Garfield County joins lawsuit against BLM |

Garfield County joins lawsuit against BLM

Cattle graze along a section of the Missouri River in Montana in September. U.S. government officials this month finalized an overhaul of how they plan for oil and gas drilling, mining, grazing and other activities across public lands in the West. Garfield County is among governments that sued Monday to block the rules.
Matthew Brown / Associated Press |

Garfield County joined a lawsuit filed Tuesday that seeks to block new rules from the Bureau of Land Management that look to limit the role the county plays in resource planning. Six counties throughout the Western U.S. joined the lawsuit.

“The new rules fail to recognize that we are authorized by law to represent the public in our county,” Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said in a news release.

The purpose of the new rules is to govern planning and management of resources in the West and to update rules that have not been changed since 1979. The BLM says the rules address longstanding criticism of an often-cumbersome process that dictates planning for oil and gas drilling, mining, grazing and other activities across almost 250 million acres of federal lands.

Administration officials said the changes would improve public involvement and government transparency by adding additional steps to land-use planning. Critics, including members of Congress, industry groups and local officials, say the change will elevate wildlife and environmental preservation above other uses such as energy development and shift decision-making from agency field offices to Washington, D.C.

Garfield County said the BLM’s new rules allow only limited local government involvement, effectively treating Western counties and districts like members of the public. They provide no coordination process for local governments that would allow them to effectively discuss and, if necessary, challenge the BLM’s plans in an open forum, the county said in a news release.

“We are charged with protecting the health, safety and welfare of the people in our community,” Jankovsky said. “We should not be relegated to commenting on BLM plans or asked to violate open meeting laws and have discussions about planning conflicts behind closed doors. The public should be allowed to hear our concerns, and the BLM should not be afraid to answer our questions and defend its position in public view.”

The lawsuit, which includes local governments from Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Idaho, California and Colorado, asserts that the new rules will “severely impair their ability to work with the BLM on future planning and management issues,” according to a Garfield County press release.

The new rules were not met with universal criticism, however, as Nada Culver, director of the BLM action center for the Wilderness Society, is fully in support of the update.

“We are very supportive of the BLM modernizing their planning method,” she said. “From our perspective, the way these rules have been updated are consistent with how people are using these lands. The main changes provide more opportunities for public input.”

She believed that the two main concerns in regards to the rules changes are limiting the role of county governments and adding flexibility in terms of where the county area is defined, officially acknowledging the way public participation and public planning has evolved.

Elk and deer do not graze a field because it is in Garfield County, and the rules should likewise be updated to acknowledge such realities, she said.

The new rules will govern how resource management plans are prepared and implemented for such activities as grazing, mineral exploration and development, rights of way, timber production and recreation. They also designate areas for special restrictions and control access to public lands.

The impetus for the BLM’s new resource planning rules are two Obama administration programs, the Climate Change Adaptation Program and the Landscape-scale Mitigation Program, the county news release said. The suit alleges that these programs were adopted and are being implemented in violation of federal law.

One of the primary reasons for the lawsuit is the counties’ assertion that the new rules violate the coordination requirements imposed in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. This law requires the BLM to coordinate with local governments on land use inventory, planning and management activities and to consider and resolve inconsistencies with local land use plans.

“The public lands are the backbone of many rural economies in the West, which is why Congress mandated that the BLM to coordinate with local governments during the resource planning process,” Garfield County’s news release said.

Most counties in the West have more than half of their land base owned by the federal government. Coordination with local governments is essential to ensure that the people most affected by the BLM’s management decisions have the strongest voice, the county argued.

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