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Sorting through public comments on the Canyons of the Ancients plan
By Gail Binkly
The Montezuma County commissioners have numerous concerns about the draft resource management plan proposed for Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, from worries that the monument will become “more like Mesa Verde” to objections to policies on oil and gas extraction.
“It is our view that Management direction for the Monument should be guided by The Federal Lands Management Policy Act (FLPMA),” the commissioners stated in a five-page letter of comments dated Jan. 29. FLPMA offers guidance for how public lands should be managed by the BLM, which is the agency overseeing the monument.
“ ‘The BLM manages public lands on the basis of multiple use and sustained yield’,” the commissioners wrote, quoting from FLPMA, but they said the draft plan veers away from the multiple-use goal. In particular they voiced concern about proposed reductions in cattlegrazing on the monument and limitations to oil- and gas-drilling.
“The BLM has repeatedly assured us that the Monument is a multiple use Monument where oil & gas, grazing, recreation, wildlife and archeological resources would be managed in the same manner as on other BLM lands,” they wrote. “The ... Commissioners further maintain that a sustained yield means maintaining existing levels of use. While voluntary reductions are the right of every stakeholder, the [board] does not condone any reductions resulting from misapplication of management policies, or administrative decisions that reduce the levels of existing use.
“Will the . . . Monument truly be managed as a multiple-use National Monument where emphasis will be placed on managing grazing, oil, gas and CO2 production in a manner that preserves their viability for the long term . . . ? Or will the Monument be managed with the intention of eventually phasing out grazing, oil, gas and CO2 production and making the Monument become more like Mesa Verde where management protection of cultural resources become more like a ‘National Park’? . . .”
The public-comment period on the draft plan and accompanying environmental impact statement ended Jan. 30. Comments have flooded in, according to monument Manager LouAnn Jacobson, but most came from one source.
“We received 14,210 form letters from the Wilderness Society,” she said.
In addition, there were 145 comments submitted through the monument’s web site and 73 letters received in the mail.
All must be sorted and categorized, she said, before the agency prepares its response.
The plan offers five alternatives for management: Alternative I is no action, meaning to leave things as they are. Alternative II is the most protective of cultural and other resources; Alternatives III and IV are friendliest to resource use and development; and Alternative V, the BLM’s preferred alternative, seeks a compromise between extremes.
The county commissioners did not state that they wanted a different alternative chosen, but they did strongly object to parts of the draft plan.
One of their biggest concerns was extraction of fluid minerals. The preferred alternative would allow new oil and gas leases only for the purpose of protection against drainage (when a well is draining a fluid resource from beneath lands that aren’t leased). That would result in an estimated 880 acres of new fluid-mineral leasing over the next 20 years, according to the plan.
In contrast, under Alternative III, new fluid-mineral leases would be issued for all federally owned minerals within the McElmo Dome, and under Alternative IV, new leases would be issued for all federally owned minerals on the monument. This would result in 3,021 acres of available leases and 24,462 acres under alternatives III and IV, respectively.
The commissioners emphasized the economic importance of oil and gas extraction to the county — especially carbon-dioxide production, which pays about 40 percent of Montezuma County’s property taxes.
“The [board] acknowledges the importance of mitigating significant impacts on other resources,” the commissioners wrote, “however, we maintain that the right to access fluid minerals through drilling and related mitigation measures be established and implemented in an orderly and timely manner so as to avoid unnecessary delays in the exercise of these rights. It appears that the rules established by the BLM for mineral extraction on the Monument lands have become increasingly difficult in an apparent effort to pressure energy development off of the Monument.”
Energy companies that hold leases on federal minerals in the area “have a proven track record for following good stewardship practices,” the commissioners wrote.
“With regard to the energy industry, the . . . Commissioners feel that the DRMP as written does not adequately analyze nor recognize the importance of oil, gas and CO2 production to our County. We believe that the conclusion the DRMP/DEIS came to on the impacts of fluid mineral management is incorrect and greatly underestimates not only the current importance” but also the future importance of such resources, they wrote.
“While the DRMP/DEIS seems to overall down play the important fluid minerals on the Monument by painting a bleak and negative picture of a played out oil and gas field, it extols the virtues of tourism in the most positive manner,” the commissioners said. “However the contribution to our local economy and property tax base by the energy industries is critical and cannot be replaced by tourism.”
The Rangeland Stewardship Committee, a group of seven ranchers appointed by the commissioners, also weighed in on the issue of grazing. In comments to the BLM, which were endorsed by the commissioners, the committee said it preferred Alternative V, but wanted some changes to support grazing on the monument.
As is, Alternative V would cut the number of AUMs (animal units per month) permitted on the monument from 8,492 to 6,437.
“Livestock production has always been, and continues to be to this day, a significant economic element of the local community and to the nation at large,” the committee wrote.
The ranchers said that a rangeland health assessment conducted in 2001 does not fairly represent true conditions on the monument because it was done during a severe drought. “We the Committee feel that using this purposely select and narrow data set paints a bleak and negative picture of the livestock industry. . .,” they wrote.
They asked that language be added to the plan’s goals under “Rangeland Resources” that would say, “Recognize and manage livestock production as a viable and permanent economic resource and an integral and valuable component of the Monument’s cultural and historic values.”
Jacobson said she could not comment much about changes that might be made to the plan, but she quoted from a letter written by then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt during discussions over creation of the monument.
Babbitt wrote, “The term multiple use means different things to different people. . . . I’ve said repeatedly that I think oil and gas development and livestock-grazing have proven to be compatible with protecting the area’s resources. That does not mean there will never be any changes to use authorizations or the way certain uses are managed, but those changes occur regardless of any new form of management of the area.”
Jacobson said, “My comment would be that we are still using that as one of the overarching philosophies for our planning effort.”
Topics covered in the public comments were very wide-ranging, Jacobson said
One of the most commented-on was the plan’s definition of a road as “an open way for the passage of vehicles, persons or animals on land, regardless of the type of travel.”
The language was designed to allow continued mountain-biking in Sand Canyon. The monument’s proclamation specifically states that “all motorized and mechanize vehicle use” is prohibited off-road, which would seem to preclude fat-tire aficionados from using the popular Sand Canyon trails.
Jacobson did say that she expects the road definition to change in the final version.
Roads, communities and streams
The commissioners’ other concerns about the plan included:
• Road access by private landowners who have inholdings on the monument. Some historic access roads were omitted from BLM maps, the board said. The commissioners also asked whether access rights would transfer to new owners if land were sold, and complained that the draft plan allows for road maintenance but not for road improvements. “Denying the right to improve roads onto private lands negatively impacts their value and appears to be an attempt to pressure private ownership off of the Monument and setting up the acquisition of private inholdings by the Monument, and at a lower market value,” the board wrote.
•The concept of “cultural communities” expressed throughout the document. The proclamation creating the monument in 2000 does not make reference to “cultural communities,” the board noted, and “is rooted in the 1906 Antiquities Act which specifically mentions landmarks, structures and objects.” The board said the term “seems to lack a succinct definition.”
“Are the ‘cultural communities’ larger than cultural sites?” the board asked. “If so, how large are they? . . . If one site is connected to the next, then the next is connected as well, and so on. At some point the ‘interconnectedness’ becomes an overwhelming focus and could be used as a way to stymie the Monument’s mandate of multiple use.”
• The proposal to list Cross Canyon, Hovenweep Tributary, Sandstone Canyon and Bowdish Canyon streams as “eligible” for Wild and Scenic River designation. Eligibility, under federal law, means only that a stream meets the most basic criteria for WSR designation: having one or more “outstandingly remarkable” values, and being a free-flowing stream. Many more steps would have to be taken before a stream or river could actually gain national designation as a WSR.
However, the commissioners said the stream segments did not even meet the basic eligibility criteria.
Their concern was echoed by the Dolores Water Conservancy District. In a letter dated Jan. 29, DWCD President Joe Mahaffey wrote that proposing the four stream segments as “eligible” for WSR designation “reflects a misapplication of BLM policy coupled with a misunderstanding of the source of a significant portion of the water in these canyons.”
Mahaffey quoted from a BLM manual that states that eligible streams should derive their flow from “naturally occurring circumstances” such as snowmelt and precipitation. He noted that a portion of the water in the four canyons is imported via the trans-basin diversion of water from the Dolores River Basin for irrigation.
Jacobson said BLM officials will be busy for some time handling all the comments. She said none are given more weight than any others because of their authorship. “It doesn’t matter how many comments we get on a specific topic or who submitted it,” she said.
A final version of the management plan should be published in late summer or early fall, she said.