BLM planning rule gives locals a voice
By Chuck McAfee
Late last year, the federal Bureau of Land Management issued a new and long overdue rule—– called Planning 2.0 — that gave a wider range of voices the opportunity to weigh in on how federal lands can be used and developed for decades to come.
Planning 2.0 was grounded by an idea at the heart of American democracy: that people most affected by public policy decisions deserve to be heard.
Elected officials in many Western states have, nevertheless, fought Planning 2.0, often in stark opposition to a wide range of local landowners, farmers, businesses and others who have the biggest stake in how BLM lands are used.
Also, emboldened by the results of last fall’s elections, Republican leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives led an aggressive effort to kill Planning 2.0. They turned to an obscure, and relatively untested federal law called the Congressional Review Act that they claim allows them to roll back regulations within 60 legislative days of their enactment. Using CRA, the House voted against the Planning 2.0 in early February, and now the fate of the rule is the hands of the U.S. Senate.
I live on a 2,300-acre southwest Colorado farm that has been in my family for more than 100 years, and I’m one of those people who, if Planning 2.0 is dismantled, will essentially have no input into how nearby federal lands should be managed.
I acutely understand the stakes because a three-person board of commissioners for Montezuma County, where I live, has fiercely opposed Planning 2.0. As they see it, only the commissioners should have input into BLM matters and scrutiny of decisions about federal land development. They say that Planning 2.0 gives too much power to what they often call “special interest” voices.
That was their position throughout a nearly two-year local debate about whether the BLM should approve a master leasing plan for oil and gas development on federal lands in Montezuma County and neighboring areas.
It didn’t matter to the commissioners that, at most of the public hearings on this issue, people like me who supported broader community input outnumbered others by 10 to 1. And the commissioners, who have long opposed reasonable limits to oil and gas operations, seem oblivious to our concerns that the proliferation of drilling in our area (there are currently more than 23,000 gas wells in southwest Colorado and northern New Mexico) has threated our local environment.
A methane cloud the size of the state of Delaware now hovers over the San Juan Basin in four states including Colorado and can be seen from space. People living here can smell the gas in the air, and the constant haze from methane and other pollutants is unmistakable. I’m 75 years old and can remember, decades ago, seeing from my window a breathtaking rock formation 70 miles away called Shiprock in New Mexico. Today, Shiprock has mostly disappeared from my view behind the haze.
There’s also worry in southwest Colorado of mercury from several local coal-burning power plants finding its way into lakes and streams. Growing up here, I had never heard of mercury in these waterways. Also, on BLM and private lands near where I live, carbon dioxide-producing wells have emitted pollutants into our air at levels that exceed acceptable limits.
Fortunately, on December 19, 2016, the BLM, over the objections of the county commissioners and energy industry officials, approved the master leasing plan. But the planning process that the MLP allows won’t begin for at least another year, offering ample opportunities to derail it — especially if President Trump’s administration follows through on its calls for radical cuts in regulation. As County Commissioner Keenan Ertel told the Mancos Times, “We still have time to work on putting (the MLP) away.”
Without Planning 2.0, the BLM and local stakeholders will be silenced about how to develop federal lands in the most responsible way. Instead, members of Congress, most of whom don’t even understand the local circumstances, will wield far more power over those decisions.
There’s a clear and important choice now before Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner. I hope our senators will stand up for keeping our voices in the process. They need to hear from all Coloradans who value an open, democratic process that informs responsible, reasonable use of our precious lands and natural resources. We want our voices heard. Don’t shut us out.
Chuck McAfee is a third-generation landowner, community volunteer and retired electrical engineer living in Montezuma County in southwest Colorado.