For nearly a decade, a group of farmers in the North Fork Valley joined with local tourism businesses and conservation groups to craft a resource management plan that could help the Bureau of Land Management shepherd the multiple uses of the valley’s public lands for the next 20 years.
More than 600 mining jobs disappeared in that decade of planning as the coal industry contracted and mines closed. Entrepreneurs in the lush communities around Paonia and Hotchkiss helped diversify the local economy from reliance on a single, extractive industry to an eclectic mix of organic agritourism and outdoor recreation.
The group’s North Fork Alternative Plan proposed energy development on 25% of the valley’s public lands, with increased protections for water and recreational attractions in the region.
“We put a lot of effort into negotiating with the BLM with what we thought was a pretty constructive way to share our values and how they should consider those values in managing the lands here,” said Mark Waltermire, whose Thistle Whistle farm is among 140 members in the North Fork’s Valley Organic Growers Association.
The final BLM plan for managing multiple uses on federal land in the Uncompahgre Plateau unveiled earlier this month did not limit oil and gas development in the North Fork Valley. And it did not weigh the state’s concerns over energy projects injuring wildlife, habitat and air quality. But as the first resource management plan released under the Trump Administration, it did represent the president’s pivot toward “energy dominance” by reducing regulations and greenlighting exponentially more coal mining.
“I feel betrayed by the system,” said Waltermire this week after spending the day fixing a tractor on his Delta County farm. “Most definitely this is a step backward. Really it’s even worse. We have lived with coal for 100 years and coal has proven to be compatible with the agriculture we practice here. But gas and the oil development is a different beast. It is a much more substantial threat to our economy, with increased traffic and the potential for spills. That could destroy our reputation that we have built for our valley. It could change everything.”
New plan reduces regulatory burden
Waltermire’s North Fork neighbors joined communities across the Western Slope to create a diverse list of values alongside oil, gas and coal industry interests to help develop a preferred alternative in the BLM’s Uncompahgre Field Office Resource Management Plan.
Last summer the BLM released a proposed final draft of the resource management plan and it expanded energy development across 675,800 acres of surface land and 971,220 acres of mineral estate in Montrose, Gunnison, Ouray, Mesa, Delta and San Miguel counties.
Earlier this month the agency released the final plan for managing the vast swath of the Western Slope, which is an update to the region’s 1989 RMP. Many of the wildlife, habitat and environment-focused objections to the Trump Administration’s “energy dominance” push to loosen regulations around domestic energy production — including those from Gov. Jared Polis, Colorado Parks & Wildlife, county commissioners, conservation groups and local residents — were dismissed.
As Colorado’s local BLM officials honed the preferred alternative — Alternative D — for the RMP last fall, the agency’s higher-ups crafted a new alternative. Alternative E identified energy and mineral development as key planning issues, and promoted access and a reduced regulatory burden alongside economic development as top priorities.
The BLM said the RMP would contribute $2.5 billion in economic activity into the region and support 950 jobs a year for the next 20 years.
The Alternative E plan:
- Increased coal available for leasing by 189%, to 371,250 acres from 144,790 acres.
- Added 13,020 acres to the region’s 840,440 acres open for mineral development.
- Removed more than 30,000 acres from development in areas previously identified for leasing.
- Cut acres the BLM could sell from 9,850 to 1,930.
- Added six special recreation management areas and three extensive recreation management areas, setting aside 186,920 acres for recreation management.
The final draft of the proposed RMP conflicted with new state laws protecting wildlife, recreation access and improving air quality, so Polis last year sent a letter to the BLM’s Colorado director expressing his concerns as part of a consistency review that makes sure the agency’s plan aligned with state policies.
Specifically the state wanted the agency to limit the density of development — including oil and gas facilities — to one structure for every square mile to help protect wildlife corridors. It also asked the agency to develop a comprehensive plan to protect and conserve the Gunnison sage grouse and its habitat. Polis noted that the BLM plan allowed an increase in greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas development that conflicted with last year’s House Bill 1261, which aims to cut those emissions by 90%. The BLM plan also conflicted with Senate Bill 181, which allows the state to consider public health and the environment when regulating oil and gas development.
The BLM’s final plan released this month did not include the state’s push for limiting the density of development or creating a region-wide wildlife and sage grouse conservation plan. But it did agree to protect 33,000 acres of riparian habitat from surface development and initiate a future statewide planning effort to study density on BLM land. The agency also agreed to coordinate with the state over potential development in sage grouse habitat.
“Our issue is that we worked on the preferred alternative, Alternative D and we sent that to Washington for approval. Alternative E was never contemplated and that’s what came back from D.C. We were not able to weigh in on that option,” said Department of Natural Resources director Dan Gibbs, who joined Polis in the only process available for commenting on the final proposal: a protest letter to the BLM over its proposed RMP.
Gibbs said he was happy the agency heard a portion of the state’s protests and the final decision included plans to work more closely with the state on a border-to-border plan for limiting development density.
“We still have concerns, but we feel strongly we were able to make this a better decision than it could have been,” he said.
The BLM’s state director Jamie Connell in October asked the agency’s headquarters for more time to weigh the final RMP, noting that the draft plan had drawn more than 52,000 comments during the 150-day comment period that began at the end of June.
In response to Polis’s letter, Connell in January said the BLM would work with the state to “support the objectives” of both House Bill 1261 and Senate Bill 181. The letter from Connell also said the BLM would work with the state locally on projects to limit the density of development in migration corridors.
“BLM Colorado is committed to continued coordination with the Department of Natural Resources and CPW to develop landscape-scale solutions to address threats to big game habitat,” Connell wrote.
The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility group uncovered a BLM document summarizing an October 2018 meeting where the agency’s Washington D.C. leaders told Uncompahgre Field Office managers that their preferred alternative “misses the mark” and was “not in line with the administration’s direction to decrease the regulatory burden and increase access.”
“Political appointees overriding the extensive cooperation and planning by their own experts is the exact opposite of the local decision making they profess to embrace,” Chandra Rosenthal, PEER’s Rocky Mountain director, wrote in a statement.
San Miguel County, for example, asked the BLM to expand areas of critical concerns in the San Miguel River watershed and remove those riparian areas from mineral leasing. The final plan reduced the size of those areas and kept them open for mineral leasing. Montrose County asked for some areas inside Camelback, Dry Creek and Roc Creek to be managed for wilderness protection, but the final plan did not set aside any land in the county for wilderness protection.
San Miguel County commissioner Hilary Cooper said that while the plan is slightly improved by the promise to work with Parks and Wildlife on a density-limiting plan, “it still feels like the BLM is not a willing partner in the management of our land.”
“It seems like what they are indicating is that the BLM is doing their own land management and the states are on their own to protect wildlife, just as long as they don’t do it on BLM land,” Cooper said. “The one real potential here is our field office, the Uncompahgre Field Office, has really good people who are really well-intended and are active, coordinating partners who value wildlife and value multi-use and want to find that balance. I look forward to working with them to implement this plan and hopefully the relationships at the UFO will help to better manage some of the bad parts of this plan.”
Colorado’s U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, also sent a letter to the BLM and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt last fall, urging the agency to “reengage with local stakeholders” before moving forward with its new Alternative E.
This month he blasted the plan as “completely inadequate.”
“Throughout the process, counties and local stakeholders recommended changes to the plan, but they were met with a lack of transparency and 11th hour changes from the BLM,” a statement from Bennet reads. “Rather than do the hard work to build consensus and balance interests, the Trump Administration’s energy dominance agenda in Washington overruled the concerns of Colorado counties.”
Gunnison County Commissioner Jonathan Houck shares Cooper’s concerns. His main issue, though, is the process and his county’s inability to comment on Alternative E after working nearly a decade on Alternative D.
“That in and of itself is really bad,” Houck said. “It doesn’t allow the continuity of a back and forth that planning requires. Their justification is they plucked elements from some of the different offerings … but it didn’t go back into a process of commenting and working through it. All we could do is protest it. And protest does not create an environment to make something better.”
Kathleen Sgamma with the Western Energy Alliance said the concerns over Alternative E are based on semantics. The new plan actually increases restrictions to protect wildlife and recreation on some acres and maintains the acreage set aside in the 1989 plan for oil and gas development, she said.
“The BLM adjusted the plan based on public comments and renamed it Alternative E. They always tweak a plan based on public comment,” Sgamma said. “If the government can’t make changes to the plan based on public comments, what is the reason for making a public comment?”
Jeff Schwartz has been tending the apple orchards at his Big B’s farm in Hotchkiss for 13 years. He’s spent the past two months of coronavirus lockdown building a campground for apple-picking visitors and mailing off crates of his juice and hard cider. He thinks oil and gas development in his valley would lead to more trucks on the valley’s two-lane roads.
But as a fruit farmer, he’s well acquainted with laboring through hard times. He saw the BLM plan drop earlier this month. It doesn’t align with the changing economy in the North Fork Valley, but he’s not worried.
“You see what happened today?” he said this week, after the price of a barrel of oil collapsed to below $0 for the first time as a stalled nation sits at home and oil stockpiles swell.
“That is really good news. I bet they are not going to look to develop new rigs for 10 years now,” Schwartz said. “We seem to have bought ourselves some time. Gas and oil are looking to survive right now. And if they look to fracking in our valley, they know we will fight them tooth and nail every step of the way. They don’t want that.
“And really, who knows what will happen in the future,” he said. “We will have a new administration in a year or four years and this whole thing could change. Either way, we are coming out the end of this solid and safe.”