The new management plans for the public lands of Southwest Colorado are finally complete. There are two plans, one covers the Tres Rios Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management, the other the San Juan National Forest. They replace plans last updated in 1985 and 1983, respectively.
The plans will guide the management of lands in 11 counties that cover 3 million acres. While perhaps exciting only to public-land nerds like me, the impact of these plans will affect virtually everyone who lives, works or even visits the area.
Clearly, the region is not the same as it was in the early 1980s: There are a lot more people living and visiting here; the growth in such things as mountain biking and backcountry skiing has been tremendous; our understanding of climate change and how it may affect the snowpack and pests such as pine-bark beetles has increased; and the ability of the gas and oil industry to extract resources from shale and other rock formations has been revolutionized. The management plans reflect most of these changes, though unfortunately ignore some.
Some of the positive parts of the plans include:
A recognition of the region’s wonderful rivers and streams, with the finding that many are either eligible or suitable for Wild and Scenic River status. While this is controversial for some people, this component of the draft plans spurred several collaborative stakeholder processes that are underway in the region.
Advances in how the BLM will reduce the loss of methane (natural gas) during the drilling and fracking of wells.
Increases in the areas recommended for wilderness by the San Juan National Forest.
Overall positive steps toward protecting wildlife habitat.
Some of the parts that are greatly disappointing include:
Of all the lands that could be leased for gas and oil development, the agencies only made 6 percent not available. That means drilling may occur on Missionary Ridge, most of the forest lands around Pagosa Springs, most of the upper Piedra Basin, Beaver Meadows, and all the lands from Mancos to Dolores and on up to Disappointment and Big Gypsum valleys. This is not a balanced plan, this is not multiple use, this is favoring gas and oil development over all other uses of more than 2 million acres of land.
The air-quality and climate impacts, water-use and water-pollution impacts, and other cumulative effects of all the gas and oil development in the San Juan Basin remain poorly recognized and dealt with. The plans seem to have been written without the recognition that the areas in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, which surround us, also have energy development and add to air-quality degradation.
The BLM totally failed to use one of the best tools it has to lessen the negative effects of gas and oil development on local economies, wildlife, private lands, and water and air, when it chose to not proceed with using master-leasing plans. This would not stop development, but simply manage it more wisely. The BLM chose to follow the path of greater resistance and increased environmental damage instead.
Then there are the parts – that even after an official process lasting 13 years – that were left unfinished. This includes travel-management planning for BLM lands, meaning some of the most important and controversial decisions are yet to be made. In addition, the BLM almost totally neglected to analyze areas for ACEC designation. ACEC stands for areas of critical environmental concern, which can protect archaeological, ecological, wildlife or other unique resources.
While it is hard to make any single statement about a multi-hundred page document that covers almost all aspects of managing 3 million acres, there is unfortunately one part that stands out.
The San Juan National Forest and Tres Rios BLM have prioritized gas and oil development over all other uses of our public lands. This is not reflective of the diverse importance of these lands to our region. This privatization contradicts many of the beneficial components of the management plans.
The San Juan National Forest and BLM have peered into the future. Some of it looks good, but a lot of it looks like a drill rig.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Dan Randolph is executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.