By Marjorie Haun | Watchdog Arena
MESA, Colo.—A plan that will close nearly 2,000 miles of public roads that have previously been open for use by the people of Mesa County is creating a public backlash against the Grand Junction field office of the federal Bureau of Land Management.
The BLM’s resource management plans (RMP) regulate the access and types of traffic allowed on roads on public lands. Road maintenance and seasonal closures are also detailed in such plans.
But the most recent RMP in Mesa County indicates the BLM’s intent to limit access to public roads which have traditionally been open to motorized, horse, and foot traffic. Accessible routes will decrease from the current 3,469 miles to just 1,777. The BLM has not offered a clear justification for its planned road closures, which has left many in Mesa County frustrated and baffled.
The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reported that people with physical disabilities are especially troubled by the BLM’s plans. The May 2 article detailed a protest by 250 who gathered outside the BLM field office in Grand Junction:
“As the gathering made plain, people with disabilities enjoy camping, fishing and hunting as much as anyone, but the travel management section of the BLM’s resource management plan for the area seems not to notice, protesters said.”
In the Sentinel article, Joyce Tullio, a regular user of the public routes who is dependent on medical oxygen, complained, “The areas we like to go in, they’re closing them off. People who can hike or ride bicycles … they can go in those areas, but I’m being locked out.”
The BLM, not unlike other federal agencies, is not required to collaborate with local governments when formulating RMP for a given area. The planned closure of roads, most of which were established decades ago, will effectively close off tens of thousands of acres of public lands to human access.
The Mesa County Board of Commissioners has expressed grave concern about the potential economic impact of such a move. Issues overlooked by the BLM in the latest plan included watersheds, oil and gas leases, and local economies. On May 8, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel quoted a letter written to the BLM from the Mesa County Commissioners:
“BLM fails to adequately consider the effects its proposed management strategy will have on current and future oil and gas exploration and development activities, and the associated socioeconomic impact on Mesa County, its local communities, and the state of Colorado,” the letter says.
Reduced leasing opportunities also reduce the possible revenues due to the county from federal mineral leases, the commissioners’ letter says, as it notes that the proposed plan fails to account for development of the Niobrara and Mancos Shale formations, which hold significant oil and gas reserves.
The plan as proposed “contrasts with the federal government’s longstanding policy of encouraging responsible energy development and motorized trail use on federal lands under multiple-use principles,” the letter says. “The changes reflect a philosophy working to reduce and limit natural resource extraction throughout western Colorado’s federal mineral estate and force overcrowding of increasingly popular motorized recreation.”
The Mesa County Commissioners went on to request a six-month review of the BLM’s plans before the agency proceeds with any closures, which according to a BLM representative, is “unprecedented.”
There also appears to be conflicts between federal law and the BLM’s proposed closures. According to Brandon Siegfried, the President of the Public Lands Access Association,—as quoted in the Daily Sentinel—“Most of the routes facing closure were established 50 years ago or more. Federal law requires the BLM to treat such historic routes like highways, which cannot be closed through a resource management plan.”
In western Colorado, the ratio of federal-managed lands to private lands is significantly higher than in the rest of the state. Agricultural, economic, recreational, and various private interests of local citizens is dependent upon access through a vast and complex road system.
Although the BLM may find the growing backlash from citizens and elected officials against its proposed road closures “unprecedented,” it is likely to grow in western Colorado.
This article was written by a contributor of Watchdog Arena, Franklin Center’s network of writers, bloggers, and citizen journalists.