Stewardship group undecided on whether to proceed

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A rancher sat next to an archeologist who sat across from a number of government officials and some regular public citizens.

Nearly 40 people gathered Wednesday night at the Shadow Mountain Village Clubhouse for further debate on how or whether to proceed with a planning process that may eventually determine the future of Moffat County's public lands.

Like other meetings hosted by the Northwest Colorado Stewardship (NWCOS) -- a collaborative effort that evolved to incorporate competing interests on the county's public lands -- participants gathered to voice concerns and possibly comprise on land use policies.

But Wednesday night also offered a first-hand glimpse of local NWCOS efforts as viewed from a top down perspective.

Richard Whitley of the U.S. Department of the Interior attended the meeting as a symbol of assurance from the Bureau of Land Management that the feds will give a green light to a locally led effort to plan for the millions of acres of Moffat County public lands.

"If we move forward in Moffat County, it's certainly a step in the right direction; better than in the past," Whitley said.

In the past, BLM land use decisions were made with less public input throughout the entire process.

That system resulted in feelings of discontent and high numbers of lawsuits, which drained government dollars and posed the potential to slow future planning efforts, Whitley said.

Getting the public on board to plan for the future of the public lands in the Little Snake River Resource area -- an area that spans Moffat County and dips in both Routt and Rio Blanco counties -- may help solve a two-fold goal. Whitley said it could appease a variety of public interests and provide a savings to taxpayer dollars.

"Our budgets are not going up," he said. "Getting increases across the board is not going to happen."

Funding for federal BLM projects is allocated on a yearly basis. There are no guarantees that funding will be available for a long-term planning effort and it's likely a land planning process on this scale will take years to complete.

This year, the BLM's Little Snake Field Office had budgeted about $60,000 to begin a planning effort, said Jeremy Casterson, stewardship coordinator.

To date, NWCOS members haven't decided whether they want to tackle the large-scale planning process to be used by the BLM.

Despite this, NWCOS members have agreed that they would rather revise the antiquated land use plan for that area and not simply amend it. Members have also decided they'd rather plan for the whole of the Little Snake area and not solely the controversial Vermilion Basin. Vermilion Basin, in the far corner of Northwest Colorado, has been identified by the BLM as an area with "wilderness characteristics".

Participants at the meeting proposed a litany of questions for Whitley.

Some included: "Do we stop business as usual on public lands while devising a plan?" "Is the stewardship the official decision-making entity for public lands?" and "What happens if the stewardship attempts and fails to adopt a plan?"

The current land use plan is valid until another is devised. The BLM is not surrendering its authority and in the absence of a publicly devised plan, the BLM would revert to its former process, BLM officials said.

"If the (public) process fails we haven't lost anything but some people spending time in meetings," Whitley said.

Doubts surfaced on whether a public process will truly be transparent and inclusive.

"I've heard people in this room that have a specific agenda," said Richard Levy of the Sierra Club. "I believe there are people not here to be collaborative."

Whitley recommended the NWCOS hire a "neutral third-party facilitator" if the group planned to take up the land planning effort.

Rick Hammel of the Moffat County land use board said Whitley's presence Wednesday night ironed out some personal questions. Hammel is also a member of the NWCOS.

"He defined some of the parameters which we (NWCOS) can operate," Hammel said. "Bringing everybody together without litigation would be nice."

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

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