This week, the state BLM office in Denver announced it would submit a proposal to Washington, D.C. for approval. The controversial plan would regulate oil and gas development in Montezuma and La Plata counties. The BLM has considered a plan for two years, with multiple public meetings around the region.
After months of public meetings and information gathering from a subcommittee, the Southwest Resource Advisory Committee last month reached an impasse on the MLP. Members of the 15-member committee could not pass a resolution endorsing or condemning the MLP.
Monday afternoon, commissioners Keenan Ertel and Larry Don Suckla both were visibly upset as they listened to Connie Clementson and Justin Abernathy, of the BLM Tres Rios Field Office, explain reasons for the agency’s decision. Ertel said even though the BLM hosted public meetings to gather input on the plan, BLM officials thought only of the agency’s wishes.
“We have to go through this long drawn-out process until it’s what the BLM wants,” Ertel said. “The process works out great as long as it’s what the BLM wants.”
Proponents of the MLP say the BLM’s previous 2015 study – a Resource Management Plan – failed to look at the overall impact oil and gas extraction would have on valued resources, such as the escarpment to Mesa Verde National Park and the renowned mountain biking system at Phil’s World, just east of Cortez.
The master lease plan faced opposition from energy companies that claimed it would place undue hardship on future development, and commissioners in Montezuma County, which relies heavily on property taxes from the industry.
The commissioners have opposed an MLP, arguing that the BLM’s recently updated resource management plan adequately regulates oil and gas. The commission supported a plan amendment, however, that would make the Phil’s World bike park off limits to development.
Suckla complained that BLM staffers were devoting more time and attention to the MLP while stalling on responsibilities that would move along the Phil’s World expansion. It took the agency a year to go through 350 pages of public comments on the MLP, Suckla said. However, the BLM has received far fewer comments on the Phil’s World expansion, and the agency has taken seven years to decide on that proposal, the commissioner said.
“We’re calling your bluff here,” Suckla told Clementson.
Clementson, manager of the BLM Tres Rios Office, said the BLM had been involved with the Phil’s World expansion for just three years. She said the agency has a multitude of responsibilities, but BLM staffers are listening to the commissioners’ opinions on the MLP, the Phil’s World expansion and other issues.
“We’re working on these projects,” she said.
Clementson said the BLM has a broader scope and a much larger constituency to consider.
Barb Sharrow, acting director of the BLM Southwest Colorado District Office in Montrose, joined the meeting by phone. She said the agency did its best to listen to the concerns that members of the public voiced.
“I can’t stress enough that we’ve taken the comments to heart,” she said.
Clementson said the MLP isn’t a done deal. The proposal won’t be submitted by the state BLM office until later this fall, and the U.S. office could veto it, she said.
Sharrow said the Tres Rios office and Southwest Colorado District would work with the Washington office on the MLP proposal. That process could take a year before a plan would be put into place.
Abernathy said the MLP area will be smaller and more focused than originally proposed, if the Washington office approves it. He said there are three MLPs already in place around the country, and a fourth is in the works.
Suckla said Montezuma County would like as little area included in the MLP as possible. He said he doubted the ability of bureaucrats in Washington to make the right decision.
“Local governments try to do what’s best for the community,” he said. “I don’t see how someone 2,000 miles away could be more in tune.”
[email protected]The Durango Herald’s Jonathan Romeo and The Journal’s Jim Mimiaga contributed to this story.