Roan wilderness consideration dropped to reflect new BLM policy |

Roan wilderness consideration dropped to reflect new BLM policy

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management this week formalized new policy that forced the agency’s local office this summer to abandon the idea of proposing wilderness study areas on the Roan Plateau.

The BLM’s Glenwood Springs Field Office had been set to suggest wilderness study areas in one of its management alternatives for the plateau, but a legal settlement that prompted the new BLM policy changed those plans.

“That settlement is now preventing us from doing that as a management action,” said Steve Bennett, associate manager of the BLM’s Glenwood Springs Field Office.

In directives issued earlier this week, the agency officially implemented the policy outlined in the terms of the April settlement with the state of Utah. But Bennett said the local office adjusted language in its plan for the plateau earlier in the year, after the settlement was announced.

“We were already dealing with it this summer when we heard about the settlement and realized it was going to affect the direction we were headed with the plan,” he said.

The plateau is located northwest of Rifle, and faces the possibility of drilling for the oil and gas located beneath it.

Environmentalists this week assailed the new BLM policy, which prevents the agency from creating new wilderness study areas unless it receives legislative direction to do so. Such areas must be managed as wilderness until Congress determines whether they merit wilderness designation.

“In a stealth, unpublicized move, the Bush administration has quietly withdrawn millions of acres of public lands across America – including 600,000 acres in Colorado – from future consideration as wilderness,” groups including the Colorado Environmental Coalition, Wilderness Society and Western Colorado Congress said in a joint news release Tuesday.

Said Clare Bastable of the Colorado Mountain Club, “BLM spent a year inventorying Roan Plateau for potential wilderness, something it had never done for these public lands, and found thousands and thousands of acres that qualify. Now they are throwing out all that hard work, the work of citizens, elected officials and agency staff, and refusing to even consider the possibility of wilderness protections.”

Bennett said the BLM still has the ability to protect wilderness characteristics on the plateau through other means.

“We still have got what we’re calling wilderness inventory units in the plan, and have identified very specific management actions that would protect those values in those units in at least one of the alternatives,” he said.

The BLM is currently drawing up a draft environmental impact statement for management of the plateau and surrounding lands. It is working on four management alternatives, and will propose one as its preferred alternative.

Utah sued the U.S. Interior Department over efforts to protect 3 million acres in that state as potential wilderness.

In the settlement that followed, Interior Secretary Gale Norton said it was illegal for the department to consider granting wilderness designation to lands that hadn’t been identified as potential wilderness under a process that ended in 1993.

But in its directive this week, the BLM states that it “can make a variety of land use plan decisions to protect wilderness characteristics.”

These can include considering scenery in placing roads and trails; attaching conditions to permits and leases; designating lands as open, limited or closed to off-highway vehicles; and designating areas of critical environmental concern to protect cultural, historic, scenic and fish and wildlife values.

The new BLM policy had no bearing on the agency’s decision to reduce the Roan Plateau management alternatives in its draft EIS from six to four, said Bennett. That decision was made last winter.

Local environmentalists and area governments were upset by that decision because a pro-wilderness, conservation-oriented alternative they supported is no longer being considered intact.

However, the BLM says that based on some public comment it received, it consolidated elements of various alternatives due to similarities between them. The move should reduce confusion and also reduce costs because there are fewer alternatives to analyze in the draft, Bennett said.

The draft EIS is due for release in November. Bennett said this week’s directive shouldn’t affect that time line, since the BLM adjusted its planning this summer based on the legal settlement.

Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. 516

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