Landscape Trust offered as alternative to wilderness

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Editor's note: This is one installment in a series about oil and gas development and its impacts in Northwest Colorado.

In the fight to designate public lands in Moffat County as wilderness, the oil and gas industry loses and that, public officials argue, means the local economy loses.

There are alternatives, but those are not without opposition themselves.

The Moffat County Land Use Board and the Board of Commissioners have created a Working Landscape Trust -- a land management plan that offers an alternative to wilderness designations and provides many of the same benefits.

Opponents argue the plan is too focused on the ends, not the means.

"As opposed to focusing on the process, it's focusing on the outcome, which doesn't really work on a cooperative plan," said Christy Ruppe, with the Western Colorado Congress.

That's the intent, Moffat County Commissioner T. Wright Dickinson said, and there is legislation that supports it.

"What this is outcome-based management, which is provided for in federal statutes," he said. "Instead of pushing paper in an office, we put people out on the land and monitor how they go forward."

The plan was presented beginning in 2001 and underwent a lengthy public process. The Working Landscape Trust is a concept designed to bring all users of public lands together to create realistic and comprehensive management plans. It calls for a board of seven trustees representing agriculture, environment, recreation, retail business, minerals and industry, the environment and landowners.

The trustees would work to ensure users enjoy equal and balanced access to public lands. Disputes over land use would be addressed by the trustees or an advisory council -- a congressionally appointed trustee-oversight body that would have seven members representing the same seven interests as the trustees.

Unlike wilderness, drilling would be allowed on lands managed under a Landscape Trust.

"It's a cross boundary management plan," Dickinson said. "We proposed that we drop boundaries and look at what's best for those areas and the local economy. This will secure the use of federal lands in the best way possible for a resource."

The pilot plan is being considered by members of the Bush administration and may be implemented as an administrative action as opposed to a legislative one.

"Politics being what they were, they didn't feel we could move the resolution forward through the Legislature," Dickinson said.

There is still confusion about how the plan will actually work, said Mike Tetreault, Western Colorado director for the Nature Conservancy. Those interpretations could lead to people getting a plan they didn't want if they aren't clarified.

"The Nature Conservancy's position is that we are not as opposed as some other groups," Tetreault said. "We are hopeful something could emerge that we could support."

He believes that public input on the plan should have included more groups from the environmental sector.

"The county has done a good job of including some partners, but not all," he said.

The pilot project offers mechanisms to foster cooperation, benefit land users while protecting the environment and empower the people who are most affected by federal land management decisions.

It considers the effect decisions may have on an entire landscape as opposed to one portion or management area, Dickinson said.

"The decisions made and our impact ripple way beyond our management boundaries," he said. "It just makes it worse if you make those areas wilderness areas."

The plan states, "Moffat County is a focal point for natural resource issues and human activities. In Moffat County natural resource issues include four endangered fish, sage grouse, Black-Footed Ferrets, nine proposed wilderness areas, one proposed BLM monument, livestock and wildlife management on federal/private lands, electricity generation, and oil, gas, and coal extraction.

"Ironically, Moffat County is the focus of several special land designation initiatives which threaten, rather than protect, the socio-economic condition, livelihoods, recreational opportunities, natural resources and the general viability of local communities."

The Northwest Colorado Working Landscape Pilot Project proposal offers a new approach for federal land management that incorporates federal land management decisions with the people most directly affected by those decisions. The Pilot Project is a process which will maintain and enhance land uses, the local economy and custom and culture. In addition, the Pilot Project will protect unique characteristics and values for which federal lands in the project area are used.

"The plan states that we support oil and gas development, but it should be done appropriately. We support recreation, tourism, agriculture -- but they should be done appropriately," Dickinson said.

The basis for the Pilot Project is that no one interest or use will exclude another.

The goal is to have land management that is consistent with local values and local management plans. Using the pilot plan, agencies could contract with Moffat County to

manage certain aspects of certain areas.

"This is using existing authorities the government has," Dickinson said. "It's actually using and following the laws that govern those lands and gives the residents of Moffat County credence and a say in what happens on those properties."

That's where the plan basically conflicts with the way areas are managed as wilderness and gets back to how the land was originally supposed to be managed, Dickinson said.

The Little Snake River Management Plan put natural gas development as the highest priority for the Vermilion area.

"The environmental community never objected or protested that decision," Dickinson said.

Vermilion is one of the areas being re-evaluated for wilderness characteristics.

In 1993, contrary to the management plan, the Bureau of Land Management began denying oil and gas leases. Moffat County discovered that in 1996 and protested because of the loss of revenue.

According to Dickinson, $.60 to $.70 of every tax dollar in Moffat County is generated through the energy industry.

"We don't need to raise taxes, we just need to develop our resources," he said. "Our land use plan says the development of natural resources on public lands is important and should occur at the same time environmental value is protected."

The Northwest Colorado Working Landscape Trust pilot project pushes the exploration of new ways to develop natural resources while protecting the environment.

"All the pieces make our community healthy," Dickinson said. "That creates the jobs and creates the revenue.

"To be quite honest, I find it hard to understand why there would be opposition," he said. "This benefits everyone. It doesn't exclude any group. You can protect the land, but you have to do it a different way because if we do it wrong, we can lose the economic vitality of Moffat County."

He said this plan shows management decisions can be made with cooperation instead of conflict.

Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031 or by e-mail at ccurrie@craigdailypress.com.

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