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BLM open house attracts 150-plus

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Photo by Tamie Meck Bureau of Land Management Uncompahgre Field Office project coordinator Thane Stranathan talks to citizens about the recently released Draft Resource Management Plan at the first of six scheduled public open house events, held June 22 a

More than 150 citizens attended the first of six open house meetings sponsored by the Bureau of Land Management to provide an overview of its "Draft Resource Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement" (RMP/EIS). The RMP/EIS is intended to establish a framework for management of more than 675,800 acres of BLM lands and 971,220 acres of federal subsurface mineral estates administered by the BLM. These lands, which include the North Fork area, are currently managed under the 1985 San Juan/San Miguel and 1989 Uncompahgre Basin resource management plans.

The BLM first began the formal public scoping process on the draft in February, 2010. It was open for public comment on June 3. The public has until Sept. 1 to submit comments.

Barbara Sharrow, field manager with the Uncompahgre Field Office (UFO), said she brought her entire staff to answer questions and concerns, and she was pleased that so many people attended the event. Because RMPs typically have a life of 20-30 years, it's important for people to understand the draft plan and submit comments, said Sharrow, as the final decision will affect the way public lands are managed well into the future.

The draft offers four alternatives and a sub-alternative. Under "Alternative A," also known as the "No Action" alternative, the BLM would continue operating under the 1985 and 1989 RMPs. "Alternative B" "emphasizes improving, rehabilitation, and restoring resources and sustaining the ecological integrity of habitats."

"Alternative C" calls for "appropriate and allowable uses and restrictions." It would emphasize "maximizing utilization of resources, while mitigating impacts on land health."

The BLM has identified "Alternative D" as the preferred alternative. It "emphasizes balancing resources and resource use among competing human interests, land uses, and the conservation of natural and cultural resource values, while sustaining and enhancing ecological integrity across the landscape." Sharrow said the BLM's preferences could change before a final decision is made, based on public comment.

Alternative B.1 is a "partial alternative" that includes the North Fork Alternative Plan, submitted in December of 2013 by Paonia-based Citizens for a Healthy Community (CHC). The nonprofit formed in 2009 to address concerns about the effects of oil and gas development on the North Fork area's air and water quality and quality of life.

In 2013, CHC submitted the "North Fork Alternative Plan," which was supported by numerous organizations, farmers and ranchers, and the Town of Paonia. CHC held a public meeting on June 2 to update the public on oil and gas activity in the North Fork Valley, urge public participation, and rally support for B.1.

CHC urged concerned citizens to submit to the BLM "declarations of impact," which are specific statementsfrom people who would potentially be directly impacted by development. They request that comments be copied CHC, which will attach them to the organization's official comments.

The BLM manages public lands for a variety of uses. In addition to coal and oil and gas leasing, the draft's highlighted resources include special designations for conservation, recreation, trails and travel management, and livestock grazing. Those include timber, cultural and other resources.

Delta County Commissioner Mark Roeber, who represents District 3 and the North Fork area, said it's too early for the BOCC to publicly state which alternative they will support. Of big concern for the North Fork area, said Roeber, are agriculture and travel management, and air and water quality. Reading and understanding the 2,000 pages and three volumes of information (the glossary alone is 44 pages) will take time, said Roeber. The BOCC's final recommendation, he said, will likely include components from all five alternatives.

Alex Johnson, executive director of the Paonia-based Western Slope Conservation Center, said the big concern with this draft is how it will affect the UFO's Bull Mountain Master Development Plan and BLM's 2013 proposal to lease approximately 30,000 acres of federal and private surface lands in the North Fork area for gas development. Due to extensive public comment, the BLM deferred all 22 parcels. Public comment for the Bull Mountain plan ended in April 2015, and a final EIS and decision by the BLM are pending.

In response to water quality concerns, WSCC, in partnership with the North Fork River Improvement Association, released last spring a 2014-2015 Water Quality Monitoring Report to document baseline surface water quality throughout the North Fork and Gunnison River watersheds in response to possible gas development within the watersheds.

While the public has been responding to oil and gas development for several years, and may be experiencing burnout, Johnson urges citizens to recognize that these opportunities only come around every 20 or 30 years.

Hotchkiss Mayor Wendell Koontz said the Hotchkiss Town Council has carried the release of the draft RMP as a line item for several years and is primarily concerned with water quality and the economy. The town is looking at an estimated loss of $75,000-$95,000 in mineral and severance taxes in 2017, said Mayor Koontz, and an undetermined amount of loss this year due to ongoing litigation between the state and the industry over severance tax payments. The pending litigation has locked up money that municipalities had in their 2016 budgets for the foreseeable future.

The next step, said Sharrow, is to create a single RMP, which the BLM estimates will occur by summer of 2017. The public will then be given 30 days to review and protest the decision. Once the protests are resolved, the public has an opportunity to appeal the final decision, said Sharrow. The final RMP is expected to be signed in spring 2018.

Written comments can be submitted by email to uformp@blm.gov, or by mail the the BLM Uncompahgre Field Office, 2465 S. Townsend Ave., Montrose, CO 81401. The entire draft RMP/EIS can be accessed at http://www.blm.gov/co/st/en/fo/ufo/uncompahgre_rmp.html#Process

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