silverthorne, Montrose and Glenwood Springs.
Conservationists are eager to see how Connell will manage the agency, which has garnered skepticism from Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and others as it pursues a largest-ever oil-and-gas sale spanning more than 224,000 acres in the state as part of the Trump administration’s “energy dominance” agenda.
“We are definitely watching this with trepidation. There’s a lot going on in Colorado,” said Nada Culver, the attorney who heads The Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center.
The Wilderness Society was among 10 conservation groups that sued the BLM in 2008 after Connell, then the head of the agency’s Northwest Colorado District, approved a long-studied plan for oil-and-gas drilling on the Roan Plateau, which spans 84 square miles. The lawsuit argued that the BLM did not weigh local community alternatives that lessened the environmental impact of the drilling.
A federal district judge in 2012 sided with the environmental groups. A 2015 compromise between the BLM, environmentalists and an energy company limited drilling on the Roan Plateau.
“We actually found our way to a better solution and got a new decision that reflected that kind of collaborative thinking,” Culver said. “We really hope that, this time around, (Connell) can see where we have gotten to since she was last here. Hopefully, we won’t have to go through all that again to have the Colorado BLM see a community vision. Maybe she can see that Colorado has the ability for the conservation community, sportsmen and the oil-and-gas industry to come together.”
Because neither the BLM nor Connell has given a statement yet, the agency has not officially announced her move to Colorado.
An email sent last week to Colorado BLM leadership from Brian Steed, the agency’s deputy director of policy and programs, and first reported by E&E News said Connell “brings with her a remarkable depth of experience relating to natural resources, particularly with energy development, budget and communications.”
Connell replaces acting state director Greg Shoop, who stepped in to replace outgoing state director Ruth Welsh in June 2017.
The state has not had a permanent director of the BLM since Welsh left for the Bureau of Reclamation. With the recent shuffle of BLM leaders, there are seven BLM offices directing 10 Western states that are helmed by interim directors.
In January, the Interior Department announced its most sweeping reorganization with a plan to divide the country into 13 regions based on watersheds and geography instead of individual state offices.
With so many state director offices unfilled, several agency watchers were surprised to see Colorado get a director. It seemed like the 13-region plan was unfolding and state offices were yielding to broader regional offices.
So now, there are more questions.
“What are the marching orders for state directors in the context of energy dominance and in the contest of regional leadership?” Culver said.
The Interior overhaul includes relocating headquarters of major agencies such as the BLM to the West. Colorado’s Washington D.C. delegation, spurred by the opportunity of hosting 300 BLM jobs, has lobbied hard for the BLM mothership, elevating Grand Junction as a particularly worthy home base.
Connell, who is set to arrive in Colorado “in the coming weeks,” according to Steed’s email, will oversee management of 8.3 million acres of federal land in Colorado.
“I certainly hope that Jamie will pursue that kind of balanced approach we saw during the (President Barack) Obama years,” said Mike Freeman, a lawyer with the conservation group Earthjustice. “But she is working for the Trump administration, and their mantra is extreme energy dominance. They are essentially sacrificing the public interest to pad the bottom line of oil and gas companies.”
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