CASPER – Bureau of Land Management Director Tracy Stone-Manning last week met with Gov. Mark Gordon’s special task force on the Rock Springs Resource Management Plan in a closed door meeting that participants described as productive, releasing steam from the contentious issue and moving a multiyear-long effort closer to the finish line.
At the meeting, the task force presented its final recommendations, detailed in a report published Wednesday, that include 24 “agreements in principle” highlighting a strong consensus on topics like big game corridors and the region’s sodium mining industry; as well as 100 distinct “management actions” with prescribed language addressing more specific concerns and locations within the management area.
Stone-Manning’s Jan. 5 visit took place in the final weeks of the extended public comment period and marks something of a course correction for the touch-and-go process, which has been a recurrent flashpoint since August when the agency first revealed its emphatically conservationist vision for the 3.6 million-acre swath of southwestern public lands in parts of Lincoln, Sweetwater, Uinta, Sublette, and Fremont counties.
The process was dogged early by misinformation from both residents and the BLM: At the same time as residents were spreading unsupported claims about a virtual shutdown of all public access, the agency inadvertently published erroneous language from a separate management plan, increasing confusion that came to a pitch during an autumn public hearing in Pinedale.
Even after the agency made clarifications, the draft plan saw vehement opposition from Wyomingites who believed it would hinder resource development, deprive local economies, and curtail general access by designating close to one-third of the lands Areas of Critical Environmental Concern.
“How could you not know Wyoming and not know that there would be so much concern with the proposed alternative?” said public lands advocate Steff Kessler, speaking with Gordon on Jan. 2 during The Morning Gather podcast, where she called out the BLM for a lack of tactfulness. “To me that shows a clear breakdown in communication and dialogue between the agency and the states.”
In an attempt to cool tensions, the BLM extended the public comment period, and Gordon chartered the special task force to draft a rebuttal recommendation.
Now task force members say the process is on better footing and that last week’s meeting with Stone-Manning restored a sense of good faith while putting a serviceable compromise within reach.
“I feel like we’re at a better place than where we started. We’ve moved the needle forward, and I have great confidence that we’re going to see a much different and improved product when it comes out,” said Joshua Coursey, a board member of the Muley Fanatics Foundation and task force delegate.
Stone-Manning and Coursey agreed on the need for landscape-specific guidelines, and she said the agency’s decisions would reflect the expertise of local stakeholders, including the Greater Little Mountain Coalition, which since 2008 has steered management for the Greater Little Mountain area that accounts for 15% of the Rock Springs Management Area.
“Her response to me was that she was more interested in the prescriptions at the landscape level than the ACEC designation. I took comfort in at least knowing that there’s a detailed or precision-oriented effort for management instead of some blanket approach,” said Coursey.
Sportsmen are also allayed to know that some of the ACECs overlap with preexisting Wilderness Study Areas and other protected habitat — which means management practices may not change despite the added ACEC designation.
“Maybe [ACECs] is a box that needs to be checked for the political agenda of our current administration, but wilderness study areas and priority sage grouse habitat areas have such strong and stringent protections on the landscape already. So that recognition, and understanding that… overlay…made it more palatable.”
Other task force members press the importance of management flexibility.
Jim Magagna, vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, raised the issue of “resting standards” applied to lands damaged by wildfire. The initial draft plan’s preferred alternative would rest some damaged lands for up to five years.
“Five years simply wouldn’t work for ranchers from an economic perspective, and wouldn’t be in the best interest of resources,” he said. “In some cases, we agree it needs a little more, but in other cases the land agencies themselves want us back even the first year because that helps slow down the spread of any new noxious, invasive weeds. So we need that flexibility.”
Stockgrowers are also lobbying to alter the plan’s language on rangeland degradation, which they say is too punitive.
Under the BLM’s initial RMP preferred alternative, stockgrowers who failed to meet the standard for healthy rangelands could see their permit reduced by as much as 20% for up to three consecutive years.
Magagna says the policy is draconian and believes there are ways to safeguard rangeland without penalizing permittees. Though he remains vigilant, he believes the stockgrower’s position is being heard.
“The fact that [Director Stone-Manning] cared enough to come out here and meet with the governor and meet with us gives me a little bit of hope. Time will tell whether the BLM was really listening to us or not, but at least at this time I hold out some hope that they will pay attention,” Magagna said.
He and other members admit the task force still disagrees with the BLM in some areas, but they nonetheless say the effort offers an impressive standard for problem solving.
Through a process of discussion and ranked voting, the task force formed consensus proposals for a list of independent elements in the plan. If there was an area of the proposal that didn’t meet a certain threshold of consensus, the members left the topic alone, instead focusing on areas where they could present a unified position.
“It seems these resource management plans have been swinging around to extremes from one administration to the other, and they’ve become a political agenda document at times more than trying to find a balance,” said Steff Kessler on The Morning Gather podcast. “I like the idea of getting more local people in the room who are trying to forge a balanced vision and not being swayed by those political agendas. I’m hesitant to say it’s all going to be great, but I think there’s a tremendous willingness on the part of people in that room to come together and find some consensus.”