‘We weren’t listened to’ on sage-grouse policy, Garfield County says
July 11, 2016
After a year-long Freedom of Information Act battle with the U.S. Department of the Interior, Garfield County commissioners have successfully obtained 138 of the Interior's emails regarding greater sage-grouse land use amendments.
In the communications, the commissioners are looking for conflicts with the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires collaboration with local governments in public land planning.
Commissioners say these land use amendments for the greater sage-grouse, which were approved last year, threaten the county's energy development interests and apply a blanket land use policy that doesn't fit with the county's terrain.
"It's been a bit of a process to work with our friends in the federal government, but we've gotten key information back," said Fred Jarman, deputy county manager.
In the last months of this process, what Kent Holsinger, the commissioners' attorney, called the "11th hour," came some dramatic changes to those amendments.
Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said among the measures commissioners fear will be detrimental to energy development, one significant change was the inclusion of population "trigger points" requiring more severe conservation measures should the greater sage-grouse numbers drop to a certain point.
The emails show that in those last few months, at the same time they were making last-minute changes, the Interior Department had a series of meetings with conservation groups including the Wilderness Society and Advocates for the West, said Holsinger.
At this time the door had also closed on the county's ability to coordinate on the lands use plan amendment, said Jarman.
Commissioner John Martin equated these findings to Garfield County's battle with the Bureau of Land Management's Planning 2.0, a new public lands planning initiative the commissioners have also critiqued for its lack of consultation with local governments as NEPA requires.
Responding to questions from Commissioner Mike Samson, Holsinger said these kinds of communications aren't against any federal laws but that it's telling that Interior was communicating with these groups so heavily while they were making last-minute decisions.
"I don't think they listened to us as closely as they listened to them," he said.
The commissioners initially sent a FOIA request for these emails and communications to the Department of the Interior in July 2015. Then they filed a lawsuit in federal court in August after the Interior had not fulfilled the request.
Land use amendments for the greater sage-grouse are mired in a number of problems, said Jankovsky.
Garfield County had been working for years on a localized approach, mapping that would protect the grouse habitat while allowing access to the natural resources, which these land use amendments have discarded, said Jankovsky.
A broad brush approach that would close off federal land to energy development would be detrimental to the many governmental entities that rely on the tax dollars they generate.
This is all coming out of Washington, D.C., said Jankovsky.
"We weren't listened to. They don't care about local governments and local economies. It's like it was in 1776," Jankovsky said.
Commissioners agreed to continue the FOIA lawsuit to pursue more emails from the Interior. Both parties are required to submit a status report to the court before Aug. 1.
Commissioners also agreed to make the emails available to the public, which they also assured the federal judge in their initial complaint in August. The emails have not yet been made public, and Jarman said he is still working on getting the complete set of emails.