The Grand County Council is distancing itself from its predecessor’s actions once again.
Council members voted 4-3 on Feb. 17 to formally retract a 2014 council letter that criticized the range of preliminary Master Leasing Plan alternatives the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released last spring. Council members Chris Baird, Jaylyn Hawks, Mary Mullen McGann and Elizabeth Tubbs supported the move, while Ken Ballantyne, Lynn Jackson and Rory Paxman opposed it.
The action follows the new council’s 5-2 vote on Jan. 6 to withdraw from the controversial Seven County Infrastructure Coalition – a move that the previous council supported by a 6-1 vote.
In this case, a majority of council members hit the reset button on their official position toward the BLM’s Master Leasing Plan process. The potentially far-reaching process is designed to set the foundation for future oil, gas and potash leases inside a 900,000-acre planning area in Grand and San Juan counties.
Under the various range of preliminary alternatives the BLM released last year, some places within the vast planning area would remain open to mineral leases, while others would be permanently closed to those activities. Other locations would be subject to timing and surface occupancy restrictions, although those restrictions could vary in size and scope, depending on the alternative that the BLM ultimately selects.
The agency is expected to release a draft Environmental Impact Statement on the proposal next month, and Jackson suggested that the council could weigh in on the document at that time.
“We will then as a council have the ability to decide what we like (and) what we don’t like,” Jackson said. “I frankly don’t see the point of acting any sooner.”
Jackson was among those who previously argued that proposed constraints on natural resource development would limit the county’s ability to generate new revenue, since the BLM manages a majority of land within its borders.
In response to those comments, Baird drafted a letter to retract the previous council’s support for a status-quo alternative, based on his belief that they were not helpful.
“When you write a letter saying, ‘We are only going to endorse the no-action alternative,’ that’s telling the BLM to throw the process away,” Baird said.
Baird said he sought the official retraction to ensure that BLM officials understand where a majority of current council members stand.
“I want to make it clear that the Grand County Council supports the Master Leasing Plan, which is why I wrote this letter,” Baird said. “And I don’t want them to operate under the assumption that Grand County is only going to support (the no-action alternative) throughout the process.”
Baird maintained that the previous letter’s tone came across as “adversarial” — a claim that Jackson rejected.
“We gave them some admonishment that they didn’t ask us as a cooperating agency to help develop the alternatives,” Jackson said. “But we told them in the very last sentence, ‘We are glad to engage in further discussions regarding our concerns.’”
The previous council felt that it was “forced” to support the no-action alternative, Jackson said, unless the agency further refined its proposal, or developed “reasonable” alternatives.
“We said, ‘based on what you’re showing us right now, we have to go with (the no-action alternative),’” he said.
According to Jackson, the BLM has since developed another alternative, based on the comments it received from the previous council’s members and others.
Baird asked Jackson what harm would come from his letter, at which point Jackson interrupted him. As the back-and-forth discussion wore on, Jackson and Baird cut each other off, before Tubbs intervened.
“We have differing opinions – respectfully, let’s vote on it,” Tubbs said.
Public Land Solutions Managing Director Ashley Korenblat supported the council’s move to revisit the issue, noting that state officials have already distanced themselves from their previous position.
“Like this body, the state (was) also leaning toward (the no-action alternative) of the Master Leasing Plan, but they have withdrawn that interest,” Korenblat said. “…There’s lots of folks in the governor’s office that are working on this issue, and while they have concerns about the Master Leasing Plan, they see it as a good mechanism for supporting balance, which the governor is for.”
According to Korenblat, council members will still have the chance to voice their opinions and concerns about the agency’s ongoing process.
“You’re not giving up the opportunity to speak on the (Master Leasing Plan) during the public comment period,” she said. “You still have the opportunity to say whatever you want about it.”
Members vote 4-3 to reverse position on Master Leasing Plan
I want to make it clear that the Grand County Council supports the Master Leasing Plan, which is why I wrote this letter. And I don’t want (the BLM) to operate under the assumption that Grand County is only going to support (the no-action alternative) throughout the process.