Some of Colorado’s wildest places may still be at risk

Dinosaur National Monument is home is home to rare finds, including this quarry fossil wall within the park. A plan for lands near the park leave much of the region open to energy development and off-road vehicle use.

Photo by the National Park Service

Hundreds of thousands of acres of wilderness quality lands in northwest Colorado are not being protected under new management plans for the region.

While one northwest Colorado plan does not do enough to protect wildlands, a neighboring management plan highlights how the agency can adopt new practices to protect and preserve wild areas.

Recently the Bureau of Land Management rolled out final decisions for two Colorado land use plans-- Grand Junction and White River-- bringing the total to five final land use plans adopted by the agency in Colorado this year. The plans have changed little since they were released as draft plans this spring, and we noted at that time the stark contrast between the approaches to conserving wild public lands.

The Grand Junction and White River plans span 2.5 million acres of public land in Colorado and will guide management decisions for those lands for many years to come. Yet the plans being adopted by the BLM’s field offices could not be more different in how the agency will manage wildlands while guiding energy development to more suitable locations in the region. The White River plan appears to embrace modern management tools to better balance the many use of our public lands but the Grand Junction plan fails to do that.

The White River plan, which is focused on oil and gas development across the planning area, identifies more than 300,000 acres of lands with wilderness characteristics - nearly 140,000 acres of which will be managed to protect those wild qualities, and placing limits on the rest to protect against any unnecessary degradation. The White River plan also finalizes a Master Leasing Plan for the public lands south of Dinosaur National Monument. The Master Leasing Plan includes significant resource protection measures, including a phased leasing approach and restricting development in wilderness-quality lands to ensure that oil and gas drilling is balanced with other multiple uses.

The Grand Junction plan, on the other hand, failed to acknowledge hundreds of thousands of acres of lands with wilderness characteristics identified, and supported for protection, by The Wilderness Society and the public. There was some good news in that the final decision for the Grand Junction region took steps to remedy this problem by recognizing the agency must continue working to identify and consider wilderness-quality lands. However, the management plan was the best opportunity for lands with wilderness characteristics to be considered for protective management, and we now face an uphill battle in ensuring these important wildlands are not lost to oil and gas development and off-road vehicle use.

We are encouraged and inspired by the unprecedented public engagement in these land use plans, an effort that influenced the BLM to employ new planning tools to craft more balanced management plans for Colorado’s public lands. Tools such as Master Leasing Plans and identification of lands with wilderness characteristics help the BLM adopt modern management approaches and demonstrate a commitment to conservation. We still have work to do for our public wildlands, but we are moving on the right path.