Commissioners ignore reality of public lands
By Scott Braden
Our community is blessed with an abundance of amazing nearby public lands. Colorado National Monument, two National Conservation Areas, and an impressive level of access to trails and rivers draw recreationists from around the world to the Grand Valley. Indeed, our public lands and rivers help boost and diversify our economy, increase our quality of life, attract new residents and businesses and promote healthier lifestyles.
To celebrate the first-ever Colorado Public Lands Day on May 20, Colorado Governor Hickenlooper chose to come celebrate in Grand Junction rather than anywhere else in the state. It was a symbolic decision that demonstrates the palpable sense in our community that we are embracing our public lands and waters with a new focus that transcends viewing them as solely a place for extractive commodity development.
Unfortunately, our Mesa county commissioners seem not to have gotten the memo.
I read with surprise in Charles Ashby’s June 15 article “County to Secretary Zinke: Help” that our county commissioners take a considerably different view of our public lands. Mr. Ashby’s story details a letter from Commissioners Scott McInnis, Rose Pugliese, and John Justman sent to Ryan Zinke, President Donald Trump’s new Interior secretary. In the letter, they congratulate Zinke on his new role, then proceed to recite a litany of complaints against public lands that could have come straight from the talking points of an oil-and-gas lobbyist. They paint a stark and skewed picture of just too much conservation and too many supposed impediments to unfettered drilling on public lands surrounding our community.
The commissioners lament that the Bureau of Land Management continues to offer protections to wilderness-quality public lands. They also complain that Mesa County must play by the rules that Congress set for them with the Endangered Species Act and that our economy is somehow unreasonably encumbered by saving a modest number of acres of habitat of the Gunnison sage grouse from destruction. And finally, they attack the BLM’s methane waste rule, which is strange since Colorado already has a state-level methane waste rule in force. The BLM methane rule actually conserves a public resource, prevents air pollution from neighboring states, and levels the industry playing field between the states.
And, perhaps most disturbingly, nowhere in the commissioners’ letter did they hit on any of the themes above about what an incredible asset public lands play to our community.
We elect our county commissioners to represent the diverse interests of all Mesa County constituents. Their initial letter to a U.S. cabinet secretary leads me to believe that they are instead representing the interests of the fossil fuel industry.
Importantly, our commissioners’ interpretation of multiple use of our lands is simply wrong. We cannot have every possible use on every acre of our public lands. Some areas need to be managed in a manner that prioritizes their unique characteristics, whether that be important wildlife habitat, exceptional recreation resources, or their sheer wild nature. Anything to the contrary is a recipe for chaos, conflict, and losing what makes our community so special.
There is a place for responsible energy development to occur on public lands, and indeed 75 percent of BLM land in the Grand Junction area is open to leasing. Public lands agencies have worked hard to manage all the potentially competing uses in a manner that we should be proud of, and have designed a system where a spectrum of uses can all occur.
Our public lands are an engine of economic prosperity and provide the bedrock for a high quality of life, and there is always a balance to be struck between conservation, recreation, and commodity uses. They help attract new workers with diverse skills and entrepreneurs, seeking a Colorado way of life that is becoming scarce on the crowded Front Range. This is my story, too — my wife and I moved here last year seeking more time outdoors, a more tight-knit community and less time sitting in traffic. Too bad our commissioners don’t seem to understand these nuances and are stuck with an outdated and binary mindset toward the exceptional public lands ringing this valley.
Scott Braden is the public lands & wilderness advocate for Conservation Colorado.