Screenshot from BLM's powerpoint presentation: The Uncompahgre Field Office (Colorado) Proposed Resource Management Plan

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The Department of Interior (DOI) is overriding local decision-making in the rural West to allow expanded mining and resource extraction on federal public land, a report says. 

According to the DOI’s critics,  documents recently released by an organization that represents public-sector employees demonstrate a pattern of ignoring science, public input and civil servants in favor of Washington, D.C.-based political appointees.

Documents made public through a Freedom of Information Act request by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), indicate that the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) decision to open almost a million acres to fossil fuel extraction in Western Colorado overruled the long-term process conducted by local field managers, and went against the wishes of the governor and the overwhelming majority of public comments.

“This is a really good example of how politics plays into local land-use decision-making,” said Chandra Rosenthal, PEER’s Rocky Mountain Director, in an interview with the Daily Yonder. “This decision is as high-handed as it is wrong-headed,” 

PEER represents public employees by defending workers’ whistleblower protections, First Amendment rights, and civil service legal issues.

In this case, Colorado BLM employees were concerned that years of work on land-use planning in Montrose, Ouray, Gunnison, Delta, San Miguel and Mesa counties were abandoned by BLM political appointees in Washington, D.C. 

According to the documents, BLM headquarters made the ruling, stating that the previously proposed restrictions were “not in line with the Administration’s direction to decrease regulatory burden and increase access” and that proposed oil and gas extraction stipulations are “too restrictive.” 

“Where is the pressure for opening land to extraction? It’s not happening through the public process. It’s happening behind closed doors in Washington, D.C.,” Rosenthal said. “Those are the voices that appear to be more important [to this Administration] than the people who participate in the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process.”

According to PEER the “peremptory reversal violated a memorandum of understanding for joint planning with state and local officials.” The reversal ignored objections from Colorado’s governor, protests by three county commissions, as well as warnings by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on environmental impact on Gunnison sage grouse habitat.

Many conservation advocates in the West have echoed the concerns over BLM overturning local input.

“This is consistent with a pattern of ignoring public input,” said Aaron Weiss, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities. “We’ve seen it time and again. Any comments they don’t like, they just dismiss as irrelevant or invalid.”

“Interior admits it right there in their fact-myth document. They say ‘Myth: BLM ignored public comment.’ They admit that they received 250,000 comments and they considered four comments to be valid. Four out of 250,000 comments. And they feel perfectly justified ignoring 250,000,” Weiss said, pointing out the recent release of a BLM Facts and Myths document regarding the decision to eliminate the Bear’s Ears National Monument Management Plan. 

Weiss said that decisions like opening Western Colorado to additional extraction, disregarding local concerns, contradict the BLM’s claims of needing to move the agency’s headquarters to the West to improve local control. 

“By eviscerating BLM headquarters, the only staff left in D.C. are the political appointees. They are forcing out anyone with the expertise who would be able to tell the appointees, and who would follow the law and leave a paper trail,” Weiss said.

PEER’s Rosenthal pointed out that the trend of BLM overturning local decision-making goes beyond Western Colorado. She described a recent case in Nevada where BLM is considering expanding oil and gas drilling on an additional 777,000 acres of public land. 

“I just got back all of the comments. There were 10 environmental groups and numerous individuals who had commented, all against, all protesting the leasing of that land. There were no comments by oil and gas saying they wanted more land…I think that pressure is coming from the political agenda of opening public land for extraction,” Rosenthal said.