A conservation group on Thursday released documents obtained from the Bureau of Land Management that suggest agency leadership directed the overhaul of the resources management plan proposal for the agency’s Uncompahgre Field Office.

The proposal unveiled last summer differs significantly from what BLM officials in Colorado previously had identified as their draft preferred alternative following a decade-long process. It has fewer environmental protections and reduced restrictions pertaining to oil and gas leasing and development. Gunnison, Ouray and San Miguel counties have formally protested it, as did the town of Paonia and citizen and conservation groups. U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Dan Gibbs, executive director of the state Department of Natural Resources, also have voiced concerns about the substantial changes between the earlier proposal and the latest one. Gibbs has said the current proposal appears to favor energy development and Bennet says it contradicts and undermines local input and engagement.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility says the documents it obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show that agency leadership ignored the local input that went into the development of the draft alternative, and overruled BLM officials at the local level and career scientists. The group says the BLM’s actions run counter to its claim that it is decentralizing decisionmaking and undercut its rationale for its recent relocation of its national headquarters from Washington, D.C.

“They’re saying that they want to move the headquarters to Grand Junction to get the agency closer to the field and then their decisionmaking is still ignoring what’s going on in the field,” said Chandra Rosenthal, director of PEER’s Rocky Mountain office. “… Decisionmaking has never been more centralized than it is now.”

Colorado BLM spokesman Jayson Barangan previously has noted the proposed plan’s consistency with the Trump administration’s desires. He has said the plan “responds to local community needs while aligning with the (Trump) administration’s priorities like public lands access, sustainable energy development, economic growth and conservation stewardship.”

Derrick Henry, a spokesman for the BLM’s national office, said in an email Thursday, “The BLM has many priorities, as outlined by the Administration, that the agency is diligently working on for the betterment of the American people through broad public input and reliance on sound policy and good science. The BLM’s land management decisions, including the ongoing Uncompahgre Resource Management Plan and Final Environmental Impact Statement in Colorado, … have always been conducted lawfully and in compliance with current policy, including (the National Environmental Policy Act).”

The proposed management plan would cover land use on BLM-management lands and federal mineral estate in parts of Delta, Gunnison, Mesa, Montrose, Ouray and San Miguel counties.

One of the documents the group obtained is a written request by Jamie Connell, BLM state director in Colorado, to the national headquarters seeking more time to issue a final decision on the plan.

“A briefing with BLM leadership resulted in the need to revise the preferred alternatives and analysis. Further discussions with BLM leadership resulted in additional changes to align the preferred alternative with administration priorities. To address the concerns identified, the Uncompahgre Field Office made changes to management actions including reducing fluid mineral stipulations and restrictions, reducing rights-of-way restrictions, reducing areas managed as lands with wilderness characteristics, and reducing areas of environmental concern,” she wrote in explaining her request.

The BLM now expects to issue its final decision this spring.

Another document obtained by PEER from the BLM is an apparently internal briefing memo in October 2018 by an unidentified author. It indicates that a headquarters review of the draft-level proposal found that it “(m)isses the mark” and is “not in line with the (Trump) Administration’s direction to decrease regulatory burden and increase access,” and that headquarters expressed “a need to pull the current version and pursue additional modifications.”

The access reference is apparently tied to the administration’s emphasis on supporting energy development. Further language in the briefing suggests a desire by the national office to have a plan with fewer stipulations on oil and gas development. That means less acreage where the surface couldn’t be disturbed in developing leases, or where other controls would be in place to govern surface use, including seasonal limits on development activities to protect wildlife.

The current proposal reduces acreage with such restrictions when compared to the draft proposal.

Gibbs contends the current proposal fails to adequately protect big game and the Gunnison sage-grouse, which is protected under the Endangered Species Act as a threatened species. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis since has written to the BLM that its new plan should be considered in light of new state oil and gas and climate laws and ongoing state concerns about impacts to wildlife.

Connell provided a detailed written response to Polis and Gibbs last month. Her response said in part that the proposed plan’s goals and objectives “are consistent with the State’s emphasis on protecting big game winter range and migration corridors,” and the plan likewise is consistent with the state’s sage-grouse plan.

She also said the plan must comply with state law and the BLM will evaluate the state’s plan for achieving air-pollution reduction targets once that plan is complete.

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