Interior Department official here for partnership meeting

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Amy Hatten of the Craig Daily Press interviewed Richard Whitley, the Shared Stewardship and Partnership Liaison for the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Whitley is visiting Craig this week to offer some options to the local Northwest Colorado Stewardship (NWCOS), a group charged with the task of formulating a land-use plan for Moffat County's public lands. NWCOS is a collaboration of public and private groups that represent the county's various land use interests.

Explain why you're here and why you're qualified to lead this discussion.

I work for the Washington office as stewardship and partnership coordinator. I'm here because there's an interest in this community in taking a different approach to planning. My job is assisting communities and the agency in getting communities more involved in the BLM process, being more inclusive in the process; not just our planning, but in the day-to-day process as well. I've been with the bureau for 28 years. My last position was as the associate state (BLM) director in New Mexico.

What do you and your department hope to take away from your meetings this week with the public?

Mostly what I'm hearing so far, and interestingly enough, are very similar. People question, "Is BLM serious? Do they really mean it this time, we've heard this before. And if you really mean it how is this going to work?" But there's also a real eagerness on everybody's part to further explore this. Some people are ready to go now and some people want a little bit more information.

Community members are often told their input is critical to help devise a Resource Management Plan (RMP) for the county's public lands. What exactly are you asking the community to do and how will the input be considered?

Right now in the planning process we go in and do issue identification with big meetings all over counties then our people go back and to their offices and develop alternatives... and it's kind of out of sight. We might use articles in newspapers to keep people informed then we come out with public meetings a few years later and people say, "Where's my issue? I was here three years ago what did you do with it?'" People get a little defensive and hurt. The problem with that is people want to be involved in the planning process. The idea here is to get people involved all the way through the process. They help identify the issues, they help problem-solve they also then help us implement the outcome. People generally only get two or three shots at input and that's it. We're actually asking communities to be stewards of the land not just provide us input.

What assurances can you give as the Northwest Colorado Stewardship (NWCOS) launches into the community-based planning effort that the outcome will be any different than the current controversy with the Roan Plateau? (Note: Large swaths of community and interest groups opposed drilling for oil and gas on top of the Roan Plateau near Rifle but the effort backfired.)

There's no guarantee that it's not going to be any different. I don't know enough about the Roan Plateau to know all the issues there. Politics is always going to operate at this level (raising hand above head). As more of this (community input) happens the less of this we're likely to see, that's my personal view.

What do you say to the argument that the NWCOS is a conduit to pursue the interests of Moffat County government to push oil and gas drilling on public land?

That's why it needs to be a community-based group and all those interests to be represented. Oil and gas is obviously an economic factor for this county but there's also other interests out there that may have a little different perspective. The idea is to get all those people at the table and provide balance.

It's often said locally that Moffat County is "on the radar" with folks in Washington D.C. Why is that?

I think it primarily means that they (commissioners) made a proposal to the (Secretary of the Interior) three years ago with the Landscape Trust. That's what I think brought them onto the radar screen. (Gale Norton) is from Colorado and some key players are from Colorado so there's always an interest in your home state. I think that brought it to the forefront. (The Landscape Trust) is off the table now and they're looking at a more inclusive process.

What is the impact in Washington on the county's RS2477 right-of-way road claims?

The underlying premise of this whole effort is that all these things come to the table on a landscape level. What are the county's real needs for a future right-of-way. Some of it may end up being important; some of it may be less important. Even on controversial issues like that they can be brought down from a large planning process to what are the county's actual needs, their future needs for the next 10-20 years.

What are some of the first few steps

you'll suggest for the NWCOS?

It's important to get a third party neutral facilitator to help frame the process. Having a facilitator here will work with all parties so everybody gets a shot on getting on the agenda. It's important to do assessment up front and do interviews with some people involved. Then they begin working through the process if that's what they decide to do. BLM shouldn't be facilitating the meetings. Right now it needs to be someone who doesn't have an invested interest.

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