It’s not every day that a federal agency receives an award from a conservation group, but in late 2013 two Bureau of Land Management field offices in northwestern Colorado did just that.
Once each year, the Wilderness Society, a national environmental organization dedicated to protecting wilderness, gives out Comparative Analysis of Particular Excellence — or CAPE — awards to deserving BLM field offices across the country.
The awards, announced in mid-December, are based on a rating system, ranging from one cape on the low end to the highest award of five capes. They honor BLM conservation efforts and leadership as well as the agency’s ability to balance multiple uses of the nation’s public lands.
“Basically, they’re the Wilderness Society’s annual recognition of innovative or exceptional work by the BLM,” said Soren Jespersen, Wilderness Society planning and policy representative in Craig, Colorado.
Kent Walter, field manager of BLM’s White River Field Office (WRFO) in Meeker, and Wendy Reynolds, his counterpart at the Little Snake Field Office (LSFO) in Craig, shared a four-cape award for their inventories of lands with wilderness characteristics.
“It’s always great to be acknowledged for a job well-done,” said Walter. “It’s an honor and we appreciate it.”
It all started in 2010 when, as part of a new BLM policy, the WRFO began to take stock of lands with wilderness characteristics within its boundaries. No easy task, considering the WRFO manages over 1.4 million acres of public land in Garfield, Moffat, and Rio Blanco counties.
The initial “desktop” inventory used GIS maps to find areas with at least 5,000 contiguous acres of roadless land. As a result, WRFO came up with 252,000 acres of potential lands with wilderness characteristics (LWC).
But, it takes more than a map to determine if these 5,000-acre parcels make the wilderness-quality grade. The area must also provide outstanding opportunities for solitude, naturalness, and primitive or unconfined recreation, which can only be determined by getting out on the ground and taking a look. So, fieldwork began in the summer of 2011.
Enter the Wilderness Society with its own citizen LWC inventory of the very same lands.
“With that updated [BLM] policy, we felt the time was right to update our own inventories and work with the BLM to ensure that they got their inventories correct,” said Jespersen.
Using BLM protocols, the Wilderness Society found 322,000 acres of lands with wilderness characteristics and submitted its findings in 2012 as comments on the WRFO’s draft oil and gas amendment to the main land management plan.
“They cooperated with us on the oil and gas amendment,” said Kent Walter. “To me, that’s what it’s about,” he added. “We value input and they value conservation and maintaining the multiple-use mandate.”
The final environmental analysis of the oil and gas amendment will be released in February and includes 304,000 acres of lands with wilderness characteristics, sort of a middle ground between BLM’s original findings and those of the Wilderness Society.
“As result of their submission, we took a hard look and agreed that [more land] met wilderness quality values so we added it,” Walter explained.
Thanks to Rocky Mountain Youth Corps interns and WRFO staff Chad Schneckenburger and Aaron Grimes, all field inventories of the WRFO were completed last summer.
Reynolds earned her CAPES by creating a website that allows public access to the LSFO inventory process and results.
“We are required to look at our land base every 10 years,” she explained. “Oftentimes, things have changed and we need to keep a finger on the pulse of what our landscapes are like.”
LSFO is home to the Vermillion Basin, which is already managed as land with wilderness characteristics. This and other areas such as wilderness study areas or lands that are currently managed for their wilderness qualities are not included in the inventories.
After a “desktop” inventory in 2012, LSFO identified over 580,000 acres that may contain land with wilderness characteristics. Even though LSFO staff Dario Archuletta and Gina Robison have hiked through some of it with the RMYC interns, there’s still a lot of ground-work left to complete. Reynolds describes the field-work as a journey.
“When you’re searching for [LWC] criteria, that means there’s no roads,” she explained. “Access is challenging but that’s what makes it fun.”
The LSFO website has maps, reports, photos, and all kinds of details about the inventory. Jespersen said putting the process on the web helps with transparency and accountability.
“The public can now understand why lands are selected for wilderness qualities,” he said. “It makes BLM’s decisions more defensible.”
Walter said that these inventories don’t mean hundreds of thousands of acres just became officially-designated, capital-letter Wilderness.
“It’s not a designation,” he explained. “Wilderness quality lands is a recognition that wilderness values exist on that land.”
But BLM does not have to manage that land for wilderness values.
David Ludlam, director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, is skeptical.
“LWC is just a tool to reduce surface use,” he said.
He added that these lands can get locked up for years because BLM manages them as de-facto wilderness.
“The agency should not be able to use LWC as a pretext or justification to manage that land as wilderness.”