Interior secretary nominee Deb Haaland is promising to work to “find a path forward” for a controversial new resource management plan for the Bureau of Land Management Uncompahgre Field Office based in Montrose.
Haaland, currently a U.S. House of Representatives member from New Mexico, addressed the issue in a written response to a question posed by U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., as part of her ongoing Senate confirmation process.
Hickenlooper sits on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which on Thursday approved Haaland’s nomination by President Joe Biden to become Interior secretary. Her nomination still awaits a vote by the full Senate, but it appears she will receive enough votes to be confirmed, which would make her the first Native American to be Interior secretary.
Hickenlooper and other members of the committee asked questions of Haaland during a confirmation hearing, but also in writing, with Hickenlooper using the latter opportunity to bring up the Uncompahgre plan.
It governs energy development, recreation, livestock grazing and other uses on BLM lands in parts of Montrose, Delta, Gunnison, Ouray, San Miguel and Mesa counties. Some activists particularly argue the plan allows too much oil and gas leasing and development in the North Fork Valley.
Conservationists have sued over the plan, as has the state of Colorado. The suits contend in part that the plan is illegal because, according to a Montana judge’s ruling, William Perry Pendley was illegally leading the agency and involved with the plan when it was approved under the Trump administration.
Hickenlooper said in his written question to Haaland, “As both a geologist and former governor, I believe that it is critical that both science and community input help guide how we use our public lands. Unfortunately, under the last Administration, we didn’t always see this play out, including with the BLM’s Uncompahgre Field Office’s Resource Management Plan released last April.
“The Governor of Colorado has expressed concerns that this Resource Management Plan is not in line with state plans and policies, and the state ultimately filed a lawsuit challenging the plan. I have also heard from local elected officials that the plan wasn’t responsive to community concerns about public health, environmental risks or impacts to the region’s agriculture economy. Will you commit to reviewing this plan to make sure it’s truly responsive to local communities’ wishes and in keeping with the best available science?”
Haaland answered, “I understand that this recently released plan has generated serious concerns in your state and I am committed to listening closely to them and working with you to try and find a path forward.
“I am committed to consulting with states, Tribes, and local stakeholders and to public land decisions that are grounded in the best available science. If I am confirmed, I commit to getting more fully briefed on this issue so that I can make an informed decision about moving forward.”
The state contends the plan lacks adequate protection of big-game winter range and migration corridors, and doesn’t sufficiently protect Gunnison sage-grouse, federally listed as a threatened species. The state says the plan also failed to address greenhouse gas reduction targets set out by a state law, or aspects of Senate Bill 181, a state oil and gas bill.
When the BLM released its plan, it said it “provides for a balanced combination of goals, objectives, allowable uses and management actions.” It said that as a result of comments by Gov. Jared Polis, it adopted a new controlled surface use stipulation for oil and gas leasing to benefit big game, and made a change that enhanced habitat protection for sage-grouse.
In other written questions to Haaland, some senators also again asked about her plans for the Bureau of Land Management headquarters, which were moved last year from Washington to Grand Junction, with numerous more headquarters jobs dispersed around the West. Haaland previously had criticized the relocation, and some critics of the move have called on the Biden administration to move the headquarters back to the nation’s capital. The Trump administration said it moved the headquarters to put BLM decision makers closer to the lands they manage and communities their decisions affect.
Haaland said in one written response, “As I said during the hearing, if I am confirmed, I will look forward to consulting with important stakeholders involved in this issue and I understand that we absolutely need to make sure that we have a full team at BLM and that our leaders can be accessible to the American people.”
She added, “It is my understanding that 90% of Interior employees are based outside of D.C., and I look forward to learning more about how the BLM is functioning despite the significant loss of personnel resulting from the recent reorganization.”