BLM’s new resource management plan for North Fork and region sparks second suit

The North Fork Valley is part of nearly 900,000 acres covered by the Bureau of Land Management’s resource management plan for the Uncompahgre Field Office. Since the updated plan was approved in April, multiple conservation groups have filed suit.

Another suit has been filed over the Bureau of Land Management’s recently updated resource management plan for lands covered by the Uncompahgre Field Office.

The suit, brought by Western Slope Conservation Center and other conservation groups, alleges the BLM violated environmental laws and agency policies in adopting the plan, which WSCC says opens up 95 percent of the lands in the region to leasing by energy extraction industries at the expense of wilderness and other conservation values.

“Our valley’s economy is powered by family farms, orchards, small businesses and local ranchers,” Scott Braden, interim executive director of the Western Slope Conservation Center, said in a provided statement announcing the lawsuit.

“We insist that the federal government do better to protect our communities and our values and we’re grateful that Sen. (Michael) Bennet agrees. Today’s legal challenge is an important step toward holding the BLM and this administration accountable to our community, since they failed to do so in their plan.”

The WSCC is joined by The Wilderness Society and Wilderness Workshop in bringing the challenge against the BLM’s final environmental impact statement and record of decision that support the new resource management plan.

Another set of conservation groups filed suit last month, alleging the resource management plan, which recently saw the first update in about 30 years, is riddled with bad science and falls short of the law’s requirements. Those groups are seeking to have the resource management plan, or RMP, stayed.

In addition, the state of Colorado filed an administrative protest, as have Gunnison and San Miguel counties, the Town of Paonia, business owners and elected officials such as state Sen. Kerry Donovan and state Rep. Julie McCluskey, who want the plan revised for better protections.

The BLM does not comment on pending litigation. The agency said previously the RMP aligns with the Trump administration’s priorities for providing access to public lands for multiple uses, while also being responsive to community needs.

The updated and approved RMP excludes the Gunnison Gorge and Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area. It updates and combines resource management plans of 1985 and 1989, providing guidance for public land use on 675,800 acres of BLM-administered surface lands and 971,220 acres of federal mineral estate.

The Western Slope Conservation Center and other plaintiffs in the most recent suit say the BLM’s record of decision opened up 870,000 acres for oil and gas leasing — 95 percent of the area the plan manages — on federal lands in Montrose, Gunnison, Delta, Mesa, Ouray and San Miguel counties.

The decision “threatens the area, which is treasured for its scenic beauty, idyllic towns, organic agriculture, recreational opportunities, clean air and water and abundant wildlife,” the suit says.

In the document, the plaintiffs accuse the federal government of failing to adequately examine and fully disclose the environmental impacts of opening such a broad swath of land to oil and gas.

Instead, the environmental impact statement used to support the decision to adopt the new plan “ignored key issues and assumed, without rational support, that vague or unsupported mitigation measures will protect certain values and minimize impacts on resources,” the suit says.

Like the previous suit, the WSCC action contends the environmental impact statement failed to fully evaluate climate change issues and greenhouse gas emissions; therefore, it is in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.

The suit also accuses the BLM of not providing a meaningful range of alternatives for oil and gas development, but of instead offering a narrow range of alternatives that ignored public concerns.

Per the suit, the final decision further rejected several protections for special lands, waterways and people that had been included in a draft plan’s preferred alternative “and instead prioritized oil and gas development over all other uses,” without a rational basis.

The agency also based its decision on factors Congress did not intend to be considered under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the lawsuit contends, calling certain actions “irrational.”

The RMP’s approval is arbitrary and capricious and as such, its underpinning decisions should be vacated, with a finding by the court that the Bureau of Land Management violated NEPA, FLPMA and its own policies, the conservation groups say.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.

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