Administration ignored local consensus on Vermillion Basin

By Christi Zeller and David Ludlam

Blocking reasonable, restrictive development of clean energy resources in Colorado’s Vermillion Basin shows outcome is more important to the White House than process. But some would argue that how one gets from here to there is just as important.

Washington’s policy reversal wastes nearly a decade of hard work and collaboration by a group of dedicated, diverse stakeholders. Such politically motivated decisions from the White House diminish public trust and discourage future participation in public processes. If outcome is more important than process, then the public’s suspicions are reinforced: Local input on public lands is little more than a futile spectacle to provide cover for politically motivated Washington, D.C. decrees.

The Daily Sentinel’s editorial cheering the dismissal of local consensus for managing the Vermillion Basin didn’t offer important commentary on the background and process leading up to last week’s announcement.

It’s no wonder local governments and stakeholders who devoted time, energy and resources in developing a compromise to best manage the area and its special qualities are frustrated with the announcement.

During the previous administration, a similar process in the Grand Valley involved a group of diverse Grand Junction area stakeholders who made recommendations for how to best manage the popular McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area. The group made numerous recommendations to the BLM on how the area should be protected, while honoring a degree of multiple uses. As a whole, many, if not most, of the recommendations were honored without top-level meddling from Washington, D.C. Imagine the outrage if one particular interest group participating in that local process had been working back channels to have the whole consensus thrown out in favor of its own interests.

To be clear, special management of the Vermillion Basin is appropriate for the area’s special values. On this point all interested parties in northwest Colorado agree.

Restricted, regulated energy development using a unique regulatory model was, and is, critical. This universal belief resulted in a restrictive development plan agreed upon by cooperating agency stakeholders. These varied interests provided diverse and meaningful input. Their recommendations were applauded throughout the region as a plan to help satisfy America’s need for home-grown energy while also preserving unique characteristics of the Vermillion Basin.

In 2002, numerous parties, at the request of the BLM, began a collaborative process for the Vermillion Basin planning area. All available science and on the ground conditions were used. When unveiled, the celebrated model proposed to protect 99 percent of the total basin at any given point in time.

The Colorado Department of Natural Resources, then led by visionary statesman Russell George, agreed the plan was balanced and protected the area. But that was then. This is now.

Involvement in a neighborhood home owners’ association, school parent-teachers association or an organizational committee allows most readers to appreciate the frustration, and sometimes futility in trying to find consensus. However, in the case of the Vermillion compromise plan, consensus was achieved. Announcements by the BLM to disregard the plan will not only erase consensus, but will slow economic development in northwest Colorado, and worse, leave an enduring bitter taste in the mouths of local stakeholders.

Throughout the history of public lands planning, both political parties are guilty of shorting the process. To say otherwise is disingenuous. But the current administration’s campaign promises for a transparent, bottom-up government that embraces local control makes the Vermillion Basin decision especially ironic.

Some will call the Vermillion decision political sleight-of-hand. Many might view the override as a perfect example of the federal government’s lengthening tentacles. No matter how history characterizes the decision, steamrolling local input marginalizes stakeholders and breeds cynicism. Worst of all, the announcement discourages future participation in planning processes critical to energy security and multiple use of public lands in the West.

Natural gas companies, environmental organizations and regulators can and should disagree about issues. Priorities related to the management of our public lands can and should change over time. But all parties likely agree that public processes and outcomes should mean something. Local stakeholders should still maintain the audacity to hope the Vermillion reversal doesn’t withstand administrative challenge. Challenging this reversal is the only way to show that process has an important place alongside outcomes.

Christi Zeller is chairman of Club 20’s Energy Committee. David Ludlam is executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil & Gas Association.


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