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As I See It

Hal Sundin

Until about a dozen years ago, the Bureau of Land Management was a relatively unknown federal land management agency, in spite of the fact that it has more land in the contiguous 48 states under its jurisdiction than the National Forest Service and National Park Service combined.

Although BLM lands amount to 10 percent of the area of the lower 48 states, it does not have the majestic scenery we associate with our national parks and forests. Consequently, it has largely been ignored by the public.

The BLM has quietly gone about its job of managing grazing and mining activities on the lands under its jurisdiction, with little if any controversy.

But that has all changed since about l990. All of a sudden, the rapidly growing population of the western states, where most of the BLM lands are located, has discovered the scenic value and recreational opportunities BLM lands offer. That has turned out to be a mixed blessing, and has greatly increased the size and complexity of BLM’s management task.

The explosive growth in the number of off-highway vehicles and snowmobiles during the last 12 years has resulted in an unprecedented impact on the soil, streams, vegetation and wildlife of the BLM lands. In the past, there were very few restrictions on public access to and travel on BLM lands, because there was so little of it. You could go pretty much wherever you wanted to.

Obviously with the steady growth of public use of these lands, the management policies of the past are no longer adequate, and continued unregulated use will result in their being totally trashed. In response to the crisis currently confronting the BLM, the agency is being forced to develop new management plans.

In particular, the BLM is recognizing the need to regulate the use of off-highway vehicles, limiting the areas open to their use and restricting them to specified roads in much of the BLM lands.

In Colorado, the organized OHV groups recognize the necessity of travel management plans to preserve the quality of the landscape, and generally are supportive of reasonable regulation.

Unfortunately, there are individuals who have no regard for the damage that unregulated travel inflicts, and their actions give all OHV users a bad name. They are also probably the same people who dump their trash on BLM lands, and throw debris out their windows as they drive down our highways.

In Utah the problem is more serious, because there are organized OHV groups that are openly defiant of any regulation of their activities, and have banded together to intentionally trash areas that might have qualified for wilderness designation. To their credit, responsible OHV groups have begun programs to discourage this kind of behavior.

On the subject of wilderness, the wilderness values of certain BLM lands are just beginning to be recognized. Almost all of the currently designated wilderness areas are in our national forests, and consist of rugged mountains and alpine lakes and tundra, and their surroundings. These tend to be ecologically isolated islands, and are at too high an elevation to provide suitable winter habitat for wildlife.

There are many wilderness-quality areas within BLM lands that should be protected because they have great scenic value, or provide lower elevation winter habitat for wildlife, or both. U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, has introduced legislation in Congress to give that protection to some 1.3 million acres of BLM lands. This seems like a large area, but it amounts to only 16 percent of the BLM lands and only 2 percent of the state of Colorado. Furthermore, most of the areas have shown relatively little mineral resource potential.

The Roan Plateau, northwest of Rifle, formerly the Naval Oil Shale Reserve, is currently the center of attention by the BLM, which is charged with developing a management plan for the area.

Here the scenic and recreational value of the plateau in its natural state is in direct conflict with pressure from the Bush administration for rapid issuance of gas drilling permits. With over 7 million acres of BLM lands already open to drilling, what is the necessity of pushing drilling operations into this 38,000-acre area?

If the profits of extractive industry operations come ahead of the scenic, wildlife and recreation values of such places, we will soon lose this last 2 percent of our state which still has these values. The irony is that extractive profits last for only a decade or two, but scenic values attract people and money forever.

We need to congratulate the BLM for taking a stand against unlimited motorized travel on the lands they manage for everyone, and to encourage them to come up with a management plan for the Roan Plateau, which will gain them the everlasting gratitude of the American people. And we need to thank Rep. DeGette for her efforts to preserve wilderness-quality BLM areas in Colorado, and send her letters of support for those efforts.

Hal Sundin’s column runs every other Thursday in the Post Independent.


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