Resource advisory committees that provide citizen input to the Bureau of Land Management are dwindling under the Trump administration, and the situation appears to be similar in Southwest Colorado.
The Southwest Resource Advisory Council, or Southwest RAC, as it’s commonly known, has so many unfilled vacancies it no longer has a quorum. Its next meeting will be a conference phone call.
“We are going to hold a conference call with current members to keep them up to date in March,” said Eric Coulter, public affairs specialist for the BLM Southwest District, in a phone call to the Four Corners Free Press.
People have been nominated to fill the vacancies but the nominations have just been sitting around awaiting approval.
The office of U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, who represents the Third District of Colorado, is looking into the situation, according to Tipton press secretary Matthew Atwood.
The Southwest RAC consists of 15 members who serve staggered three-year terms. The terms of five of them expired in December of 2019, and two more terms expired in January, for a total of seven recent vacancies on the committee. That’s in addition to three vacancies that occurred in 2018 and have yet to be filled.
That leaves just five active members on the group.
“At this point we do not have confirmation of our 2018 (3 nominations) and 2019 (7 nominations),” wrote Southwest District Manager Stephanie Connolly in an email to the current and former members. “This means we do not have a quorum and can not have an official RAC meeting where you would be able to provide recommendations/ advise to us on our proposals or decisions.
“The leadership team of the Southwest District thank you for your patience and dedication to the RAC. We greatly value your contributions and while we await for the process to be complete, we want to stay in touch with you.”
The Southwest RAC, which generally meets three or four times a year, last met on Dec. 12, before some of the terms were up. Until recently, there were 38 chartered BLM RACs in the West. They generally have 10 to 15 members who represent widely differing interests.
The members of Colorado’s RACs are divided into three categories.
- Category 1 includes representatives of livestock-grazing, energy, off-highway vehicles and commercial outfitters.
- Category 2 members represent environmental organizations, archaeological and historical interests, wildlife organizations, wild horse and burro advocates, and dispersed recreation.
- Category 3 includes representatives of government agencies and elected officials, Native tribes, academic institutions, and the public at large.
The committees cannot make decisions for the BLM, they can only offer the agency advice and input on management of public lands.
The Colorado Southwest RAC represents the BLM’s Uncompahgre, Tres Rios and Grand Junction field offices. The councils, according to their charter, operate on the principle of collaborative decision-making and work to reach consensus before making official recommendations.
However, the Trump administration has issued a national request to reduce the number of RACs nationwide, Coulter said.
The administration announced in early 2017 that it wanted to review the RACs and their charters. At that time, Colorado’s four RACs were suspended temporarily. They were soon renewed, however, with new charters that emphasized energy development, mining, and the creation of jobs.
The Southwest RAC began meeting again at that time, but now is unable to until its vacancies are filled.
RAC members are nominated by either themselves or other people. The nominations are then vetted by state BLM offices and ultimately must be approved by the Department of the Interior.
Coulter said the nominations to fill the 2018 vacancies on the Southwest RAC are sitting at the national office, awaiting approval, while those for the 2019 vacancies are “still with the state of Colorado.”
Atwood told the Four Corners Free Press that Tipton was recently in the town of Nucla for a Chamber of Commerce event and visited with John Reams, chair of the Southwest RAC and one of its remaining active members, and they discussed the situation.
“Some of the nominations have to be approved at the Interior level,” Atwood said.
He said part of the problem may be that 70 percent of the political nominations haven’t been filled in Interior.
However, the RAC nominations should get the go-ahead at some point, he believes.
“To our knowledge there isn’t any real reason they have not been approved,” he said.
RACs nationwide have been in decline since the Trump administration’s review. There are six RACs in Oregon, and three of them have not met in more than two years, according to a December 2019 report by Oregon Public Broadcasting. In Colorado, both the Northwest and Rocky Mountain RACs have become defunct, Coulter said.
The number of RACs in existence has varied over the years, he said. “There were recreation RACs as well” as the general RACs. “The Forest Service also had those.”
Coulter said the agency values the councils and would like for them to continue.
“As BLM we appreciate what the RAC provides us,” he said. “It’s a valuable resource for us. We will continue to pursue keeping the RACs active.”