County, BLM opinions differ on Vermillion Basin proposal

Management recommendation for public lands creates controversy

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The Bureau of Land Management's Little Snake Field Office is beginning a management re-evaluation process for the Vermillion Basin area, but even before the paperwork is started, the Moffat County Commissioners are opposing any such actions.

On Monday, the Commissioners authorized Natural Resources Department Director Jeff Comstock Monday to send a letter to the Secretary of the Interior and congressional representatives to ask that the Little Snake Office be prohibited from publishing a Notice of Intent for a Resource Management Plan (RMP) Amendment based on the recently completed Final Wilderness Inventory Report for the Vermillion Basin.

"We believe the BLM does not have the authority to initiate this process," Moffat County Commissioner T. Wright Dickinson said. "We believe what the BLM is asking is inappropriate, and are asking our legislative representatives and the Secretary of the Interior, Gail Norton, to intervene on our behalf."

The commissioners are asking that the BLM be prohibited from publishing the Notice of Intent on the Federal register, which is the first step to initiating the two-year process of an RMP amendment. If the Little Snake Field Office cannot publish the Notice of Intent on the Federal register, the process cannot continue in any form, halting any efforts to review the present management of the Vermillion area.

"We know the BLM has the authority to inventory under sections 201 and 202 of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), but doesn't have the right to use those reports to make designations. Wilderness processes were only covered in Section 603 of FLPMA, and that authority expired in 1991," Dickinson said. "To propose a plan amendment to take into account these new wilderness characteristics is inappropriate and, we think, illegal.

"I understand and appreciate that people want to create more wilderness areas, and they have the right to go to Congress and lobby for that designation, but they don't have the right to garner a federal agency to do that for them."

Dickinson said the current land use plan specifically acknowledges the benefit and potential for oil and gas exploration in the Vermillion area, and that this exploration was prohibited during the Wilderness Inventory, which was just completed. Any amendment to the Vermillion RMP could continue this oil and gas exploration prohibition in some areas.

"The ban on resource exploration has been injurious to the county's financial health from the loss of potential rental payments, lost royalties and assessed valuation," Dickinson said. "The county's economy is being injured by the BLM's holding of these lands."

The fact that the Little Snake Field Office is attempting to file a Notice of Intent for an RMP amendment process doesn't mean that the Vermillion Basin will end up being managed differently, according to Little Snake Field Office Director John Husband.

"We're just getting into the Resource Management Plan Amendment process for the Vermillion," Husband said. "That doesn't necessarily mean management of the area will change. At the end of the process, the land could be managed as is, it could be a Wilderness Study Area, or any combination of resource labels that would be a consideration through the public process."

The process the BLM wants to begin is a two-year process to review the Vermillion Basin's management. It would be open for public input, which would help determine in what manner the lands should be managed.

"I agree that the 603 authority has expired, but we are operating under Sections 201 and 202 of FLPMA. In 1997, the Colorado state director made the determination to conduct an RMP amendment in the Vermillion, and we are continuing with that process," Husband said. "If Secretary Norton were to say 'Wait a minute. We've had a change of policy,' I would follow the new policy, but until then I'm following the existing policy that's in place. That's all I can do."

The efforts of the County Commissioners to stop the publishing of the Notice of Intent is an unusual step, but Husband is not surprised by the action.

"What the RMP amendment process basically says is 'Here's what we know, here are the resources of the area, and here are the options for managing all these resources.' The process guides us as to how the lands will be managed," Husband said. "We could come out at the end of the process right where we are now. The only thing we have now that would be different is an inventory saying we do have wilderness characteristics, which is something else to consider when looking at how an area should be managed," he said. "It's possible that through the public process, this Wilderness Inventory won't affect how the Vermillion is managed."

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