A highly anticipated management plan for 3.6 million acres of public land in southwestern Wyoming is on track to be released this spring, despite calls to delay the draft’s publication due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bureau of Land Management’s Rock Springs field office confirmed Monday.
“At this time, there have been no changes to the planned schedule for the release of this draft Resource Management Plan,” Kimberlee Foster, manager at the bureau’s Rock Springs field office, told the Star-Tribune on Monday. Foster anticipates having the land use plan released this spring, along with a 90-day public comment period to follow. Public meetings will also take place during that time, as required by law.
The Bureau of Land Management defines the plan as a “land management blueprint” — a document used to oversee activity (including energy development) and protect public land and resources for years to come. As required by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the bureau has been tasked with updating the existing plan to account for new data, policies and research.
Sweetwater County’s Board of Commissioners wrote a letter requesting the federal agency postpone the release of the draft plan in light of the pandemic. The commissioners called the plan “vitally important” to the county’s economy and residents’ quality of life. Yet they feared public participation would be compromised if a comment period is opened too soon.
As the spread of the virus continues, many state agencies have elected to hold public meetings online, a method Sweetwater County commissioners called “ineffective” and “frustrating.” Commissioners maintained that in-person public meetings hosted by the Bureau of Land Management would be vital to ensure ample opportunity for questions and discussion.
“Open public dialog cannot be replaced by Zoom and computerized meeting formats,” the letter stated.
What’s more, too many Wyoming residents lack broadband internet access to meaningfully participate, the commission contends. County leaders urged the federal agency to consider postponing the plan’s release until after the state lifts health restrictions.
The Rock Springs field office has not delivered a formal response to the Sweetwater County Commissioners yet. The revised plan will apply to minerals located in parts of Lincoln, Sweetwater, Uinta, Sublette, and Fremont counties.
A majority of Sweetwater County consists of federal land and a meaty portion of the county’s budget relies on oil and gas activity, a sector that can be significantly affected by a resource management plan. Wyoming produces more energy on federal land than almost any other state in the country, requiring many operators to complete environmental reviews and obtain permits at multiple levels of government before drilling or mining.
The extended development of the resource plan has delayed and compromised some energy projects. Though Sweetwater County Commissioner Wally Johnson was once an active proponent of completing the plan as soon as possible, his stance has changed since the virus brought life as Wyomingites knew it to a near standstill. He now thinks the inability to meet in person during a public comment period would be a disservice to affected residents.
“It’s an extremely important document, not only to Sweetwater County, but to the state,” Johnson said. “I don’t think we should at this point rush it along, and that is why I made the statement I did.”
Several conservation groups, including the Wyoming Outdoor Council, also requested the Bureau of Land Management consider the obstacles to public participation caused by the virus before releasing a draft plan. The region in question holds significant economic and cultural significance for Wyoming residents, the groups noted. The public also has not been able to offer comments on the plan since it was initiated nearly a decade ago.
The groups also hope to protect parts of the region, especially the Red Desert to Hoback mule deer migration corridor, sage grouse habitat in the Golden Triangle, as well as a plethora of historic trails and sacred sites. They also hope to preserve multiple use management of the landscape, according to the letter.
“Once the draft is released, there will only be 90 days for citizens and stakeholder groups to review and comment on the RMP,” said Alan Rogers, communications director for the Wyoming Outdoor Council. “Even under the best of circumstances that is a very small window to analyze, understand and weigh in on a plan that took a decade to create.”
“We anticipate that existing administrative protections will be stripped, generating a great deal of controversy,” Rogers added.
In a March 31 letter signed by six conservation groups working in Wyoming, advocates urged the bureau to wait on releasing the draft, asserting that barriers to public participation could potentially violate federal environmental laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act and guidelines set by the Council on Environmental Quality.
Initiated in 2011, the Rock Springs resource management plan has hit several bumps along the way, much to the ire of several state officials and residents. According to land agency officials, such plans take about eight years. But the process of finalizing the Rock Springs’ plan stretched longer than anticipated, due in part to policy changes and complex environmental considerations throughout the past decade.
At the end of January, the agency released a draft resource management plan amendment specifically for wild horses in the region. The public comment period for the amendment ends Wednesday.
Follow the latest on Wyoming’s energy industry at @camillereports
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