Sweetwater County Says BLM Land Plan Will Take Millions From School Funding

In 1,700 pages of commentary delivered on Tuesday, Sweetwater County officials said the BLM's controversial draft plan for the Rock Springs area could be devastating with millions of dollars lost for school funding.

MH
Mark Heinz

January 17, 20244 min read

Blm land closed 10 6 23

If the Bureau of Land Management’s plan for the Rock Springs area goes through, it could cost schools in Sweetwater County millions of dollars, county officials claim.

The county could lose 74% of its tax revenue from oil and gas development under the BLM’s preferred Alternative B of its Rock Springs Resource Management Plan (RMP). That could hit the schools and sheriff’s office especially hard, according to the Sweetwater County Commission.

The county delivered 1,763 pages worth of commentary about and criticism of the RMP to the BLM this week.

Much of that was attachments containing extensive documentation of the lengthy process behind the draft RMP, Sweetwater County Land Use Director Eric Bingham told Cowboy State Daily.

He hand-delivered a massive binder containing the printed version to the BLM Rock Springs Office on Tuesday, and the county also sent a digital copy to BLM brass.

Wednesday marked the end of the public comment period regarding the RMP.

An 11-member task force appointed by Gov. Mark Gordon and charged with digging into the RMP plan, then offering analysis and comments also finished its work last week.

County Says BLM Didn’t Follow Procedure

The county’s documents included a 26-page letter from the Sweetwater County Commission to BLM Rock Springs field office manager Kimberlee Foster, which summarizes the county’s objections.

Among the county’s claims are that up until 2017, it was apparent that the BLM favored Alternative D, which aimed to strike a balance between energy development, cattle grazing, conservation and other interests.

So, county officials were shocked when the BLM in August announced that it preferred Alternative B, which leans heavily in favor of conservation, Bingham said.

The Rock Springs BLM field office oversees roughly 3.6 million acres in Wyoming, much of it in Sweetwater County. The BLM’s preferred alternative of the draft RMP designates 1.8 million acres of that as areas of critical environmental concern (ACES).

The BLM also failed to take into account Sweetwater County’s own federal land use plan, which it was obligated to do, Bingham said.

And the agency was “arbitrary and capricious” in its designation of such things as 2- to 3-mile buffer zones between raptor nests and extractive land use. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requires only a mile buffer zone, Bingham said.

Sheriff’s Office, Schools Could See Massive Cuts

Sweetwater County generated about $16.9 million in energy tax revenue in 2023, and the county’s infrastructure relies heavily on that money, according to the county commission’s letter.

For instance, the BLM’s favored alternative could slash the school district’s energy tax revenues from about $8.5 million to roughly $2.9 million, the county claims.

That has school district officials worried about possible layoffs and school program reductions, Bingham said, adding that the Sweetwater County Sheriff’s Office has similar concerns.

“Our sheriff said he would have to cut 11 sworn positions to meet this budget reduction,” Bingham said.

Taking The Legal Approach

Sweetwater County’s strategy hinges upon raising objections and arguments that could stand up in court, if necessary, Bingham said.

“We did legally defensible arguments. At the end of the day, that’s the route we’re going to go, if they don’t listen,” he said.

Sweetwater County and other stakeholders over the past several months retained an attorney who specializes in National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) law to advise them on submitting the strongest possible comments, he said.

With the comment period closed, it’s expected that the BLM will release its final environmental impact statement regarding the Rock Springs plan by May or June, Bingham said.

County officials are optimistic that their comments, along with those from the governor’s task force and Wyoming residents, will prompt the BLM to re-think its approach, he said.

But if the agency decides to stick with Alternative B, the county is ready to push back.

“We want to have standing in the protest (regarding the Environmental Impact Statement) and then later on in the appeal,” Bingham said. “Or the litigation, if that’s the route we need to go.”

Mark Heinz can be reached at mark@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Mark Heinz

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