The BLM rejects protests to Canyons of the Ancients' plan
By Gail Binkly
Nearly 10 years after the creation of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, a management plan for the 166,000-acre area appears headed toward implementation.
The office of BLM Director Bob Abbey denied or dismissed all 14 protests that had been filed against the monument’s plan, opening the way for the plan to be formally adopted.
Monument Manager LouAnn Jacobson said she hopes the final resource management plan can be adopted some time this summer.
“We’re just going step by step through the final stages,” she said. Those include working on the formal record of decision and awaiting approval for the Federal Register Notice of Availability to be published. Jacobson said the final plan as stated in the record of decision will be very close to the proposed plan. “There won’t be any surprises.”
Three individuals, five energy companies, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, a coalition of two environmental organizations, two grazing-related organizations and the county commissioners for Dolores and Montezuma counties had protested the plan over a host of issues.
In a 44-page “protest resolution report” from the director dated April 4, the BLM rejected all the protests.
Canyons of the Ancients has been a source of controversy in Montezuma County since President Bill Clinton created the monument in June 2000. Many locals did not want to see the area become a national monument and had fought off an effort to have it made into a national conservation area, a designation that would have meant writing special legislation tailored to the area.
Instead, at the urging of then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, Clinton issued a proclamation creating the monument, as he did with a host of other new monuments around the West.
Since then, Canyons of the Ancients has grown in popularity with tourists and recreationists, but some locals insist the monument’s creation has meant a reduction in traditional uses such as livestockgrazing and energy production.
That concern was among the issues that prompted protests of the management plan, along with a relatively new issue — travel management, specifically in regard to mountain-biking in the Sand/East Rock Canyon area.
The mountain-biking question, seemingly a minor one, actually loomed large at one point, when the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a non-profit based in Washington, D.C., threatened to sue the monument. The trust was concerned because Canyons of the Ancients allows mountain-biking despite language in the monument’s proclamation that states, “. . . the Secretary of the Interior shall prohibit all motorized and mechanized vehicle use off road, except for emergency or authorized administrative purposes.”
But mountain-biking has become one of the most popular activities in the monument. Fat-tire enthusiasts say the winding network of trails that includes a 7-mile path from McElmo Canyon to Sand Canyon Pueblo and a route through East Rock Canyon offers world-class singletrack riding.
In January 2004, the National Trust sent a letter to the BLM arguing that permitting bikes off-road was inconsistent with the presidential proclamation and stating, “In particular, mountain bikes, and the unfettered proliferation of new trails, are threatening to destroy the integrity of the landscape in the Monument, and are causing damage to standing structures, archaeological sites, and other fragile cultural resources, especially within Sand Canyon.”
The trust was also concerned because many monuments have similar language in their proclamations and allowing mountain- biking at one could set a precedent for others.
“It was a huge deal at one point,” said Jimbo Buickerood of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, a local environmental non-profit. “We were definitely interested in continuing the ongoing bicycle use of the area that would potentially have been terminated, depending on the definition that would have used. We wanted to find a way for the ongoing use to continue but not be problematic for other monuments.”
Monument officials were able to work out a temporary compromise that offered greater protection for sites near trails while allowing mountain-biking to continue. But the issue had not been resolved, and the National Trust and the Wilderness Society both filed protests to the management plan, saying the BLM had not defined what constituted roads, primitive roads, and trails on the monument. Instead, they said, the BLM simply labeled the entire system as “routes” in order to get around saying what would constitute “offroad.”
But the BLM director upheld the monument’s transportation system, saying it “reconciles past planning decisions, management direction from the Secretary, the Proclamation, and Interim Guidance” and “addresses the unique circumstances” of the monument by limiting travel to “designated routes.”
Decisions made in the plan, the language states, “are exclusive to Canyons of the Ancients National Monument and address unique circumstances for the planning area.”
“Overall I think it’s a great solution,” said Buickerood. “Mountain-bikers will still be able to use Sand Canyon, along with foot and horseback traffic. The language is crafted in such a way that even though it’s called a route it won’t be a precedent for other national monuments in terms of routes being used as roads.”
“That’s our opinion,” Jacobson agreed. “There will be a little bit of clarification in the record of decision. Our position is that what we did could not be done by any other BLM office without going through exactly the same public process that we did with the draft and the proposed plan. They [other monuments] can’t just say, ‘Canyons of the Ancients did this so we will do it too’.”
Impediments to drilling
Many of the protests were from companies involved in energy production and exploration: Kinder Morgan CO2 Co., Robert L. Bayless Producer LLC, Bill Barrett Corp., Questar, and DJ Simmons, Inc. Some cited concerns about the effects that language about protecting cultural, visual, environmental and other resources might have on oil and gas leasing and development. Some also said the BLM’s recommendation for directional drilling in many circumstances was not feasible because of high cost and steep topography.
But the BLM said it had discussed the benefits and drawbacks to new and existing leases for its proposed management objectives, and had decided that protecting the monument’s cultural resources may sometimes make resource extraction more expensive for the operators. “Impediments to fluid mineral extraction may include the reduced access and/or restrictions that make mineral extraction costly. Other impacts may include the loss of available exploration acreage due to No Surface Occupancy or Timing Limitation stipulations.”
The director’s office also responded that there are four conventional oil and gas wells on the monument that were drilled directionally and at least two carbon dioxide wells drilled horizontally, and this "makes it apparent that, in some cases, the operators and the BLM can apply this technology to avoid impacts to resources, and drill new wells from existing surface disturbance. BLM acknowledges these technologies add cost to drilling projects. . . ."
Several companies also protested parts of the plan that set up air-quality and visibility objectives within the monument, saying the BLM does not have the authority to regulate air quality, air emissions or visibility standards.
But the BLM responded that federal law requires public-lands agencies to manage those lands so as to protect air quality.
Working well together
Bob Clayton, production supervisor for Kinder Morgan — by far the largest operator on the monument — said the company has not decided whether to further appeal the BLM’s decisions. “I’m not at liberty to say whether we will have further litigation at this point.” He said the company is waiting to see the final record of decision and any changes that might have been made in it.
A big concern for Kinder Morgan has been its long stalled proposal to drill seven carbon-dioxide wells in the Goodman Point area. That project has been held up by concerns about the density of archaeological sites in the vicinity. However, Clayton said he is optimistic it will go through.
“We just had a tour recently with representatives of the tribes and BLM and a third-party archaeologist and the state historic preservation officer, and it was a good meeting,” Clayton said.
He said Kinder Morgan has been working hard to satisfy concerns about environmental and cultural protection at the site and is hopeful that drilling will start soon. Kinder Morgan will drill two wells from each pad and will be the first operator to do directional drilling from the Paradox Basin, he said.
In addition, trees that have to be cut will be chopped into firewood and delivered to Pueblo tribes, Clayton said, and yucca and cacti that have to be dug up will be kept alive and then replanted.
“Those are some of the things we’ve done for the tribes and the environment, and I believe it's really the right thing to do to be a responsible operator,” Clayton said.
“We have no desire to upset any of the sites. So I think everything is going to work out fine.”
Clayton said he and Jacobson “work well together” and that “she has bent over backward in some cases for Kinder Morgan because she knows we’re a good operator.”
However, the company has to be concerned about what goes into the plan because “once this is in black and white and LouAnn leaves some day, we don't know who’s next, so we have to be real protective of how this is written.”
Montezuma and Dolores counties had protested the plan based on their feeling that the plan conflicted with their policies promoting multiple use, including livestock- grazing and energy development.
But the B L M r e sponded that while its planning regu l a t i o n s require that its plans be cons i s t ent with the official plans of local governments, that is only so long as “these resource-related plans comport with FLPMA [the Federal Land Policy and Management Act] and other Federal laws and regulations.”
“The BLM determined that the County management direction of placing a priority on grazing, timber harvest and energy development is contradictory to FLPMA . . . [and] the County Plan is inconsistent with the Proclamation’s stated purpose of protecting the objects listed therein,” the response states.
James Dietrich, federal-lands coordinator for Montezuma County, said he believes if Kinder Morgan’s application to drill at Goodman Point receives final approval, the county probably won't pursue further appeals against the plan. “If the application gets approval, that's probably a good thing for the relationship between the commissioners and the monument,” he said.
Jacobson said the Kinder Morgan project is indeed moving forward. “We’re making good progress; we just had a really good field trip.”
She said, contrary to critics’ claims that new drilling has been shut down since the monument was established, 12 applications for new drilling have been approved during that time.
Once adopted, the plan should be in place for about 15 years, Jacobson said. “They’re intended for that long. As new issues come up, there may be amendments to the plan — that's not uncommon.”
But for now Jacobson is glad the process is nearly over. “We’re looking forward to being done and moving into implementation and working on some restoration and reclamation projects.”