This land is your land
When it comes to public land, Mesa County and Colorado both have plenty. As stewards of a fair share of the public land in Colorado, the Bureau of Land Management does its best to balance multiple uses.
“Some people want to preserve it and put it off limits, some want to use for recreation and some want to use it as an economic engine for natural resources,” said Steven Hall, communications director for the BLM. “Those are primary drivers of public lands.”
Energy development on public land is an ongoing debate that draws many voices and perspectives.
Any surface or subsurface use of BLM land has to have approval from the agency, and the process to grant or deny the request is a lengthy one.
“Everything we do involves a public process,” Hall said. “It takes a certain amount of time to have a discussion.”
When reviewing a proposed project in a particular area, the BLM starts with the resource management plan (RMP) for that particular area. Typically, RMPs are updated about every 20 years.
The RMP for the Grand Junction area was written in 1987, long before mountain biking exploded onto the scene and before natural gas drilling was widespread. Although the Grand Junction office began working on the new RMP last year, the process typically takes two to three years and is often subject to litigation.
“If you were to talk to three people about what we should do with public lands, you’d get three very different answers,” Hall said. Usually, before the plan is finalized, someone takes exception to the plan and takes the agency to court.
Those who think public land should be used for recreation may be at odds with those who think it should be open to energy development. Those who think it should be preserved forever in its natural state may be opposed to both recreational use and energy development.
“The farther you are from public lands, the more you want to see it put off limits for public use,” Hall said. “Typically, the vast majority of comments are from people who have never seen the land and have never been on it.”
During any of the public commenting periods, anyone can chime in and voice their opinion. Anyone who’s a citizen of the United States, that is.
“A lot of times, we get inundated with international comments,” Hall said, adding that the agency doesn’t take international comments under consideration because citizens of the world aren’t given the same right to participate under our laws as citizens of this country.
Based on the RMP, a decision whether or not an area is open to a particular activity such as natural gas drilling or coal mining will be made. At that point, the energy producer wanting to pursue the activity on the land has to obtain the federal lease.
When the lease is secured, the producer must submit a proposal for developing the lease, which includes an environmental assessment. If the BLM finds that there will be no significant impact to the environment, the project receives the green light to go forward. If there is an impact on the environment, an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) must be developed.
“We can and do authorize projects that are going to have impacts,” Hall said. “The EIS allows us to know the impacts, mitigate the impacts and allow public comments.”
The permitting process adds another step to the procedure. Sometimes, the agency can address multiple concerns at a project level, but often, additional environmental analysis is required for every action, such as a right-of-way permit for a road or power lines, and a separate permit to drill or begin mining activities.
There is no typical length of time from the time a lease is secured to production, but it’s rarely less than a year or two and often longer and always includes periods of public comment.
When making a decision, the BLM relies on facts, well-qualified experts and the guidance of the law, especially the Wilderness Act, the Federal Land Management Policy Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
“I don’t know how you could describe anything the BLM does as a rush,” Hall said. “We have too much transparency and too much analysis. There are opportunities at every step for public comment.”
Once the decision is made, anyone can choose to appeal that decision.
“Almost all of the energy actions that we take are litigated, in the Interior Board of Land Appeals or court or both,” Hall said.
The Grand Junction area is one of the agency’s best examples of an area that manages to balance recreational use with natural resource development and preservation.
“In the Grand Junction area, we have natural gas development, coal mining activity and uranium activity. We also have some of the nation’s premier recreation areas,” Hall said, adding that the area also manages wilderness areas like Dominguez Canyon. “You’d be hard pressed to find an area that provides a better example of what we can do with public lands in terms of finding that balance.”
Like Woody Guthrie sang more than 60 years ago, when it comes to public land, this land is your land and this land is my land. Deciding what happens on public land is never simple, quick or sure to please everyone. But the process allows everyone to have a voice about the land.