With their proximity to Durango, one would think that Animas City Mountain, Perrins Peak and Horse Gulch are Durango city parks. After all, we access these trails via paved roads and run, hike and ride just minutes from town.
Animas City Mountain is mostly under the ownership of the Bureau of Land Management. The city of Durango has invested heavily in purchasing land and preserving Horse Gulch, and Perrins Peak is a state wildlife refuge bordering national forest lands. They are also partly owned by the BLM. Were it not for the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act signed into law in 2014 that withdrew these popular recreation lands from mineral development, the possibility existed that other uses, including gas and oil development, could have occurred, something unimaginable for an everyday user of these city park-like lands.
As residents, we are subject to forces of government greater than ourselves whereby federal agency staffers are required to make land management decisions on behalf of local and national interests that affect communities like ours. That has long been the tension over federal land management decisions, balancing competing interests and uses, and is what is before the Tres Rios Field Office this month with its decision to pursue, or not, a Master Leasing Plan for approximately 36,000 acres of BLM lands in western La Plata and eastern Montezuma County.
In 2010, then-Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar introduced such a plan to the BLM as a new planning tool that brings diverse stakeholders together to define and talk about a landscape and its uses to avoid conflicts before they start. There are more reasons to pursue a plan than not, most notably that Mesa Verde National Park – a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, city of Cortez, La Plata County, two dozen area businesses including Osprey Packs based in Cortez and 95 percent of 135 public comments received by the BLM favor a plan.
Opponents of such a plan, mostly the gas and oil industry, suggest that the BLM’s 2015 Resource Management Plan that covers 503,000 acres sufficiently protects the area’s values. Although there are some laws in place, proponents suggest more protections are needed that a Master Leasing Plan will provide to plan for and protect natural, cultural, agricultural, water and recreational values, up front, with all stakeholders agreed in advance.
In contrast to the certainty a MLP provides, a RMP’s guidance can be waived, amended and exempted. With 90 percent of the Tres Rios Field Office lands available for energy development, proponents are seeking a balance of uses to level the playing field for tourism and recreation. They are seeking the certainty that would come with an MLP that Phil’s World mountain bike area will not have gas wells, drill pads and roads next to it, and that Mesa Verde’s night sky will remain clear and view of the valley floor unimpaired.
The Master Leasing Plan would facilitate a community-based stakeholder driven conversation the alternative does not require to ensure the highest of protections. In the four other areas in Colorado and several in Utah, including Moab, where the BLM has pursued a Master Leasing Plan, the results for industry and other users has been favorable. Tres Rios BLM would do well to follow suit.