Western Counties Fight BLM Over Land Use

Jonny Bonner

SALT LAKE CITY (CN) — Counties from six Western states sued the Bureau of Land Management this week, claiming planning rules tied to federal climate-change programs will hinder rural counties’ abilities to coordinate their land-use plans.

Lead plaintiff Kane County, Utah et al. say a Department of the Interior Climate Change Adaptation Program, its Landscape-Scale Mitigation Program and related planning rules for developing resources on public lands will “substantially” alter planning, management and land use.

The plaintiffs all contain “significant” amounts of public lands, often dominated by federal land ownership. Kane County, for example, based in Kanab, is 2.6 million acres, 85 percent of which is federally owned. The counties say it is “critical” that their land planning and management be closely coordinated.

Joining as plaintiffs in the Dec. 12 federal lawsuit are Garfield County, Colo.; Modoc County, Calif.; Custer County, Idaho; Chaves County and Doña Ana Soil and Water Conservation District, N.M.; and Big Horn County, Wyo.

The BLM, a division of the Department of the Interior, administers 245 million acres of land.

Many public lands are interspersed with private and state land, leading to boundary conflicts involving water development and protection, flood and erosion control, government-controlled land access, and balancing wildlife protection with ranching, mineral development and other resource use.

“Failing to properly consult and coordinate with local governments may lead to, for example, the overgrowth of invasive plant and animal species to the detriment of native species; compromised quality and availability of water supply; and increased risk and frequency of wildfire, causing more destruction from hotter-burning wildfire, just to name a few,” according to the 51-page lawsuit.

Utah contains 22 million acres of public land managed by the BLM: more than 40 percent of the Beehive State.

Kane County has its own resource management plan, and has coordinated with the BLM on land use, management and planning.

“Kane County has used the coordination process in the past and believes that it is critically important that the BLM coordinate its land use inventory, planning, and management activities with the county’s activities, and that the BLM give consideration to Kane County’s plan and ensure that the BLM’s land use plans are as consistent as possible with Kane County’s plan to avoid conflicts and ensure harmonious and effective local and regional land use planning and management,” the lawsuit states.

Citizens in northeast California’s Modoc County, pop. 9,000, depend on public lands for firewood harvesting, flat rock collecting and recreation.

Seventy percent of the 2.5 million acre county is federally managed, and 20 percent of it relies on federal water projects for productivity.

Doña Ana Soil and Water Conservation District, a governmental district of New Mexico, spans 2.5 million acres and includes the Organ Mountains – Desert Peaks National Monument. Seventy-five percent of the district is federally owned.

Chaves County, pop. 65,000, stretches across 3.8 million acres in central New Mexico; the BLM manages 32 percent of it.

Agriculture, including ranching, farming, dairies and cheese production, dominate industry in the area.

Custer County, Idaho’s third-largest, contains 3.15 million acres, 97 percent of which is federally owned.

“Because the 2016 planning rules significantly impair the informational and coordination rights of local governments, the BLM will be making program and project decisions without the consideration of the specific issues important to local governments in the West, including petitioners,” the lawsuit states.

U.S. Senator John Barrasso, R-Wyo., called the rules “midnight regulations” by the outgoing Obama administration.

“This BLM rule will take authority away from local land managers who have the most knowledge and experience overseeing resources in their own districts,” Barrasso, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests, and Mining, said in a statement.

“We need better coordination among state, local and federal land management agencies. Massive landscape-scale plans directed from Washington, D.C. are not the answer. The new Congress will work with President-elect Trump to reverse harmful regulations like this as soon as he takes office,” Barasso said.

Arizona Republican Congressman Paul Gosar called the plan a “bureaucratic nightmare.”

“Once again, the Obama administration believes that Washington knows best and continues to defy the principles of federalism, subjugating Americans to another erroneous rule and more government red tape that strips away the authority and expertise of local land managers,” Gosar said.

He said that the “fundamentally flawed regulation” will “impose costly and duplicative mandates on job creators and local communities. Local planning decisions should be made by the experts on the ground at the local level, not Washington bureaucrats.”

The defendant agencies did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

The plaintiffs call the planning rules unlawful and an abuse of discretion, and seek review under the National Environmental Policy Act, Federal Land Policy and Management Act, and Administrative Procedure Act.

They are represented by Shawn Welch with Holland & Hart in Salt Lake City, and Norman James with Fennemore Craig of Phoenix.

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