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Conservation groups mobilize to submit over 1,000 comments to BLM

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On Nov. 1, local and state-wide conservation groups turned in thousands of comments to the Bureau of Land Management asking for the future conservation of public lands in the Uncompahgre Field Office planning area. Today was the deadline for public comment on the proposed Resource Management Plan, a large scale planning document released this summer that will impact 675,800 acres of public land stretching from McClure Pass to Telluride.

"This plan provides a critical opportunity for people to shape the future of the public lands that surround our communities," said Bill Day, member of Western Colorado Congress. "And it is clear that thousands of people across the western slope want a future that prioritizes the protection of our wild lands, wildlife habitat, clean air and clean water. We hope the BLM recognizes this and incorporates these comments in the final RMP."

The RMP will impact future decision-making on everything from recreation and mineral leasing to wilderness protection and Wild and Scenic River designation. Local conservation organizations lead the organizing effort to highlight and elevate local voices, jointly submitting over 1,000 comments in favor of wild lands protection, Wild and Scenic Rivers, and strong regulation of mineral development. Larger groups, such as the Wilderness Society and Pew Charitable Trust, also helped engage the larger public on the RMP, generating thousands more comments from public land lovers across the country.

A major part of this RMP has been the BLM's proposal to leave 95% of the planning area open to oil and gas leasing, sparking a huge response from the North Fork Valley where residents have been working to protect the area from oil and gas development for years.

Residents spent the summer rallying support for the "North Fork Alternative," a proposal generated by local farmers, business owners, homeowners, and other stakeholders to ensure the highest level of protection of the area's water, air, wildlife and agricultural resources from potential oil and gas development.

"The North Fork Alternative is a true citizen's proposal," said Alex Johnson, executive director of Western Slope Conservation Center. "We were thrilled when the BLM included it in the draft plan. It was our job over this comment period to show just how much local support there was for oil and gas protections in the North Fork, and I'm confident we've done exactly that."

In Telluride, residents have also been working to protect water, focusing on Wild and Scenic suitability recommendations for the San Miguel and Dolores Rivers. Wild and Scenic River status is a designation only granted by Congress. However, before Congress can act, the BLM must first find these stretches of river suitable in their RMP process.

"The inclusive process that came up with the Wild and Scenic suitable river sections looked at the many different values that users have on these three rivers. What emerged was how much people in this area love and value their rivers for water quality and quantity protection, wildlife habitat, and recreation of all sorts," said Sheep Mountain Alliance executive director Lexi Tuddenham.

"These rivers are truly special places that we rely on for our health and livelihoods, and the public has done a great job of telling the BLM that they want to see them protected," Tuddenham concluded.

Taken altogether, the groups combined efforts demonstrate a future for the western slope where conservation-focused public land management is the bedrock for both economic and community sustainability.

"The world is changing. More people are moving to Colorado, climate is impacting our landscapes and water resources, and the global markets are impacting extraction-based industries in our areas," said Allison Elliot, WSCC board chair.

"It's time we recognize that conserving our public lands is the key to our future in Western Colorado, where we can honor our traditional use of the land while also preserving them for future generations to enjoy."

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