BLM plan scheduled for review

Phil Castle, The Business Times

 A preliminary version of a plan that will guide the management of nearly 1 million acres of federal land in Mesa County is expected to soon be ready for public review.

Meanwhile, though, work continues on a separate environmental analysis of a proposed coal mine north of Mack. 

A 90-day public comment period is tentatively scheduled to begin Jan. 25 for a draft version of a revised resource management plan for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management field office in Grand Junction.

Collin Ewing

“This is a pretty important document a lot of you folks are going to want to take a look at,” said Collin Ewing, a planning and environmental coordinator with the BLM.

Ewing and Christina Stark, a natural resource specialist with the BLM, discussed the resource management plan and proposed coal mining operations at a recent briefing hosted by the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce.

The Grand Junction field office of the BLM oversees the management of nearly 984,000 acres in Mesa County as well as the resources found beneath 143,000 acres, Ewing said.

That management encompasses everything from oil and natural gas production and recreation and travel to livestock grazing and wilderness protection, he said. “And the list goes on and on.”

Christina Stark

Once completed, the revised plan will guide resource management on BLM lands in Mesa County for the next 20 years, he added. “It’s a big deal.”

As the new plan has been developed, public comments so far have focused on mineral development, recreation and travel, he said.

Four alternatives will be available in determining the final plan, Ewing said.

One alternative would be to take no action and continue to manage resources under a plan developed in 1987, Ewing said. Two other alternatives would focus alternatively on the use and development or conservation of resources.

The preferred alternative offers what Ewing called a balanced approach between development and conservation.

The BLM must take into account a range of land uses and issues that include energy development, such recreational pursuits as mountain bike and four-wheel vehicle use and protection of endangered species, he said. “We’re trying to do our best to balance these.”

Following a 90-day public review early in 2013, a 30-day protest period will be scheduled. Comments and protests will be taken into consideration in developing a final resource management plan, Ewing said.

In response to a question, Ewing said the BLM has worked closely with Mesa County, the cities of Grand Junction and Fruita and the Town of Palisade in working on the draft plan. There hasn’t been as much involvement from the national BLM office, he said. “We didn’t get a lot of comments or changes from Washington.”

Even as the BLM Grand Junction field office prepares to put its draft resource management plan up for public review, work continues on a lease modification and environmental impact statement for coal mining operations on federal land north of Mack.

Stark said a lease modification has been requested for the McClane Canyon underground coal mine to go after additional reserves. A final environmental assessment and decision soon will be issued on the request, although additional state permitting also will be required, she said.

The mine has been idle since December 2010, when the Cameo power plant in DeBeque Canyon closed. The Xcel Energy plant was the lone customer for coal from the mine.

Corey Heaps, a project manager for Rhino Energy, which operates the mine, said the lease modification is part of the preparations under way to resume mining when new customers are found. “Really what we’re waiting for is a contract. I just don’t know when that contract is going to be.”

At the same time, work continues on a second environmental analysis for a larger underground mining operation proposed for 14,000 acres of BLM land north of Mack in Garfield County. As it was initially proposed in 2005, the mine would become one of the largest underground operations in the state in producing 6 million tons a year.

In addition to the mine itself and nearby surface facilities, the project would include the construction of a rail spur between the mine and the Union Pacific Railroad line at Mack.

While one environmental assessment on the project was conducted, a second assessment was deemed necessary to fully consider all aspects of the project and what will be a competitive leasing process to mine coal there, Stark said. 

The process of gathering public comments and identifying issues to be considered in the second assessment is scheduled to begin in the spring, she said.