ROCK SPRINGS — The Biden administration doesn’t give a damn about the economies of five southwest Wyoming counties if you believe the consensus of the estimated 500 people who attended a Bureau of Land Management meeting here Wednesday.
A preferred alternative selected by BLM as part of a new resource management plan for the Rock Springs area that is part of a larger draft environmental impact statement is one of four alternatives that range from keeping management largely the same as it is now to the new conservation-based, preferred alternative that makes major changes.
The Rock Springs BLM field office oversees roughly 3.6 million acres in Wyoming. The draft RMP designates 1.8 million acres of that as “areas of critical environmental concern” (ACES).
The extractive industries that power the economies of at least four of the five affected counties lie squarely in the crosshairs of the BLM preferred alternative.
Preferred Alternative Of Biden Administration
Several BLM representatives attended the meeting to answer questions. A couple of them told Cowboy State Daily the preferred alternative that would cut jobs, reduce grazing, reduce both liquid and solid mineral extraction and limit recreation access over a broad swath of Sweetwater, Lincoln, Fremont, Sublette and Uinta counties reflects the priorities of the Biden administration.
Sweetwater County Commissioner Taylor Jones said it will destroy his county’s economy, its recreation and its residents’ collective way of life.
“One example in the document states there will be 74% less production of oil and gas, and that’s a big key to our economy here in Sweetwater County now and into the future because it will end (mineral) leases,” Jones said.
No Official Public Comment Taken
About 500 people signed in Wednesday afternoon to attend the meeting. Many of those folks showed up anticipating a traditional public hearingwhere they could speak and listen to the concerns of their neighbors.
Jim Magagna, longtime executive vice president of the Wyoming StockGrowers Association, was one of those folks. He only stayed for about 20 minutes of the scheduled three-hour event.
“It was a big waste of time for me,” he said. “I can stay at home and look at maps.”
Commissioner Taylor echoed similar sentiments.
The ballroom at the Rock Springs Holiday Inn was shoulder-to-shoulder packed, but there were no chairs and no dais for anyone to speak from. Maps detailing the BLM’s four alternatives were stationed around the room with a BLM spokesperson at each answering questions, but there was no formal presentation and no open microphone.
Kimberlee Foster, field manager for the BLM’s Rock Springs office, said the meeting was billed as an open house, not a public hearing. She explained that if the meeting was focused on a policy issue, a traditional public hearing would be scheduled. But this function is part of an environmental impact statement that is part of a National Environmental Policy Act process and therefore BLM won’t hold traditional public hearings on the matter.
Both Jones and Magagna said that explanation is a cop-out.
“As a county commissioner I have to stand before my constituents and take the heat for the decisions I make,” Jones said. “This is no different.”
Magagna said the process the BLM has chosen helps federal bureaucrats avoid accountability.
Foster said there’s no question of the preferred alternative’s restrictions on mineral extraction.
“The preferred alternative’s goal is conservation and those values conflict with mineral extraction,” she said.
However, it’s not uncommon for BLM to change directions after public comments are collected. Foster said the agency recently did just that witha wild horse plan.
Regarding public comments, Foster said it’s not a voting process. For instance, BLM officials don’t count the number of comments related to the four alternatives. It’s a more subjective process in which the content of the comments is more important than the volume of comments related to specific issues.
“Whether we get one comment or 5,000 about the same thing doesn’t matter,” she said. “We review all the comments and ask, ‘Did we have something wrong> Did we look at an impact incorrectly?’”
The final EIS is expected to be released next spring. However, an effort is underway to push the process back.
Gordon Wants More Time
Also on Wednesday, Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon sent a letter to BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning requesting the agency withdraw the entire draft resource management plan and its preferred alternative. The letter asks Stone-Manning to select a new preferred alternative “that is based on cooperation with impacted communities.”
“Wyoming and local cooperators have worked long and hard to lead, build and maintain partnerships for effective and responsible land management policies,” Gordon wrote. “Over a decade’s worth of contributions from local stakeholders, cooperators, counties, and state agencies are either falling on deaf ears or disingenuously being thrown by the wayside with this decision.”
Public Access Not Restricted
Foster said the biggest misconception the public seems to have about the draft RMP is that it restricts public access.
“When they see closure to mineral extraction they think it means it’s closed to public use. There is no closure to hunting or walking your dog or things like that,” she said. “But for some reason people have glommed onto that and we can’t seem to break that myth.”
Taylor said if the BLM carries through with its preferred alternative,Sweetwater County will likely lose about 2,500 oil and gas field jobs.
“I’m happy to see such a great turnout,” Taylor said. “I think it speaks for itself. If anybody wants to know if folks are upset and worried about this issue, you don’t have to look very far.”
Magagna said the preferred alternative will deliver an economic gut-punch to the livestock industry as well.
He provided a long list of proposed changes contained in the draft RMP that includes the removal of 7,606 animal unit months (AUM) of grazing, retains nearly 230 million acres of wilderness study areas, increases the rest period of burned areas from the current minimum of two years to five years, limits control of noxious weeds to biological and mechanical only, and limits animal damage control to emphasize nonlethal methods.