Residents weigh in on land use

About 50 people representing varied interests in Moffat County convened at the Shadow Mountain Clubhouse Monday night to discuss one thing: how to manage the county's public lands into the future.

According to recent indicators from officials at the U.S. Depart-ment of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the future of public land management in Moffat County is up for public input and implementation if residents choose to take on that task.

Monday night's crowd was made up largely of members of the Northwest Colorado Stewardship, a coalition of local groups representing local interests from oil and gas development to maintaining wilderness areas. Stewardship members sponsored the meeting.

The meeting was the first of a sounding board to collect public opinion over how to proceed with public land planning, especially in the county's controversial areas such as the rugged Vermilion Basin in the far reaches of Northwest Colorado.

BLM officials were previously poised to either amend a Resource Management Plan (RMP) for the Vermilion Basin area or construct a new one, which is slated to begin in 2007.

However the prospect for a citizen-driven management plan throws a third option into the mix. Citizens are given the opportunity -- through a bottom-up approach -- to designate land planning for Vermilion Basin. Or, a community-based plan could include a greater portion of the county's three million acres of public lands.

"We will never have the complete resources to manage these public lands without your help," said Department of the Interior offical Richard Whitley in a letter addressed the Northwest Colorado Stewardship and members of the meeting.

Whitley, the stewardship coordinator for the BLM, was scheduled to speak Monday night but was unable to attend.

"We are here to help; not dictate. You can all be a critical part of this effort and your involvement will be key to our success," he continued. "We need to work together to create a vision for the landscape, jointly solve problems and implement the results."

Craig resident David Morris' vision is to preserve Northwest Colorado's pristine areas well into the future.

"It seems to me when people talk about planning, all they want to plan for is the development of oil and gas," he said. "I've been all around Colorado and there are very few parts not developed. I have very serious concerns for what this county is going to look like in 50 years."

Other concerns revolved around exactly how citizens will be included in the land management planning process.

The stewardship group was formed last spring to represent a balanced group of the county's varying interests and tackle issues like public land use planning.

But stewardship members attend meetings on paid staff time and the group meets during the day when a majority of residents are working, said Jennifer Seidenberg, a representative with the Colorado Wilderness Network.

"We're going to have to do hard work to reach out to people so everyone in the room knows how decisions are made," said Seidenberg, who is also a stewardship member.

Past land use planning efforts were touted to include citizen involvement but didn't reflect her group's interest to incorporate wilderness areas on county lands, though she's been involved in the process for years.

"I think there's a lot of trust issues that we need to deal with," Seidenberg said. "I don't know how some decisions were made in the past. There needs to be more transparency with this process."

A lack of trust is inherent among the varying county interests, said rancher Debbie Cook.

"Nobody respects the fact that we've already been good husbands of the land," said Cook who farms and ranches about 5,000 acres north of Craig. Cook said her operation doesn't include cattle grazing on public land.

"We feel we're being attacked and the environmental people are fearful of us. We just want to be left alone."

Monday's meeting generated a large turnout of local input on public land issues, something that the stewardship group is seeking, said stewardship facilitator Jeremy Casterson with the BLM.

Stewardship members will soon vote on whether to adopt the community-based land use planning process. Members reach a consensus to enact decisions.

Amy Hatten can be reached at 824-7031 or ahatten@craigdailypress.com.

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