BLM Processes Public Comments on Proposed RMP
|Ruth McCoard sits at her desk amongst the over 3,000 comment letters that were sent to the BLM on paper concerning the Price BLM offices DRMP that was released last year. McCoard says that the agency received nearly 60,000 total comments, the vast majority coming over the email system.|
The United States Bureau of Land Management oversees hundreds of thousands of acres of public land across the nation.
The agency has a difficult task to accomplish, considering the fact that individual citizens, public entities and special interest groups want different things, but often come out against the desires of others.
And when the BLM tries to do something for one group, five other groups frequently complain.
Planners for the BLM face increasing pressure on public lands from people across the country and the world. That pressure has mounted due to the draft resource management plan the local Price field office had to produce last year.
"When the agency decided to start on this resource management plan, it wasn't an internal decision," explained Ruth McCoard, planning specialist and public affairs officer for the BLM in Price. "Congress decided the old plans needed to be revised, largely due to oil and gas resources. And we were also told that the revision is very time sensitive as well."
At present, the Price-San Rafael BLM draft resource management plan is in the comment evaluation period . Contending with that part of the planning process is as difficult as any other stage of the endeavor.
"We received between 50,000 and 60,000 comments, but the majority are form letters via e-mail," said McCoard. "However, what we look for in letters are what is called substantive comments. Those type of comments are defined by NEPA (National Environmental Protection Act."
McCoard, like most federal employees and officials, uses acronyms when referring to federal laws and acts. NEPA is the National Environmental Protection Act of 1969, as amended in 1982.
The process of coming up with a final decision on a resource management plan began in 2001 when the federal officials determined, after an evaluation of previous guidelines, that RMPs were deficient and needed updating.
On Nov. 7, 2000, the BLM published a notice of intent in the Federal Register indicating that the Price office would be conducting a study for a new resource management plan.
In the notice of intent, the BLM stated items such as a summary of what was being initiated, the physical area that would be evaluated, the approximate dates of meeting involved in the plan's development, the initially identified issues, how it will relate to NEPA as well as the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 and the U.S. code of regulations.
Then the agency started looking for a contractor to help with completing the study.
"It would be impossible for our agency to do the study alone, we just don't have enough people to do that," said McCoard.
Contractors were allowed to bid on the statement of work and the expectations the BLM had for the study. Once the contractor was selected, the scoping process began.
Scoping is the process of identifying and narrowing down the issues related to the land that the draft resource management plan will be conducted on.
In January 2002, the BLM conducted a series of scoping meetings in the local area to get ideas from citizens and industry on the issues involved.
|A cliff that overhangs the San Rafael River just down the stream from Fuller Bottoms is only a little piece of the vast area covered by the DRMP that was released by the BLM last year. Presently the process on the document is in the comment consideration stage, during which a BLM contractor and the agency itself are reviewing public input from last fall's comment period. |
After the meetings, there was a comment period where individuals and organizations could submit more information or ideas.
After evaluating the public comments, the next step usually involves generating a scoping report and collecting inventory data on the land to be covered by the document.
But the situation in the Price office's jurisdiction changed when former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt mentioned the word "monument."
Leavitt started to talk about making the San Rafael Swell into a national monument. A move toward gaining the designation resulted in political dispute that divided the groups of people using the Swell.
Since the Swell was part of the ongoing draft resource management planning process, much of the work on it stopped at that point until it was decided if that land would become a national monument or would remain part of the Price BLM system.
"I think, and we have had indication that some people thought the monument and the RMP process were the same, but they weren't," says McCoard.
So until the middle of 2003 little was done on the DRMP.
After the election was over and Emery County had decided it did not want the Swell to be a national monument the work began again. At that point the BLM sent out planning bulletins to those who had commented and soon after began to meet with cooperators on the project.
"In this case the cooperators were Carbon County, Emery County, the state of Utah and the Fish and Wildlife Services," says McCoard. "They were involved in every step of the process."
A week was spent working with the cooperators on alternatives that could be considered in the DRMP.
The BLM also began to collect baseline information on the area, which would allow them to not only project how any changes to policy would affect the lands in the future, but would also help them to project what proposed changes would do. That action was part of analyzing the management situation and included a socio-economic report as well as a report on coal exploration and production.
The BLM and their contractor then began putting together the DRMP. When it was completed most of it addressed the impact each explored alternative would have on the land and it's uses.
That report was issued in 2004 and meetings were held to review it in Emery, Carbon and Salt Lake counties. Then a comment period followed afterward. At first that period was supposed to run into the early fall, but so many requests came in to extend it because the document was so large and people were finding dozens of things to comment on, the deadline was extended into later in the fall.
At the present time those comments are being examined, evaluated and compiled by the contractor and the BLM interdisciplinary team.
"There were a great many form letters that were sent to us on the DRMP," says McCoard. "But our contractor is now going through all of the comments."
Once the comments are evaluated the BLM will look at the merit of the comments and see what needs changing. The document will then be adjusted accordingly and then the agency will release the proposed RMP and the final environmental impact statement.
"During all of this we will continue to meet with our cooperators because we don't want anyone to be surprised by anything that comes out in that document," says McCoard.
After the release of the proposed RMP is a period in which citizens and groups can protest the plan. During that same time there is also a governors consistency review as well.
The protest procedure differs considerably from the comment periods in previous parts of developing the RMP. First of all those who protest any part of the RMP at this point must have standing to do so. In other words they must have been involved in the planning process for the document. No comments or protests from those who were not in on the DRMP will be considered.
Protests must be lodged to the BLM director within a certain time period (usually 30 days after it's issue is published in the federal register.
Once a protest is received it is reviewed by the state directors office and then the protest resolution will be decided upon the standing of the protester and the merits of the protest itself. The Director will determine whether the BLM followed established procedures, considered relevant information in reaching a decision and whether the proposed decision is consistent with BLM policy.
A governors consistency review comes before the actual release of the proposed RMP and in this case it will be submitted to Governor John Huntsman for review. His office has 60 days to identify inconsistencies and to provide written recommendations to the states BLM director. If the state BLM director does not accept those recommendations the governor can then appeal to the national BLM director.
Once all that is worked through, the state BLM director signs a record of decision which approves the RMP.
At that point the BLM will implement the plan and then monitor and evaluate it's effectiveness.
The final steps of protest and governors review, and the resolution of those is quite complicated and could take some time if they occur. However the entire plan is not contingent on being held up by specific protests. The BLM can implement those parts not under protest.
In addition when protests are settled and if the BLM director determines that resolution constitutes a significant change, a notice will be published and people may comment on the changes for 30 days.