Colorado counties demand greater role in sage grouse amendment

Aug 24, 2012

Being a “cooperating agency” is supposed to give local governments a special seat at the table in crafting environmental impact statements (EISs) alongside federal agencies. But a coalition of Colorado counties maintains that the process of cooperatively developing a land use plan amendment for sage grouse conservation has turned into an meaningless exercise, with the real decisions being handed down from Washington.

In an August 13th letter sent to Colorado state BLM Director Helen Hankins, five Colorado countyn commissions together with two conservation districts–all cooperating agencies–demanded that local government recommendations for creating a balanced approach to sage grouse conservation be taken into account.

“We are deeply concerned the process does not accommodate the mandates that BLM consider the views of local governments as envisioned under the Federal Land Policy Management Act (FLPMA) or the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA),” the letter stated, adding that apparent pressure from Washington for the agency to select an alternative fashioned along the lines of the BLM’s “National Technical Team” (NTT) report on sage grouse has made the outcome of the EIS all but a foregone conclusion.

“It seems like we’re just going through the motions with a predetermined end already in mind,” explained Moffat County Commissioner Tom Gray.

At issue is the BLM’s amendment of five resource management plans (RMPs) in Colorado’s northeastern corner to incorporate measures for protecting the greater sage grouse, currently listed as a “candidate” species by U.S. Fish and Wildlife. The Colorado amendments are part of BLM’s National Sage Grouse Planning Strategy, which requires all RMPs within the sage grouse’s range–comprising 47 million acres across 11 western states–to be similarly amended.

The commissioners point out that their counties already have existing sage grouse management policies, which they claim have proven their worth by stabilizing sage grouse populations over the past ten years. As cooperating agencies, they have proposed that this homegrown management policy, tailored specifically to meet he needs of local sage grouse habitat, should constitute one “alternative” to be considered alongside the NTT approach, which the commissioners fear will hamstring important economic activities like oil, gas and mineral development and grazing by limiting ground disturbances to three percent in core sage grouse areas.

“The NTT in our opinion is the most restrictive thing that you can do,” said Rio Blanco County Commissioner Shawn Bolton. “It goes against all of the principles of public land being there for multiple use. It pedestals one animal over all other uses.”

Of particular concern is the level of uncertainty the NTT alternative would inject into natural resource activities, since uses within core areas would be limited by the three percent disturbance threshold. Bolton worried that in many cases, the threshold could eliminate uses all together, including mineral leases already bought and paid for. In other cases, utilization of resources would have to be approved on an ongoing basis, Bolton said.

“If you’re a cattleman, you won’t even know from one year to the next if you’re going to be turning livestock out,” Bolton observed. “As a rancher, you cannot operate that way.”

The signatories of the letter–Moffat, Rio Blanco, Garfield, Jackson and Routt Counties, along with the White River and Douglas Creek conservation districts–also contend that an NTT-based alternative represents an extremely “broad brush” approach to sage grouse conservation that ignores the differences in habitats across the West. The NTT alternative, according to Gray, simply fails to recognize important scientific evidence that is more specific to particular regions.

“It uses the concept of ‘one-size-fits-all’ for eleven states,” Gray said. “We know from the science that’s out there that managing sage grouse in a desert situation such as Utah is not the same as the high mountain plateau of northwest Colorado.”

But despite the existence of established local policies, the counties claim that the BLM has refused to admit their locally established management policies as a “middle-ofthe-road” alternative, arguing that time constraints simply don’t allow for it. “This is on a fast track,” says Gray, who voiced concern that the short time frame is being used to hustle the NTT-based alternative through with minimal opposition. A draft EIS is scheduled to be published by spring 2013.

In response to the counties’ complaint, BLM public affairs specialist Deanna Masterson denied that the NTT-based alternative was being given undue preference over local suggestions. “We consider all of our alternatives through the planning process,” said Masterson. Regarding the counties’ allegation that their input as cooperating agencies is being ignored Masterson stated, “We appreciate their input, and we’re taking a close look at …their input and at the letter.”

The five counties were joined in their complaint last week by Grand County, which is also participating in the RMP amendment process as a cooperating agency.

NEPA provides the opportunity for local governments to act as “cooperating agencies” when federal agencies develop EISs. The status gives local governments a “seat at the table” in writing EISs, separate from participating in the usual process of public scoping and comment. According to the BLM, “cooperating agencies expect, and should be given, a significant role … in shaping plans and environmental analyses—instead of merely commenting on them,” and “help shape land use plans and environmental analyses that better reflect the policies, needs, and conditions of their jurisdictions and the citizens they rep resent.”

Private individuals and organizations are not eligible to be cooperating agencies.

But despite promises of meaningful participation, cooperating agency status has been short on cooperation and long on frustration, according to Bolton.

“We can’t get any direct answers out of the BLM,” said Bolton. “They come to the table with this warm and fuzzy ‘make you feel good’ stuff, and it’s not worth two cents.”

Gray concurred. “I feel like how my cows must feel when I get them in the corral,” Gray said. “They only get to go through the gates that I open. …And unbeknownst to them, they move through these open gates, get squeezed into a chute, and they come out with a brand and an ear tag. And they’re going, ‘What the heck happened?’ That’s what we feel like.” — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent