Gordon’s Task Force, BLM Hold Closed-Door Meeting On Controversial Rock Springs Plan

After a closed-door meeting with the governor’s task force on the BLM’s controversial Rock Springs management plan on Wednesday, the agency’s state director says the BLM and public “aren’t that far apart” on finding a middle ground.

LW
Leo Wolfson

December 14, 20237 min read

Motorized trails in the Red Desert area of Wyoming, seen here in a documentary film on the RideBDR YouTube channel, could be closed to vehicles in the future under a proposed BLM management plan for the area.
Motorized trails in the Red Desert area of Wyoming, seen here in a documentary film on the RideBDR YouTube channel, could be closed to vehicles in the future under a proposed BLM management plan for the area. (Cowboy State Daily Staff)

BLM Wyoming State Director Andrew Archuleta doesn’t believe his agency and the people of Wyoming are “that far apart” on finding a middle ground on the controversial Rock Springs Resource Management Plan.

“I don’t think we’re that far apart from the wishes of the residents of Wyoming,” he told Cowboy State Daily on Wednesday. “My goal is we’ll come to some common ground on the majority of the issues.”

On Monday, Gov. Mark Gordon’s new 11-member task force formed to deal with the state’s interest in the BLM plan held its first meeting with Archuleta and other staff from the BLM in a closed door, private setting. Presenting to the task force was Archuleta and BLM Rock Springs Field Manager Kimberlee Foster.

Monday’s meeting and other public meetings held this fall show that the federal government is at least going through the motions to listen with Wyoming residents. Whether the agency follows through on the concerns and feedback offered by the task force about the BLM’s preferred plan alternative that weighs conservation over economic and recreation interests remains to be seen.

Josh Coursey, president of the Muley Fanatic Foundation and a member of the task force, said Monday’s meeting was an opportunity for the task force to “break bread” and meet face-to-face with government officials over a plan that many residents have derided as ignoring local input.

“It was a good test to show this is how we do business in Wyoming,” he said.

Coursey said there is a tendency of the federal government to think of federal land as its own rather than belonging to all Americans. He believes the BLM is now trying to perform “damage control.”

“It just got in front of them too fast,” he said.

Listening To Criticism

Critics of the Alternative B plan that is preferred by the agency say it ignores a dozen years of local input and will devastate the local economy of southwest Wyoming.

Archuleta said his agency is seriously taking into account the feedback offered by Wyomingites for its final RMP decision, which he and his staff have been actively working on with agency staff in Washington, D.C. He said the agency is willing to make compromises from Alternative B.

“We definitely want to hear from the public and the residents of Wyoming, especially residents in southwest Wyoming,” he said.

Coursey said Wyomingites want to work with the BLM on the plan, but there’s “trust issues coming out of D.C.”

Archuleta mentioned that a primary objective of the Biden administration is to enforce “conservation and habitat restoration.”

He said residents of the overwhelmingly Republican-leaning Wyoming and Biden’s Democratic administration may have more in common than they realize when it comes to conservation. It was Gordon, a Republican, who became the first governor in the country to sign an executive order for migrating wildlife in 2020.

“That’s a huge conservation step,” Archuleta said.

Travel Misconceptions

A piece of information that has caused an uproar about the RMP was erroneously included in Alternative B, which said it would close 4,505 miles of roads and trails and eliminate another 10,006 miles of undesignated, illegal roads and trails. The BLM staff made a concerted effort to highlight this at Monday’s meeting.

The road closure provisions were left over from a defunct travel management plan that was never initiated and mistakenly left in the draft plan. Archuleta said that because the document is a draft is why the information has never been redacted from it. He said this information will be retracted from the final version.

“It’s unfortunate, really,” Archuleta said. “I certainly wish that had not gone out in the draft. There is no intent to do travel management here.”

State Rep. J.T. Larson, R-Rock Springs, another member of the task force, said this does little to assuage his concerns that the BLM won’t bring back its travel management plan restrictions someday. He pointed to a comment he said BLM staff made Monday that they could already implement many of the proposals made in its Alternative B today, but would rather get them formalized in agency rules.

“It was implied they could close things off either way,” he said.

Archuleta said travel management plans are typically initiated around five years after an RMP is completed, but that this type of regulation is highly unlikely for the Rock Springs Field Office due to the size of the area it oversees.

The BLM’s preferred plan does create a few minor motorized closures in places where resource damage has happened, however.

Public Access vs. Public Uses

Not only is the travel information incorrect, but Archuleta said there are no plans to restrict any public access through the plan.

But public access doesn’t cover mineral extraction, which is a significant source of jobs and economic activity in Wyoming. One Sweetwater County commissioner estimated to Cowboy State Daily that the county would likely lose about 2,500 oil and gas field jobs if the preferred plan was initiated as drafted.

The roughly 1,350-page draft RMP designates 1.8 million acres of that as “areas of critical environmental concern (ACEC).”

“The effect ACECs have on mining is massive,” Larson said.

It would also remove 7,606 animal unit months of grazing, increase the rest period of burned areas from the current minimum of two years to five years, limit control of noxious weeds to biological and mechanical only, and limit animal damage control to emphasize nonlethal methods.

Other misconceptions, Archuleta said, are that the plan will increase protections and restrictions for sage grouse and wild horses. He said the existing protections for these specieses supersede the RMP.

Still Hope

Coursey is optimistic that the BLM will listen to the concerns brought by the task force and the people of Wyoming, and was encouraged that both Foster and Archuelta were there Monday.

“I’m confident that if they let the process unfold as they have been, there’s great value in that,” he said.

The task force will hold three more meetings with BLM staff over the next few weeks before issuing its final report to the governor. It is made up by a collection of eight Republican state legislators and a variety of leaders representing a broad range of industries such as livestock, mining and trona, hunting and conservation.

“No one’s trying to throw a wedge in anyone’s purse,” Larson said.

The Task Force’s recommendations will then be presented to the governor, who will engage with BLM leadership on the matter. Wyoming Attorney General Bridget Hill has threatened that the state will take legal action on the plan at some point.

The final Environmental Impact Statement for the plan was expected to be released next spring, but there is a strong chance that it will be delayed as a result of the public comment period being extended by about two months to mid-January.

Although the BLM takes into consideration the overall content of public comment, it does not weigh the quantity of comments into making its decisions. Larson said it’s hard to tell at this juncture how they will move forward.

“They haven’t really shown too much of their cards,” he said.

Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.

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Leo Wolfson

Politics and Government Reporter