Revising the Resource Management Plan
BLM Hosts first public meeting of the formal process
LUSK - Chad Krause, Field Manager of the Newcastle Bureau of Land Management office opened the most recent public meeting with a thank you to those who had taken the time to come to the meeting. He discussed the need to keep those stakeholders who would be impacted the the upcoming Resource Management Plan (RMP) revision informed and involved through the process. Krause discussed the need to involve social media and local newspapers. Individuals that are assisting with the process from BLM offices and the state offices were introduced and those present representing the community also introduced themselves.
A visual presentation accompanied Krause’s explanation of the process and where the BLM agency is at in that process. Most of the information as a repeat of what had been discussed at previous pre-planning meetings.
Krause reminded those gathered that the “Newcastle planning area” includes Crook, Weston and Niobrara counties. In this region there are 287,900 surface acres and 1, 738,000 of mineral rights creating some split-estate situations on much of the mineral acreage. This area has a long history of fluid mineral leasing, development and production. Krause also pointed out that a unique aspect of this particular area is how fragmented the ownership of property is. As a result of this fragmentation there are very few activities that the BLM can do as an agency without coordination with other land holders.
The most simple definition is that RMPs or Land Use Plans (LUP) guide management actions on public lands within that planning area. They must revise these plans every 20-30 years as part of the requirement of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA). It also becomes necessary to revise these plans in response to changes in the demands on the resources and changing conditions of those resources.
These plans are not site specific or project implementation plans. They do not dig down to the level of an access road, stock water pipeline, fencing, or other specific project. They are on a very broad scale, an allocation type plan. They help determine what these acreage is “open” for verses “closed” for. They also determine, if the land is open what protections are given to that acreage. Livestock grazing, mineral materials (sands, gravels, etc.), fluid minerals (oil and gas) and right of way are either allowed or not but it is specific to the type of project that requires this resource.
In the last twenty years the BLM has seen changes in drilling techniques that allow new acreage to be opened up for exploration, the demand and use of recreational activity has increased exponentially. Changes in vegetation due to juniper encroachment, loss of timber to fires and invasive species expansion all impact how the use plans will look different from previous versions.
On the initial RMP there will be four alternatives for designations. A category is no action-continue existing management. B category is to emphasize resource protection with conservation emphasis on most protected areas and use restrictions. This is where the ACEC designations would fall. C category is to maximize rouser use with the fewest protected areas and restrictions to resource use. The last is D category which is a balance of resource protection and use. Krause gave the example of a “book end” set up. B is on one end and C is on the other end with A and D falling somewhere in the middle.
He emphasized that since the lands do not exist in a vacuum the BLM tries very hard not to “operate in vacuum”. Cooperating agencies are for knowledge, expertise, jurisdiction and responsibilities for the lands affected by these plans. These entities are very active and engaged throughout the process. Krause also made it very clear that this does’t mean all the agencies always reach consensus or have the same recommendations for how something should be managed but they are all very engaged.
Frustration was expressed by several present that the allotment owners were not considered cooperating agencies by definition. The definition of “cooperating agencies” is set for by statute and found in the National Environment Protection Act. Many of those gathered felt that the allotment owners should fall under the cooperating agency definition and be included in the very earliest document reviews of the process which cooperating agencies are part of.
Commissioner Elaine Griffith expressed her frustration at this initial review. Griffith explained that the commissioners were given the first draft of the document and told they had three weeks to review the 80 page document and give feedback. They were not allowed to discuss anything with anyone else in the county. The conservation district, as a cooperating agency, was also allowed to see the document and Griffith stated that without their help and expertise it would have been an impossible task to review the document in the designated time.
Based on the timeline that was presented at the May 17 meeting, the NOI is issued with a 30 day public scoping comment period in May of 2023. This is to pull in what issues are important to the public. This is about to start. The Draft MPs/EIS with a 3- day public comment period will occur in winter (December) 2023. This is when the public will see the four alternatives presented for the acreages in question. The proposed RMPs and final EIS will be open for public comment in September 2024. The hope is that a final draft or Record of Decision (ROD) will be completed by December 2024.
During discussion about split estate acreage Krause reminded those gathered that the BLM is only concerned about the mineral development not the surface activities and that when permitting mineral development they would do their best to take action to avoid the areas of activity and sensitivity for surface activities.
BLM employees at the meeting emphasized to the group that the process for fluid mineral leasing is not driven by the agency but rather by the energy companies. Companies nominate a parcel for leasing. Those parcels are sent to the field office to review against the RMP for what the leasing decision should be. The leasing decision should follow the RMP but it does go back to the state office for review. By law quarterly lease auctions are conducted. Once a lease is sold to a bidder that bidder has ten years in which they can pay rent or drill an obligation well. If there is production then the lease is held by the production royalties coming off the well.
There are times a parcel is nominated but not opened for a lease because of the RMP. Sometimes there isn’t a good legal description of the parcel. Then it would need to be surveyed and will be deferred until this can happen.
Another significant concern of those gathered was that ultimately the decision for the finalized RMP is dictated by those in Washington D.C. instead of those in the field office that actually live in Wyoming and know its needs. The BLM staff reassured them that while there are people supporting them from the state and national offices, ultimately it is a team from Wyoming that is working on this. It was stated, “This is a Wyoming product with the decision of authority ultimately coming from The BLM Wyoming State Director in Cheyenne.”
Danny Hansen, rancher and long-time Niobrara county resident strongly recommended the BLM utilize the county’s land use plan that was produced as a direct response to the previous RMP. The county has also put together socio-economic reports of their own and the BLM has received them and are incorporating them in where they can.
Commissioner Patrick Wade made the statement that it isn’t just about the allotment owners and the lease holders, but about every business that is impacted by the economics of the acreage impacted. This can be everything from hay producers to the county government services and tax-supported entities like the hospital district, school district and senior center district. Oil and gas revenue make up almost 50% of the county’s revenue and this can have a tremendous impact on Niobrara.
Those gathered were also reassured that should it pass, the current administration’s “30 by 30” executive initiative would not impact the RMP process. It was stated, “I have briefed the people in D.C and they have been told how it will work. What we come up with here with yoru input is what I”ll take to brief the folks in Washington D.C. This area doesn’t have a large continuous area that we (the BLM) can make sweeping decisions or access statements about. There may be opportunities but not here. Conservation themed items are only one of the alternatives that may be recommended.”
Multiple-use with sustained yield is the mission of the BLM. All regulations and policies are designed to get to “yes” and the bigger questions is how does the BLM allow activities to occur. All possible uses for the land must be considered, and that is part of the purpose behind the RMP.
The rest of the meeting will be reviewed in the May 31 edition of the Herald.