Federal land agency shoulders heavy criticism from all sides


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SALT LAKE CITY — The Bureau of Land Management in Utah is the 7-Eleven of controversy on public lands issues — criticized 24/7, no matter what kind of customer comes knocking.

While rural counties and Gov. Gary Herbert’s office worry that a new BLM rule gives too much voice to special interest groups too early in the land planning process, those groups were railing against the agency Wednesday over an upcoming sale of oil and gas leases.

Anti-fossil fuel groups such as Elders Rising and the Center for Biological Diversity staged a mock auction outside BLM headquarters in downtown Salt Lake City, criticizing the agency for “auctioning” off the climate. They reiterated their call to the Obama administration to end any new fossil fuel development in the United States and argued that the BLM caves in too often to industry.

Critics of the BLM Planning 2.0 rule, finalized last week, hope it is scrapped by the Trump administration, charging that it dramatically alters the agency’s approach to land-use planning.

Specifically, they assert it diminishes the role and importance of state and local governments’ participation in crafting resource management plans, allows landscape level plans that go beyond local BLM boundaries, and gives potential decision-making authority over local resources to Washington, D.C.

“Decisions are best made closest to the ground,” said Uintah County Commissioner Mike McKee. “The closer you can keep it to the ground, the better decisions there are. Frankly, I am hoping the rule will be overturned.”

The BLM, which manages 250 million acres of public land — the majority of which is in the western United States — stressed the intent of the new rule is to provide enhanced public access to the land-use planning process, increase efficiencies and be more responsive to changing conditions on public lands. The rule is the first time regulations on land-use planning have been updated in more than 30 years.

“Under the current system, it takes an average of eight years for the BLM to finish a land-use plan. Too often, by the time we’ve completed a plan, community priorities have evolved and conditions on the ground have changed as well,” said BLM Director Neil Kornze. “This update to our planning rule allows for a more streamlined process that also increases collaboration and transparency.”

The new rule allows the BLM to:

• Solicit input from the public and special interest groups in an additional “planning assessment” phase and to define planning area boundaries prior to any draft resource management plan being released. Previously, the public and special interest groups did not have the opportunity to weigh in on land management issues until after a draft plan was released.

• Punt local land-use decisions to the state BLM director, but provide for “other configurations when that makes sense.” Critics fear those “configurations” include BLM officials in far-removed Washington, D.C.

• Consider landscape level resource management plans and use “adaptive management” to guide future management decisions.

Herbert’s office released a statement expressing disappointment that local and state concerns did not bring about needed changes to the rule.

“We are disappointed but not surprised to see our recommendations to improve the rule went unheeded. As it stands, the 2.0 Planning rule still removes authority from local land managers,” the statement said.

“It pushes BLM decision-making even further away from those who best understand, appreciate and are affected by the unique and varied terrain of the West. We are hopeful this rule will be added to a growing list of items to be reconsidered by the new Congress and Trump administration.”

The rule drew praise from groups such as the National Wildlife Federation, whose public lands policy director Kate Zimmerman said the change brings much-needed improvements to the federal agency’s land-use planning procedures, including the landscape level approach to address natural resource conflicts “upfront.”

Uintah County Commissioner Bill Stringer, a former BLM assistant manager in Utah, said large resource management planning efforts were tried in the early 1990s in portions of Utah, but they proved to be problematic.

When the agency tried to carve out a massive plan for eastern Utah encompassing more than a half-dozen counties, the effort “collapsed under its own weight,” he said.

“The socio-economic issues that are important in Grand or San Juan counties are completely different than those that are in Uintah and Duchesne counties,” Stringer said.

A land-use plan that encompasses Uintah County, Sweetwater County in Wyoming, and Moffett and Mesa counties in Colorado doesn’t necessarily mean those counties will be at odds over differing political boundaries, but it doesn’t mean the land-use challenges will be the same either, he added.

“We may all be in the same neighborhood, but we don’t have the same issues,” he said.

Stringer said the fear is as planning areas become geographically larger and ignore political boundaries, local government becomes “subsumed” in the process.

“It made some sense to look at it that way, but it clearly did not work. We tried it once before, and now it is being resurrected,” he said.

While Stringer said it makes sense to look at airsheds and watersheds as a collective resource, a “monolithic” approach reduces the voice of the people involved, replacing it with federal agencies far removed.

“The one-size-fits-all starts to get pretty diluted,” he said.

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