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When Chuck McAfee looks out the window of his Southwest Colorado home, he sees a patchwork of public and private holdings that characterize the landscape of much of the rural West. The private lands McAfee sees include the farm that his grandfather homesteaded more than 100 years ago. A bit farther afield are holdings owned by the U. S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
McAfee is in the process of restoring perennial native grasses to his family’s farm, grasses more suited to the high and dry local ecology of the Colorado Plateau. He hopes that through a conservation-based approach, he can leave a legacy on his family’s land of improved forage and better wildlife habitat.
How those public lands adjacent to the McAfee place are managed, though, is a great concern to the former engineer. Now a self-described “community volunteer,” McAfee’s concerns have amplified due to President Trump’s likely signing of a Congressional Resolution that cancels the Obama Administration’s approach to BLM planning and public participation, known as BLM 2.0.
According to McAfee, BLM 2.0 “looked like a great way for the agency to gather early input on land management decisions. That’s input from the public, from local communities, from local people. Now we’re going to be back to the process from the early 1980s.”
McAfee explains how local citizens used the public input process to limit energy and mining development in his home Montezuma County. BLM had proposed a broader opening to extractive industries prior to local hearings on the plan. “That’s what the County Commissioners wanted, but then we had hearings, and the community spoke out 10 to 1 against the proposal. The people wanted protections.”
In this case, BLM decided to listen to the public and limit energy and mining to very specific areas of the region. Montezuma’s County Commissioners were furious. The way they see it, BLM 2.0 gave land management decisions to “bureaucrats in Washington,” shifting the authority away from the traditional process.
Opponents of BLM 2.0 have often used this rallying cry. U. S. Representative Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming) authored the resolution, leading the charge for passage in the House
The resolution ending BLM 2.0 passed both the House of Representatives and Senate in nearly party-line votes. Republicans supported elimination of the process; Democrats supported the Obama administration’s changes.
Part of President Trump’s “regulatory rollback” effort, the resolution used the legislative tool known as the Congressional Review Act (CRA). The CRA allows a new president to cancel previous administrative actions that occur in the last 60 days of a former president’s term. The Trump administration used the CRA for other regulations, too, such as rules related to stream protections from coal mining and financial disclosure mandates for oil companies.
The Public Lands Council and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association were quick to hail Congressional action, urging a “third strike” to BLM 2.0 with the President’s signature. “This is a common-sense use of Congress’ authority,” said Ethan Lane, executive director of the Public Lands Council and director of federal land policy for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. “Planning 2.0 was finished hastily and pushed out the door over the objections of the local communities and stakeholders it will impact most. Hitting the reset button now will allow BLM the opportunity to update the planning process properly, with impacted stakeholders and communities at the table.”
Back in Montezuma County, Colorado, Chuck McAfee countered that BLM 2.0 was a big improvement. He says BLM 2.0 opponents are misguided. “The idea of this, that 2.0 would have moved all decision power and authority to Washington D.C., it’s just a red herring.”
Many groups, including a broad array of outdoor enthusiasts and conservationists, agree with McAfee. They point out that BLM 2.0’s approach was far from perfect, but that it was a vast improvement over previous BLM land management rules.
Joel Webster is a specialist on Western land issues for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP). He calls the criticism of BLM 2.0 “grossly out of proportion to the rule’s narrow reality.” Webster says, “BLM 2.0 would have increased transparency, giving the agency opportunity to vet ideas and get reactions from the public. It improved the BLM’s process all along the way.” Webster called it a shame that “all of this work, this effort, all of these public input improvements” are being tossed away.
The conservation partnership sees public access to public land for hunting, fishing and other forms of recreation as a key issue. “It’s harder and harder to get access to private lands,” Webster said. “Especially in the West, the average person needs public lands, they need public access if they’re going to have a place to hunt or fish.”
“All of the time, the effort, the money invested in 2.0 is now wasted. It was a big improvement, but there was a small, very vocal minority that hated it.”
Tania Lown-Hecht, Outdoors Alliance
Back Country Hunters and Anglers’ Tim Brass says that those who claim BLM 2.0 would have limited local voices “are 100% wrong.” Brass works to improve access to public lands for hunting and fishing in Colorado. He says that “there’s a broad-based effort from some groups to limit public opportunity for involvement in public lands issues. The goal of ‘no 2.0’ is to keep things the way they were. This meant that some interest groups, oil and gas for instance, have preferential access. Now,” with the cancelation of 2.0, “the cards are in their favor again.”
Tania Lown-Hecht is the communications director of the Outdoors Alliance. She says that BLM 2.0, while imperfect, was well-intentioned. “In all of this rhetoric and zeal for the rollback, there is some truth. It’s true that BLM sometimes can’t make decisions quickly or efficiently. The problem is, now we’re headed back to 1983, to pre-internet days.”
The Outdoor Alliance represents skiers, paddlers, hikers, bikers and others who utilize public lands for recreation. “Now, pressure on public land use is much more diverse,” Lown-Hecht said. “We are seeking a balanced approach.” The “bummer” of the BLM 2.0 cancellation, she said , is the lost investment in time and resources. “All of the time, the effort, the money invested in 2.0 is now wasted. It was a big improvement, but there was a small, very vocal minority that hated it.”
Both sides in the debate over BLM management issues will be watching as the Trump Administration continues its appointments and policy agenda. Much is at stake. The BLM manages more land and sub-surface mineral rights than any other federal agency. Its 245 million acres, nearly all in Western states, make up 10% of U. S. surface area.