It appears the Bureau of Land Management’s Southwest Resource Advisory Council is back, this time with a new look after being overhauled by the Trump administration.
The Southwest RAC is a citizen group that provides recommendations to the BLM on the management of public lands and resources in the region.
The RAC is comprised of 15 members who represent a cross-section of interests, including grazing, outdoor recreation, energy development, off-highway vehicle users and environmental groups.
The aim, according to the BLM’s website, is to “operate on the principle of collaborative decision-making and work to reach consensus before making official recommendations.”
But in early 2017, under the new direction of incoming Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke, the more than 30 RACs and BLM advisory groups across the country were suspended as the new administration reviewed their purpose.
In March, Zinke renewed the RACs, albeit with new charters that reflect the Trump administration’s political goals.
Since, the changes have been met with skepticism.
“I have always viewed RACs as being comprised of members of varying backgrounds, and RACs as a body being somewhat non-political,” Dan Morse, a member of the Southeast Oregon RAC that represents environmental concerns, told E&E News at the time. “And this change in the charter gives the RACs a set of work that has a bias.”
Here in Colorado, the Southwest RAC has been influential on a number of BLM decisions.
One of the most highly publicized issues was whether the BLM should conduct a master leasing plan, a more in-depth analysis of where future oil and gas development makes sense in Southwest Colorado.
The Southwest RAC, split on the issue, ultimately offered no recommendation to the BLM, though the group served as a conduit for local input.
“If you look at the representation, it’s all built around diversity, which makes the RAC a valuable conversation,” said Jimbo Buickerood, who works for San Juan Citizens Alliance and represents environmental issues on the panel.
“Frankly, it sets a positive tone for how you find solutions on public lands.”
Christi Zeller, executive director of the oil and gas trade organization Energy Council, said the RAC’s varied membership helps guide the BLM, which is mandated for multi-uses on its lands.
“Everyone comes with a piece of experience,” said Zeller, who represents “public at-large” interests on the Southwest RAC.
Lori Buck, mayor of Fruita and member of the Southwest RAC, said the panels help make sure the BLM’s public lands are used in a way that coalesces with what people who live in the area want.
“It’s just really important to get that local input,” she said. “We all have our little niches, and I hope we would work together for each community.”
The Southwest RAC’s last meeting was March 2017. The group was supposed to meet in October, but BLM staff was unable to get the meeting listed in the Federal Register in time, said BLM spokesman Steven Hall.
It is likely the Southwest RAC will meet sometime this winter, Hall said.
“Hopefully, we can get back into a regular meeting schedule,” he said. “They’ve been very, very important here in Colorado to engage the public in public lands issues.”
The new charter issued by the Interior Department under Zinke, however, has some concerned on how the Southwest RAC will look moving forward.
“It reads a little more like a loyalty oath,” Buickerood said. “I’m waiting and seeing ... to see how this is going to unfold.”
The new charters task RACs with identifying “additional steps to enhance exploration and development of federal onshore oil and gas resources and federal solid mineral resources.”
And, it mandates RACs to develop “an effective strategy to address permitting applications efficiently and effectively as well as develop clear actionable goals for reducing the permit processing time.”
The new charter also directs the RAC to find regulations to repeal that “eliminate jobs or inhibit job creation” or that “impose costs that exceed benefits.”
Scott Branden, a public lands advocate and member of the Rocky Mountain RAC, also told E&E News that the panels’ previous purpose was to advise the BLM on broad issues on management and fee proposals, not administering presidential orders.
“To have the charter injected with highly controversial Trump administration priorities, telling us instead of representing our communities ... we need to help implement the priorities of this administration, which in many cases run counter to the communities covered within the RAC, is something we are very concerned about,” Branden said.