BLM Colorado: lost in the wilderness on Tres Rios Plan

Dolores River Canyons Wilderness Study Area

Soren Jespersen

New BLM management plan in Colorado fails to put conservation on equal ground with development.

In the first of a three management plans to be released in 2015, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Colorado missed a great opportunity to protect some of Colorado's most treasured landscapes—including the Dolores River, lands surrounding Mesa Verde National Park and recreation hubs around Durango. 

The recently finalized a management plan for the Tres Rios area in southwestern Colorado falls short of protecting lands with wilderness characteristics and fails to take a balanced approach to public land management. The Tres Rios plan could have set a model for many of the other Colorado management plans currently in the works, but the plan as it stands is unfinished and needs additional attention. 

Resource Management Plans are long-term roadmaps that decide how our public lands will be managed for the next 20 years, such as where and how oil and gas development will occur and what lands will be protected for recreation and wildlife habitat. These plans are crafted with extensive public input and review. The public has asked the BLM to protect these wildlands from oil and gas drilling and other damaging forms of development throughout the planning process, but the BLM’s final plan does not give balance to these different uses.

The agency also neglected to plan for oil and gas development through Master Leasing Plans, which would guide oil and gas development to smart places while protecting wilderness-quality lands.

Wild lands take the backseat

Under a policy introduced by the Department of Interior in 2012, the BLM is charged to identify and consider managing wilderness-quality lands for conservation purposes by focusing on naturalness, opportunities for quiet recreation and other values. Management to protect lands with wilderness characteristics is a unique approach that upholds wilderness qualities and ensures public lands users can engage the sights and sounds of nature.

Unfortunately, the BLM in Colorado is ignoring this new policy in these new management plans. The proposed plans abandon key opportunities to create balanced management strategies. They fail to reflect the value that Coloradans place on preserving wild lands for recreation and conservation.

The Tres Rios plan will protect 11,800 acres of lands with wilderness characteristics, which amounts to only 2 percent of the public lands in the area. Meanwhile, 92 percent of the area will be open to oil and gas development. This does not reflect the tens of thousands of public comments asking for more protection of our public lands.

In a recent bipartisan poll on “The State of The Rockies”, 68 percent of Coloradans favored protecting natural areas and wildlife from development and industry – more than any other state in the West. The BLM’s failure to acknowledge and protect lands with wilderness characteristics in the Tres Rios plan counters both agency policy and the public’s values for public lands.

BLM Colorado needs to commit to protecting Colorado’s outstanding landscapes

As the first plan of three slated for the beginning of 2015, the Tres Rios plan sets a poor precedent for land management decisions on Colorado’s most valuable wild public lands. The three plans BLM is currently finalizing in Colorado cover a total of 1.5 million acres of public land altogether and include many spectacular and treasured landscapes ranging from high deserts to alpine meadows.

While resource development and oil gas leasing continue moving forward, wild lands are left exposed and unprotected. Amending the new RMP to consider designating Areas of Critical Environmental Concern is a necessary first step, but the BLM should be sure to take additional steps to help achieve balanced management of our public lands.

We call on the BLM to reverse course and fix their next two plans for Kremmling and the Colorado River Valley by recognizing and protecting lands with wilderness characteristics and prioritizing balanced management of public lands. The agency should also move quickly to add conservation to the Tres Rios plan.

Our wild places and our wildlife should be put on equal ground with development; allowing us and our future generations to get out and experience Colorado’s remaining wild places.