By Ron Sering
As you drive west from Pueblo into the mountains, off to the northwest is a huge area of high desert. This includes the Gold Belt area and the Royal Gorge near Cañon City, as well as vast tracts of land along the U.S. Hwy. 50 corridor near Texas Creek, Cotopaxi and Howard.
An enormous swath of it – 658,000 acres worth – is administered by the Bureau of Land Management out of its field office in Cañon City. The agency is currently in the process of revising the current management plan, in place since 1996. Once finalized, the Eastern Colorado Resource Management Plan will determine the direction of land use in the area for decades to come. A preliminary version of the ECRMP was presented for public review in 2017. This summer, the agency released a draft of the plan for final review.
“Unfortunately, a lot has changed in two years,” says John Sztukowski, Conservation Director for Wild Connections, a conservation group for the Upper Arkansas and South Platte watersheds. “The BLM is now systematically ignoring public opinion input and stripping conservation from Colorado’s wildest public lands.”
For example, the 2017 version designated more than 17,000 acres of the Sand Gulch area near Coaldale as lands with wilderness characteristics. In the revised plan, the preferred alternative shrinks that designation to zero. In the Badger Creek South area near Wellsville, the earlier version designated 8,137 acres as wilderness character; now, the BLM’s preferred alternative reduces the designation to zero.
Land formerly designated for other types of protection have been similarly cut back. All told, the BLM’s current preferred alternative designates less than 10%, or 1,300 acres, as wilderness quality, down from the previous total of 190,000 acres. Other designations such as areas of environmental concern, has shrunk from nearly 107,000 acres to 46,000. The Browns Canyon National Monument, jointly administered by the BLM and National Forest Service under a separate management plan, is not affected.
Land not designated for conservation could be on the block for the agency’s quarterly oil and gas lease auctions, as part of the Trump Administration’s push for expanded domestic energy development.
Earlier this year, the Trump administration announced record revenues of $1.1B from oil and gas lease sales. “Our sound energy policy continues to ensure reliable, safe, abundant, and affordable energy for all Americans, without putting unnecessary burdens on industry,” said Brian Steed, BLM Deputy Director for Policy and Programs. He added that the sale revenues nearly equalled the BLM’s entire budget for the year. Individual states received a forty eight percent cut of the revenues, with New Mexico receiving the largest, at $485M.
The BLM, set to relocate its offices to Grand Junction, faces a Colorado tourism industry that recorded $26B in visitor spending in 2018. Last fall, public pressure prompted the agency to pull nearly 150,000 acres in Colorado from a planned December auction. Public comments on the 2017 version of the ECRMP strongly favored recreational uses and/or wilderness preservation over energy development.
“Recreation and sightseeing are the reasons people come here in the first place,” said Aaron Cromer, who, along with wife Brenda, owns and operates Bighorn Sheep RV Park in Coaldale, right in the heart of the planning area. Cromer came to Colorado from Kansas, where he worked in oil and gas leasing for numerous energy companies. “Let’s just say there are resources there. Why not just leave it there, for when we really need them?
FOR MORE INFORMATION OR TO COMMENT
The comment period ends on September 20. Comments can be submitted by mail or on the BLM’s e-planning website.
BLM Royal Gorge Field Office
3028 E. Main Street
Cañon City, Colorado 81212
Locate the Comment or Document link on the page to leave comments.
Questions can be addressed to the BLM Royal Gorge Field Office by phone at (719) 269-8500
Ron Sering is a frequent contributor to Colorado Central and lives in the wilds of Howard, Colorado.