Representatives from the Bureau of Land Management in central Colorado spoke to a packed room Monday in a Q&A session hosted by the League of Women Voters.
Kalem Lenard, the assistant field manager for renewable resources for the BLM’s Royal Gorge field office, which is headquartered in Cañon City and covers Chaffee County and eastern Colorado, and Joe Vieira, the Browns Canyon National Monument project manager, did not come to the meeting at Sangre de Cristo Electric Corporation with an agenda.
They had a list of questions given to them ahead of time by organizer Karen Dils, and then many more from members of the audience.
The discussion centered on the BLM and U.S. Forest Service’s ongoing process of revising the recreation management plan for Browns Canyon National Monument, as well as questions of how the policies of the Trump Administration impacts how the federal agency operates in this state.
The RMP, an update to the plan that has been in place since 1996, is a steering document that guides land managers for the monument in how the community wants it to utilize the land.
Vieira spoke about the recreation management plan, as he has at several meetings in Chaffee County, seeking public input for crafting the document. The BLM and Forest Service, who jointly manage Browns Canyon, intend to have the new document finalized in June 2020.
Public comment on the plan will be open until Jan. 2, 2020.
Once the proposed RMP is released next year, a public review and protest period will be open from April to May. The proposal will also be sent to the governor of Colorado for review.
Vieira said that options for how the plan could be modified have been presented to the public in three alternatives, although the final composition of the new RMP to be passed next summer will more realistically be a combination of elements from each.
Alternative A is simply to do nothing – to keep the 1996 plan as it stands.
Alternative B focuses on conservation, maintaining present recreation opportunities in the monument, but strictly limiting further development of that use.
Alternative C, which Vieira said was the Forest Service’s preferred alternative after an initial round of public comment that opened this summer, would open up the monument for more recreational use.
“We had an open public scoping period from May of 2019 to end June,” Vieira told the LWV group. The agency received comments on “management actions that people wanted to see or didn’t want to see, allowances that people wanted or did not want. We’re trying to revise those preliminary alternatives.”
The revised document based on the first round of public scoping was released in October.
It can be read at the project’s e-planning website, as well as in hard copy at the public libraries in Buena Vista and Salida, at the Salida Ranger District and at the BLM Royal Gorge field office in Cañon City. Vieira also left a copy with the League of Women Voters.
“I’m pleased with where we are,” Vieira said. “We’ve got 42 comments through e-planning today … we’re in the comment analysis period right now, so we’ve got 42 very well-reasoned comments that we’re analyzing what they’re saying, what their preferences are, why, what’s the reasoning, what new information and data are they putting forward?
“We want more handicap-compliant trails, we don’t want any more trails. We want to have a bridge across the river, we absolutely don’t want a bridge across the river,” Vieira said. “What we have to do is establish alternatives to analyze the effects, the direct effects, here and now, the indirect effects, what can happen later or somewhere else and then the cumulative effects, what we call past, present and reasonably forseeable things that are going to happen over time in Chaffee County.”
Vieira disputed a claim put forward by a press release from Friends of Browns Canyon advocating public comment published in The Times in September which said that the proposed RMP would open up nearly all of the monument to mining, oil and gas extraction, new roads and other types of development.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Diane Alexander of the story. “Was that just a joke or what?”
“I’m not familiar with that …, but all minerals were withdrawn from the National Monument as part of Proclamation 9232 (The presidential proclamation made by Barack Obama in 2015 which created the monument),” Vieira said. “So the minerals were withdrawn, there’s no oil and gas leasing allowed in Browns Canyon National Monument.”
Being members of a politically active group, many in the audience asked questions about the policies of the current president, whose administration is notorious among conservationists for regularly rolling back environmental protection policies put in place during previous administrations.
“All of the federal agencies, they have what we call our ‘organic act,’ the act that started (the agency). The BLM’s is the Federal Land Policy Act of 1976, and it spells out what the law is,” Lenard said. “For BLM, it’s very explicit, incredibly explicit, that we are a multi-use agency. We are not a conservation agency, we’re not an extractive agency. We’re a multiple use agency, and that means we do all of the above. We do everything from mountain biking to oil and gas leases to gravel quarries to range management. We do it all, and that is the mission of our agency. That’s all the stuff that these (Recreation Management Plans) try to address.”
Lenard said that “Browns Canyon is a national monument, it’s a presidential proclamation. Bears Ears, that’s also a presidential proclamation. It’s contentious. The previous administration made a proclamation for a very large area, the current administration says it’s too big.
“It’s BLM land, and the BLM is going to follow the mandates that were set forth by Congress and by the president,” he said. “They’re contemplating redoing their management plan for Bears Ears right now, so it’s going to be the same thing. Where is conservation more of a focus, where is the oil and gas or minerals or timber more important?”