The Bureau of Land Management’s Tres Rios Field Office has faced criticism for its handling of a proposed lease sale of 12,000 acres in western La Plata and eastern Montezuma counties. The list of complaints has a theme: that the public has not been adequately informed and consulted in the decision to offer the leases. In extending what had been a 30-day comment period on the environmental assessment of the leases’ impacts, the BLM has taken a small but important step in addressing that concern.
The decision to offer the leases came as a surprise to nearby residents and conservation groups who monitor such goings-on in the region. The parcels in question had been offered for lease in 2008 and then deferred by what was then the jointly managed U.S. Forest Service and BLM office. The reason given was that because the Forest Service/BLM was rewriting its Resource Management Plan – an exercise last undertaken in 1991 – it made sense to wait on the leases as well, given that impacts to consider may have changed in the intervening 17 years. The plan is still not updated, so the BLM’s decision to offer the leases anyway raises important questions about what has changed and why.
The public, then, would like plenty of time to ask those questions in the form of written comments on the environmental assessment for the leases. Because that assessment found that the leases will have “no significant impact,” there will not be a more exhaustive analysis in the form of an environmental impact statement. That may be appropriate or it may not – it is difficult to know, given the changing landscape of the agency’s management structure and plan for the Tres Rios Field Office’s holdings. The BLM and Forest Service’s joint management efforts ended in 2011 when the two agencies were separated at the local level. With the Resource Management Plan still incomplete, and the transitions associated with that separation, it would have perhaps been wise for the BLM to err on the side of caution and inclusion when reversing a previous decision to defer leasing. Initially, the agency did not appear to do so. In extending the comment period, it has made an important step.
There could well be more the BLM can do to engage the public. While the extension was welcome, it was not a dramatic increase in time: The original comment period ended on Sept. 18; it now ends Oct. 2. What is still unclear is what prompted the agency’s about-face on the leases, and how it will account for whatever affect the leases will have on critical public resources such as county roads and regional air quality. Perhaps the newly lengthened comment period also will pry loose some information from the BLM. It is much easier to accept what is understood, but a quiet change of policy with limited explanation or opportunity to weigh in hardly contributes to that understanding. The BLM was right to offer a longer comment period on the leases; answering the questions that have been and will be raised is the next critical move the agency must make.