An uncertain future for Colorado’s public lands

South Shale Ridge (CO).

Scott Braden.

The Colorado Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has failed to prioritize conservation with its final decisions on five land management plans that cover nearly 4 million acres of public lands in Colorado. These plans bring about important changes for how our Colorado public lands are managed, including many of our treasured wildlands.

The new Colorado plans protect a small portion of lands that meet the agency’s criteria for lands with wilderness characteristics; as little as one percent of public land in some of them. By and large, considerations other than conservation are taking center stage in these plans and the BLM is continuing to prioritize energy development on our lands.

The release of final decisions for the Grand Junction and White River plans put the finishing touches on the agency’s series of plans for Colorado. Ultimately, the BLM missed a big opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to conservation and balance energy development with wildland protection.

Colorado’s iconic wildlands deserve protection

The deep canyon lands at the mouth of the Colorado River, the sagebrush sea surrounding Dinosaur National Monument, and pinon-juniper woodlands around Mesa Verde National Park are just a few of the places subject to decisions made in BLM’s recent plans.

The public lands in Colorado hold some of America’s extremely wild and untouched places and ensuring those places get the protection deserved should be top of mind for the agency. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case.

The Tres Rios plan, for example, opens 92 percent of public lands in the area to leasing and development, including wild lands and critical wildlife habitat. The Grand Junction plan only protects a scant 44,000 acres of lands with wilderness characteristics—a tenth of wilderness-quality lands citizens have identified in the region.

Managing lands with wilderness characteristics

Under a policy introduced by the Department of Interior in 2011, the BLM is directed to keep an updated inventory of wilderness-quality lands and consider managing those areas for conservation purposes. Officially termed “lands with wilderness characteristics”, these areas provide important wildlife habitat and unconfined backcountry recreation.

While this specific policy is relatively new, the mandate for the BLM to inventory and consider wilderness resources on the public lands is not—the agency is required to do just that under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976.

Failing to protect wilderness-quality lands flies in the face of the public support for conservation. Members of The Wilderness Society and our partner organizations made their voices heard and submitted tens of thousands of comments throughout the planning processes, urging the BLM to protect Colorado’s wild places. It’s not hard to believe why—96 percent of Coloradoans say they have visited public lands in the last year, and strong majority say we ought to protect natural areas and wildlife habitat from development.

Finding a path forward

The ray of hope is that there are instances where the Colorado BLM is finding ways to balance wildland protection with resource development. The new oil and gas plan for White River does just that, for example. The plan allows for development in appropriate places, but puts in place durable protection for top-tier lands with wilderness characteristics.

The Colorado River Valley Field Office has been updating its inventory of lands with wilderness characteristics in response to information submitted by the public. And the Grand Junction plan commits the agency to improving its management approach for protecting wild lands, and commits BLM to address gaps in its inventory of lands with wilderness characteristics.

Now, the BLM now one more chance to protect our wildlands. While these efforts are moving America’s public lands policy toward a more modern, 21st century approach, BLM Colorado needs to demonstrate a stronger commitment to conserving our public wildlands for future generations and put in motion a more balanced approach. This must include directing field offices to implement the lands with wilderness characteristics policy and move forward with analyzing development projects and providing practical means for the public to weigh in on proposals that could impact wilderness-quality lands.

Developing a consistent and effective strategy that navigates policies for wilderness within the new Colorado plans will be a critical part of BLM’s conservation legacy.