Roan Plateau solution serves as model for gov’t cooperation
Thirteen days before traveling to Rifle for a bill signing and ribbon cutting at the Rifle-Garfield County Regional Airport, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a bill effectively closing the book on the seven-year dispute over the Roan Plateau.
The bill, signed May 1, outlined the state’s plan for reimbursing lease payments — required under a settlement reached in November 2014 — that would essentially prevent local governments from bearing the cost of paying back lease fees. Sponsored by Rep. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, and strongly supported by the Garfield County commissioners, the bill served as the final piece of the Roan Plateau puzzle, as well as a model for what can be achieved when local governments and the state work closely together on federal land management issues.
“We’re very pleased with the outcome,” said Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky.
In November 2014, the Bureau of Land Management originally announced a settlement in a dispute involving the BLM, the Bill Barrett Corp. and conservationists, who sued the BLM in 2008 over a land management plan allowing oil and natural gas drilling on top of the Roan Plateau. Under the terms of the agreement, 17 of the 19 leases issued on top of the plateau were canceled, and in turn the federal government agreed to refund approximately $47.6 million in bonus bids and annual rental payments to the Bill Barrett Corp. However, roughly $23 million of the more than $47 million had gone to the state, and some of the money was distributed to local governments.
The question then moved to which government entities would be responsible for refunding the state’s share of the money. There was concern that future funding from federal mineral leases could be used to pay back some or all of the $23 million, which would have come at a cost to counties and municipal governments, Jankovsky said.
In Garfield County, where the federal government manages approximately 60 percent of the land, the cost could have been considerable. The Garfield County Federal Mineral Lease District — an independent public body tasked with distributing funds to communities impacted by natural resource development on federal land — awarded $2.2 million to Garfield County communities in the fall 2014 grant cycle alone. Municipalities including Rifle, Silt and New Castle received hundreds of thousands of dollars for infrastructure projects.
Fearing that vital funding could be lost, the county and Rankin requested that the local governments not be held responsible for paying back the state’s share of the lease reimbursement. The governor said he agreed, and Rankin went to work after the November settlement drafting a bill that would allocate general fund dollars for the lease reimbursement. The governor signed it May 1.
The outcome, Hickenlooper said while speaking in Rifle May 13, is an example of what the state hopes to achieve with legislation signed that day at the airport. Also sponsored by Rep. Rankin, the bill requires leadership in Colorado’s Department of Local Affairs, Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture to provide assistance to local governments affected by federal land management. That assistance includes technical support in sharing information with federal land managers and consultation in developing local land use plans. It also earmarks $1 million per year for three years in Local Government Mineral Impact Fund grant money for local governments dealing with federal land management issues. The intention of the bill, Hickenlooper said, is to better prepare for dealing with management issues.
“I think we have to work together with (the federal government) and say, ‘Listen, we don’t want you to ram stuff down our throat, what we want to do is sit at the table with you and be partners.’”
With some states considering trying to take control of public lands from the federal government, Colorado is looking for a more constructive means of resolving those issues, said John Swartout, rural policy and outreach director in the governor’s office. Swartout cited Garfield County’s involvement in the Roan Plateau settlement as an example of what can happen when local agencies are able to provide input on management issues.
“By amplifying the local government voice in these federal processes and working together with the state we can get a more constructive outcome for them,” he said. “A last resort is saying, ‘Well, our only solution is to seize federal land.’ We’re trying to give them a productive place to land.”
While commending Rankin for his work on the bill, Jankovsky said he is hopeful the legislation will have long-lasting benefits for local governments.
“It puts the county government in a position to have a really good working relationship with the state,” he said, “and hopefully our voice will be heard a little bit more in D.C.”
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