State and Local Groups Make Their Voices Heard with BLM Proposal

State and Local Groups Make Their Voices Heard with BLM Proposal

SWEETWATER COUNTY – Comments to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) were due Wednesday regarding the proposed Rock Springs Resource Management Plan (RMP) and the county’s elected representation has let their collective voices be heard about their displeasure with the BLM’s proposal.

Displeasure hasn’t just been with the RMP. Commissioner Taylor Jones spoke about disappointments he had with Gov. Mark Gordon’s BLM task force, specifically mentioning that the process used by the task force led to the group operating at a “snail’s pace.” The task force released its final report on Jan. 10, which contains more than 100 recommendations submitted as comments to the BLM. Jones said the task force could have done twice as much as it ended up accomplishing.

“I don’t think we accomplished as much as I was expecting or hoping for,” Jones said “I’d say we were about 50% effective if given a different process.”

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Chairman Keaton West said the process was productive overall, but said the task force was a challenging process to work through – mostly because of the timeframe they were given.

“The 90-day public comment period was an impossible ask, and it remained an impossible task even with the 60-day extension,” West said.

West said the task force had a wealth of expertise represented by its membership, making for great discussion that West said sometimes resulted in too much discussion.

He said members were asked to approve a consensus voting style, which allowed minority voices to deny consensus approval and disrupt super majority votes by voting against a proposal. The public and BLM reports only contain the areas the group reached a consensus on, while the report sent to Gordon’s office contains the full breakdown of what was voted on. Looking back, he said he wouldn’t have supported the voting method utilized by the task force as it didn’t accurately depict the sentiments of a majority of the members. He said voting against a consensus decision became a tactic that got individuals out of voting on the record.

“To me, that’s not good governance and anytime you have a clear minority interest taking control of a clear consensus objectiveI’d say it most certainly does not represent what the people of this community care about the most,” West said.

The two commissioners expressed appreciation to be part of the task force, as have others who participated. Jessica Evans, a member of the Sweetwater Economic Development Coalition (SEDC), participated as a nonvoting member in the process. Like many others, she is critical of the BLM’s process and how it brought the proposed RMP to the public.

“It’s been so long since they not only started it, but involved anyone,” she said.

Evans said she was an advisor on economic development and worked closely with Kayla McDonald, the SEDC’s economic development specialist. Like the two commissioners, she said the amount of time they had was short but enjoyed being a part of the task force. While she said she found the situation with the BLM’s RMP disheartening, she came away from the task force encouraged by the participation and how closely people worked together.

The County Comments

File Photo

The Sweetwater County commissioners reviewed their comment letter Tuesday during the group’s meeting. The letter, totaling 26 pages, starts with a statement about the county believing there was some collaboration with the BLM on an alternative that was not finalized but recognized the bureau’s obligation of managing lands for multiple uses.

“However, behind closed doors without any coordination with the County or other cooperating agencies and politically driven, the BLM has taken a complete reversal in direction and released a Proposed RMP and (Draft Environmental Impact Statement) that eliminates multiple use within the (Rock Springs Field Office) and in turn Sweetwater County,” the letter states.

The county alleges the proposed RMP would be felt by the county and state as a whole while setting “an uneasy precedent” in developing RMPs without input from cooperating agencies. The county alleges the process ignores the BLM’s mandate to manage federal lands for multiple use and sustainable yield. The county further alleges the BLM made multiple procedural errors in the process and demands the BLM withdraw its preferred alternative selection, and also initiate a new process that would correct those errors while completing a more thorough analysis of the RMP with the help of cooperating agencies.

The county alleges the BLM failed to comply with mandates to coordinate with state and local agencies in developing its preferred alternative and cites sections of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 in its examples. The county also alleges the BLM told cooperators that Alternative B, the conservation-focused alternative preferred by the agency, wasn’t realistic and that the more balanced Alternative D would become the preferred alternative.

“At the direction of the BLM, because Alternative B was communicated as not a realistic conclusion, and due to Alternative D becoming the agency’s preferred alternative by at least early 2017, the cooperating agencies spent a majority of their time and efforts on working with the BLM to develop Alternative D, refine this alternative, and focus their comments on this alternative,” the comment letter states.

The comments claim the BLM must correct procedural errors it made in formulating the RMP, as well as its analysis of areas that could be designated Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC). The county alleges the BLM didn’t follow its own regulation when filing the notice for the proposed ACECs in Alternative B by not specifying resource use limitation for each ACEC, not providing a complete list of all the places considered for ACEC designation, failing to explain why nominated areas did not qualify as ACECs, and failing to provide monitoring requirements for special areas.

The county also alleges the BLM did not provide a range of alternatives for off-highway vehicle (OHV) area designations.

“Under all alternatives, the BLM severely limits areas open for OHV travel and provides no opportunity for growth in the County. Preferred Alternative B also prohibits OHV rallies, cross-country races, and other organized events that have a long history of occurring in Sweetwater County and across BLM’s lands,” the letter states.

The county alleges that the draft environmental impact statement makes it impossible to determine the effect of proposed OHV designations because the bureau didn’t provide baseline data or mapping of the existing roads and routes.

The County also contends that the draft lacks consistency with local plans, claiming the BLM didn’t include the county’s federal lands and resources plan it adopted in June 2022.

“In addition, the (draft) provides no discussion on how the Preferred Alternative B is consistent or inconsistent with local, state or federal land use plans, let alone explain how it attempts to resolve any inconsistencies,” the county’s letter states.

Eric Bingham, the county’s land use director, spoke to the commissioners Tuesday before their unanimous approval of the comment letter.

“I wish I could say today is the end of it, but it’s not,” Bingham said. “It will be the beginning because we will still have the final (environmental impact statement) to deal with.”

Oil and Gas Representation Weighs In

The Petroleum Association of Wyoming has also submitted comments on the RMP. In its letter, the organization was critical of the process the BLM implemented and alleged the proposal impacts the economic prosperity of southwest Wyoming, as well as goes against the long-standing philosophy of multiple use for federal lands.

“BLM gave stakeholders only five months to review and comment on a document they spent 13 years to develop. While I appreciate the attempt by Governor Gordon and the University of Wyoming to bring disparate voices to the table, the task force process allowed a minority of one to block proposals from other stakeholders, leaving important issues with the RMP revisions unaddressed. The reality is the BLM’s hard left turn toward the most restrictive proposal possible set us up for failure,” Pete Obermueller, president of the association said. “Given the limited time, a flawed task force process, and the importance of our industry to the culture and economy of southwest Wyoming, it is important for groups like PAW and the (Western Energy) Alliance to pick up the slack.”

The association’s comment letter alleges the BLM’s proposal threatens the “economic and societal foundation” of the communities within the BLM Rock Springs Field Office’s jurisdiction but also sends a strong message to western states that the futures of communities dependent on federal public lands are in jeopardy. As a result, to that perceived threat, the association’s comment letter identifies how much public participation resulted from the BLM’s proposal.

“Businesses, governments, organizations, and citizens committed themselves to a level never before needed in an effort to maintain the world they know and ensure a future for their children,” the association’s comment letter concludes.

Gordon Pushes BLM to Listen

Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon speaks to residents at Western Wyoming Community College. File photo

In a statement issued Thursday, Gordon urged the BLM to listen to the comments submitted to the agency, saying the proposed National Environmental Policy Act document has received the most scrutiny and fervor of any federal land use document in recent memory. He said a full spectrum of representatives have “recognized the flawed nature of this draft RMP.”

“Wyoming’s State Agencies have worked diligently over the past decade, over multiple presidential and gubernatorial administrations, to help develop the most scientifically sound, cooperative, and durable policies for use in this draft RMP,” Gordon said. “For the BLM to achieve an effective RMP and meet my upcoming consistency review with state policies, it is imperative that these comments are meticulously reviewed, seriously considered, and adopted.”

Along with the multitude of local and regional organizations submitting comments to the BLM, many state agencies did as well, including the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the Wyoming State Forestry Division, The Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, and the Wyoming Energy Authority.

Gordon said the next step of the process, the final Environmental Impact Statement, will be issued by the end of the year.