Kelly Sloan, The Business Times
A public comment period remains open through April 25 on a proposed plan guiding management of more than 1 million acres of federal land in Mesa County, including provisions affecting energy development and off-road travel.
Comments will help determine how various alternatives are integrated into a revised management plan (RMP) for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management field office in Grand Junction, said Collin Ewing, a planning and environmental coordinator with the office. “We need to understand how each alternative will affect people before we come to a final decision.”
Ewing discussed the revision process as well as various alternatives affecting energy development and travel management during a presentation hosted by the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce.
A draft version of the plan presents four alternative management plans drawn up by the BLM for analysis:
Under Alternative A, the BLM would continue to manage lands as it has since 1987.
Alternative B — dubbed a “balanced” approach identified as the BLM’s preferred alternative — includes some conservation measures that prohibit oil and gas development in additional areas and close certain roads and trails, but also leaves some acreage open for energy development and motorized recreation.
Alternative C stresses conservation and excludes vast areas from drilling, development or access.
Alternative D stresses economic resource development, albeit at a reduced acreage from the current plan.
Ewing said he doesn’t expect the final plan to look exactly like the preferred alternative. “Based in part on the comments we receive, it will likely contain bits and pieces of each of the alternatives.”
Ewing discussed provisions of the proposed plan relating to oil and natural gas development and travel management.
The preferred alternative would exclude additional acreage from oil and natural gas leasing — mainly in the Glade Park and Gateway areas as well as in municipal watersheds east of Palisade — while leaving open most of the land north of Grand Junction and around Collbran currently available for leasing.
Under the existing management plan, 96,500 acres of public land within the field office’s area of responsibility is closed to oil and gas activity. The preferred alternative would increase that to 202,400 acres, reducing available leasing from 1,134,600 acres to 1,028,800 acres.
The conservation alternative would further reduce that acreage by about half, leaving roughly 600,000 acres available for oil and gas leasing while closing over 620,000 acres.
Varying degrees of non-surface occupancy, controlled surface use and timing limitation stipulations would be applied to new leases under each of the alternatives, although Ewing said new stipulations wouldn’t apply to existing rights on the roughly 690,000 acres leased under the existing plan.
David Ludlum, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said his organization is monitoring the planning process. “As development of the Mancos and Niobrara formations starts to increase, access to resources within the Grand Junction planning area will become more important,” Ludlum said. “We are continuing to analyze the RMP with a view to ensuring access to the minerals that the public owns and has a right to.”
One of the most contentious parts of the plan pertains to travel management, including off-road use and access trails in two primary zones — Gateway and the desert area north of Grand Junction.
Ewing said federal regulations stemming from an executive order issued by President Jimmy Carter in 1977 regarding damage determined to be caused by off-road vehicle use on public lands require the BLM to assess roads and trails on those lands on a route-by-route basis within five years of the adoption of a resource management plan.
The preferred alternative would eliminate all cross-country motorized use in the planning area except on specially designated off-highway vehicle open areas, increase the amount of acreage closed to motorized or mechanical travel and close a number of existing all-terrain vehicle trails. Ewing said the route closures are proposed to address concerns attributed to density, recreational objectives and user conflicts.
“Some areas are left open only to foot, horse and mountain bike traffic, as ATV use can conflict with those uses,” Ewing said.
Some area residents and businesses oppose the proposed closures, however.
Keith Ehlers questioned what the BLM expects to gain or prevent through the closures. “It is unfair to continue this momentum towards changing the rules without answers as to why that change is needed.”
Ehlers referred specifically to an area north of Grand Junction where he said he and his family frequently spend time.
He also noted the potential economic effects of limiting access, pointing out how much money is spent by off-road enthusiasts. “The average motorcycle can cost $3,000 to $4,000. Maintenance can run you $150 to 250 per year, plus fuel, snacks and food. That’s a lot of money being spent locally that will dry up if our recreational lands are fenced up.”
Others at the chamber presentation reiterated those views. Some said environmental problems would be compounded by concentrating traffic in a relatively small, designated area. Others noted the irony of efforts to increase tourism to the Colorado National Monument by designating it a national park while simultaneously limiting off-road vehicle tourism near the airport.
Brandon Hunt, a parts and accessories manager at All Terrain Motor Sports, didn’t attend the chamber presentation. But he said BLM closures would affect business. “While it would have an immediate effect on us, it will also impact other businesses in the valley, such as bicycle shops,” Hunt said. “Once land is shut down for one group, it tends to get shut down for others as well.”
Hunt questioned why land would be closed for recreational use when it can’t be used for other purposes. “There is no water, so you can’t build houses on it. There are no resources. Why shut it down when it can’t be used for anything else?”
Mesa County Commissioner John Justman said calling the preferred alternative to the resource plan “balanced” was disingenuous. “How can you have balance when you are closing something like 60 percent of the roads where ATVs can go?” Justman said in the decades before the proliferation of ATVs, lots of Jeeps were often seen in the areas in question, which he said had the potential to cause far more damage than today’s vehicles.
Ewing said public lands offer exceptional and renowned off-road recreational opportunities, and he believes the final plan won’t affect the industry. “I think we can continue to offer a world-class experience after this process.”
He said the BLM likely offer additional workshops on the travel management portion of the plan in coming weeks.
For your information: A revised management plan for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management field office in Grand Junction is available at www.blm.gov/co/st/en/fo/gjfo/rmp/rmp.html. Comments will be accepted through April 25 and should be sent to BLM-GJFO RMP, 2815 H Road, Grand Junction, CO 81506.