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Thousands of lodgepole pine trees in the South San Juan Wilderness on Piedra Pass show the damage done in Colorado's forests by pine beetles. The wilderness area is a backdrop to the Rio Grande National Forest, where 600,000 acres of trees have been ravaged by spruce beetles. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Federal land managers are about to close the door on public input to decade-long resource management plans for sweeping swaths of public land in Colorado that now reflect the Trump Administration’s focus on boosting domestic energy production. 

That focus conflicts with new state laws aimed at protecting wildlife and improving air quality, which has united local and state leaders with conservation groups already deep in the fight against the administration’s growing list of scaled back environmental regulations, including methane emissions, water-quality standards and endangered-species protections.

“What we are seeing is the full effect — in proposed actions — of the 2016 election at the local level,” Ouray County Commissioner Ben Tisdel said.

The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management over the last several years have held hundreds of meetings, harvested thousands of comments and filled many more thousands of pages with research as the agencies created long-term Resource Management Plans — or RMPs — for more than 3 million acres of BLM lands in Eastern Colorado and the Uncompahgre Plateau and in the Rio Grande National Forest. That doesn’t include more than 4 million acres of underground mineral rights that allow for oil and gas drilling. 

The Trump-driven shift toward more oil and gas development on public lands worries Colorado politicians and conservation groups that are steering the state toward increased protections. Agencies within the same department seem in conflict. Long-studied plans are changing between between draft and final reports, with proposed protections fading away and opportunities for extraction growing.  

Earlier this month Gov. Jared Polis sent a letter to Colorado’s BLM director expressing concerns about the agency’s proposed Resource Management Plan for the Uncompahgre Field Office, which includes 675,800 acres of BLM land and 916,030 acres of mineral estate in Delta, Mesa, Montrose, Ouray and San Miguel counties. The long-range plan, he wrote, does not jibe with state laws and regulations protecting water resources, air quality, wildlife, big-game migration corridors, recreation and habitat. 

Dan Gibbs, director of the state Department of Natural Resources, in July weighed in with a protest letter arguing the Uncompahgre plan lacked protections for big-game wildlife corridors and the Gunnison sage grouse. 

The air quality and wildlife regulations are new. In August, Polis issued an executive order directing Colorado Parks and Wildlife to focus on identifying and protecting traditional migration corridors used by elk, mule deer, pronghorn antelope, mountain goats, bighorn sheep and moose. The order, which remains in effect until May 2023, asks CPW to identify policy and regulatory opportunities to better protect seasonal habitat and migration corridors. It also asks the Colorado Department of Transportation to consider wildlife passage in designs and improvements that could reduce collisions with animals on roads.

The BLM plan allows for a 27% increase in greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas development, which is inconsistent with new state laws, Polis wrote in his letter to Colorado’s BLM chief, Jamie Connell. These conflicts include House Bill 1261, which sets ambitious goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 90%, and Senate Bill 181, which directs the state to consider public health and the environment while regulating oil and gas development

Polis also noted that the Uncompahgre Field Office RMP did not address Colorado Parks and Wildlife plans and agreements protecting the threatened Gunnison sage grouse, cutthroat trout, prairie dogs and bighorn sheep. Nor did it acknowledge state big-game management plans and migration corridors. Polis urged the agency to weigh both his migration corridor executive order and the Department of the Interior’s Secretarial Order 3362, which seeks improved big-game habitat by limiting oil and gas development in big game winter range and migration corridors.

The resource management plan’s “failure to adopt commitments consistent with the state plans, policies and agreements hinders Colorado’s ability to meet its own goals and objectives for wildlife in the planning area,” Polis wrote. 

The BLM is listening and will “respond accordingly” to Polis and local county concerns over meeting state wildlife protections and greenhouse gas reduction goals, agency spokesman Jayson Barangan said. 

“There is room to adjust within the RMP, which has a built-in adaptive management strategy,” he said. “We are ready to respond as the state’s plans are complete.”

The Rio Grande National Forest’s Land and Resource Management Plan allows for oil and gas exploration in areas once considered for special protection for wildlife corridors. (Photo provided by National Wildlife Federation.)

State and federal agencies were collaborating

The BLM’s Colorado office, the Rocky Mountain Region of the Forest Service and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission in 2009 signed a deal to work together on planning, permitting and monitoring oil and gas operations on federal lands inside Colorado. That memorandum of understanding was set to expire in July, but the state and land managers extended the agreement to the end of 2019. 

Barangan said the BLM and Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission are negotiating another extension. “We are working towards an agreement we both can agree on.”

County commissioners from Gunnison, Ouray and San Miguel counties have filed protests with the BLM over the Uncompahgre Field Office’s proposed plan. The counties have been involved with the planning for eight years. In 2016, the counties submitted comments on the plan outlining concerns for the Gunnison sage grouse and listing parcels the agency should protect and retain as federal lands.

Earlier this year, when the Uncompahgre Field Office released its proposed RMP, the agency’s preferred alternative was not among the alternatives that were studied in the 2016 proposal.The agency said the new Alternative E “is a reasonable combination of objectives and actions from the four alternatives, (A, B, C and D) presented in the draft RMP.”

In the earlier draft RMP, the BLM’s preferred Alternative D set aside about 177,700 acres for protection. The agency’s proposed RMP cut that to zero acres.

“Alternative E proposed doing all the things we specifically asked them not to do,” said Tisdel, the Ouray County commissioner, adding that lands his county wanted protected were listed in the 2019 plan for possible disposal by the agency. “We thought we had a pretty good product in 2016 and now we have this new alternative, Alternative E, that goes way beyond anything we had seen before and is awful in ways we never thought of before.”

In Gunnison County, the commissioners pored over 3,000 pages of the proposed RMP and concluded that the Alternative E plan did not provide enough protection in areas the counties, the state and even the Interior Department’s own Fish and Wildlife Service had identified as critical habitat for Gunnison sage grouse. Without a chance to comment on the new alternative, Gunnison County, like San Miguel and Ouray counties, filed a formal protest.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the rare Gunnison sage grouse as a threatened species in November 2014, designating more than 1,500 square miles across Colorado and Utah as critical habitat. The ruling spurred the state and southern Colorado counties to craft special protections for the bird’s habitat to prevent further decline that could lead to an endangered species listing, which could curtail oil and gas, coal mining and recreation on public lands.

“At the community level, we bear the brunt of what these listings mean and we need partners on the federal side to not undermine our efforts to protect this habitat,” said Gunnison County Commissioner Jonathan Houck, who said the Alternative E proposed for the Uncompahgre RMP “did not offer significant protections,” like time-sensitive activity near breeding grounds and reducing disturbances near and in habitat, as required by the Fish and Wildlife Service.   

“With both Fish and Wildlife Service and the BLM under the Interior Department, you would expect some coordination, or at least reflection, on the needs for these species,” Houck said. “We do support multiple use. We have coal and oil and gas, and we have recreation and skiing and sporting interests. But multiple use means multiple balance. This administration has a new priority — they call it energy dominance or energy renaissance — but we can’t be left holding the bag when one agency’s clear directive undermines another agency’s equally clear mission.”

Considering climate science in forest management

The Rio Grande National Forest in August released the final review of its revised RMP, which was last updated in 1996. The 500-page final review of the management plan for the 1.83 million-acre forest adopted new policies under the National Forest’s 2012 Planning Rule. That rule emphasizes public participation in the planning process, new science surrounding climate change and the role of that science in forest management.

The Rio Grande held more than 50 public meetings in 2016 to discuss how management of the forest, which includes more than 600,000 acres of spruce beetle infestation, will impact local communities. The revised 2017 plan, which will guide the forest for as long as the next 15 years, prioritized watersheds and wildlife areas for protection and set aside areas for logging and fire management. The final plan released this year dropped some of those watershed and wildlife protections.

The Upper Rio Grande region reaches into New Mexico’s Carson and Santa Fe national forests, both of which are drafting new forest plans that include protections that allow wildlife such as bighorn sheep to roam. The 2017 draft plan for the Rio Grande National Forest identified two special interest areas to help protect wildlife migration: the 36,620-acre Spruce Hole / Osier / Toltec region that connects with the San Antonio Wilderness Study Area in Carson National Forest, and the 17,780-acre Chama Basin around the headwaters of the Chama River. 

The final draft of the Rio Grande forest management plan dropped special designation for those two areas. The final review noted that in those two areas “oil and gas leasing would occur at the discretion of the responsible official.”

The move from that September 2017 Draft Environmental Impact Statement to the final version released in August has riled conservationists and sportsmen. Goals established for air quality, designated trails, fisheries management, fire management, wildlife connectivity and habitat were scaled back in between the draft and final versions. That is troubling to advocates of wildlife corridors and undisturbed connectivity between forests. 

“The planners had an opportunity to protect some of the most rich and diverse habitat in North America and failed to do so,” Jeremy Romero, regional connectivity coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation, said in a statement critical of the Forest Service’s final review of its  management plan. 

The Rio Grande National Forest’s Land and Resource Management Plan allows for oil and gas exploration in areas once considered for special protection for wildlife corridors connecting with forests in New Mexico. (Photo provided by National Wildlife Federation.)

Fewer than 2,000 wilderness acres protected in Eastern Colorado

The BLM’s Royal Gorge Field Office has spent the last five years working on a long-term Eastern Colorado Resource Management Plan, which would combine two RMPs last updated in 1986 and 1996. The agency released its draft EIS of the management plan in June and collected comments through Sept. 20.

The Eastern Colorado RMP region spans 658,200 surface acres and more than 3.3 million acres of mineral estate managed by the BLM’s Royal Gorge Field Office. In 2017, the agency identified about 190,000 acres as “Lands With Wilderness Characteristics” that could be designated for additional protection that might limit oil and gas development. The 2019 plan calls for protection of fewer than 2,000 acres. The plan also reduces the acreage nominated for protection as “Areas of Critical Environmental Concern,” which are areas with significant historic, cultural, scenic values or wildlife resources. 

The final draft of the RMP declined to designate several areas — including four zones of the Arkansas River corridor, lesser prairie chicken terrain on the Eastern Plains, Reinecker Ridge and Thompson Mountain — as areas of critical environmental concern, but did protect 46,300 acres under that designation. The decision leaves areas including Badger Creek, Bear Mountain, Cooper Mountain, Cucharas Canyon, Echo Canyon, Eightmile Mountain and Red Canyon open to oil and gas development. 

In measuring the social and economic impact of the Eastern Colorado RMP, the agency’s preferred option created the largest economic boost from recreation, livestock and extractive industry, noting the option’s “highest potential to increase market values associated with oil and gas development.”

Governor was late to the game

Kathleen Sgamma, the president of the Western Energy Alliance, said any conflict between federal land managers and the state over oil and gas leasing lies squarely at the feet of Gov. Jared Polis.

“We have an administration that is pretty hostile to the industry. That is clear,” Sgamma said. 

Sgamma, whose team has been closely watching the Uncompahgre Field Office RMP, points out that the current long-range management plans being finalized by the Forest Service and BLM in Colorado began under the administrations of both Gov. John Hickenlooper and Pres. Barack Obama. 

“I like how Gov. Polis issues an executive order after a plan has come out — a plan that was developed over a long period of time — and then criticizes the plan for not following his executive order,” Sgamma said. “This is a strategy of delay. They are hoping for a change in the administration. But when a plan is finalized, it does not have to wait for new things to come out. When a plan comes out, it is based on the best available information that was in place at the time. It doesn’t get a complete do-over just because something new happens, like Gov. Polis issues a new order.”

Sgamma said any development under these new plans will require review by Colorado and consultation by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. 

“That is part of the process. It’s part of the requirement to get a permit,” she said. “Even on federal lands, you still need to get a state permit.”

RockyMounts, a bike rack maker planning a move from Boulder to Grand Junction, is part of the Colorado Outdoor Business Alliance, a program of Conservation Colorado that has gathered state businesses to advocate for conservation and access to public lands. The group’s members have been vocal in prodding Colorado residents to contact the Forest Service and BLM and express concerns over scaled back conservation in management plans. 

“Conservation is not just important to us as a business. This is in line with why we are moving to the Western Slope in the first place,” RockyMounts marketing director Joey Early said. “We are looking for a community that is open to protecting and preserving these public lands, not just for outdoor recreation but for wildlife and future generations. It’s about protecting something that sustains us not as a business, but as a community.”

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, two teenage girls and a dog named Gravy. He writes The Outsider, a weekly newsletter covering the outdoors industry from the inside out. Topic expertise: Western Slope, public lands, outdoors,...