In a move unprecedented in Utah, the Bureau of Land Management has reopened public comment on its San Juan Resource Management Plan, supposedly issued in final form six months ago.
This sets the stage for a renewed fight over the fate of 1.8 million acres of federal land in San Juan County.June 13 is the new deadline for commenting on the controversial document. Statements should be sent to the BLM Moab District, P.O. Box 970, Moab, UT 84532.
The reopening is a response to political pressure. The BLM admitted that many were concerned the agency didn't give enough chances to comment on changes between a draft version and the so-called final version.
"I am pleased that they have opened it up," San Juan County Commissioner Calvin Black said Monday.
Black was one of the plan's most severe critics. He met in Washington with congressional staffers and Interior Department officials to complain about it.
"I don't think they considered any comments the previous time except one comment multiplied by 130 times by the environmentalists. So I think that will give other people the opportunity to comment," he said.
Black said he doesn't know whether the additional comment period will prompt any changes in the plan, however.
"It's absurd," said Dick Carter, coordinator for the Utah Wilderness Association, a group that has staunchly supported the plan as making an improvement over past proposals. In an interview Monday, he said he has never heard of a federal agency's "final" plan being reopened for additional comments, and charged this was done because of the objections of politicans who want to weaken the plan.
"To me, it makes no sense because what we have is a good plan."
Carter said the plan's comment period was already extended. "Everybody had a chance to participate."
Carter charged that reopening the comment period harms the credibility of the BLM planning, signaling to the public that it doesn't matter how hard they work during such a planning effort.
The proposal was criticized by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance as not protective enough.
Fred Swanson of that group said they don't think there could be any harm in obtaining additional public comment. "What we hope is that the bureau will significantly expand the protection of wild land in areas of the state and not further weaken the plan."
The BLM made some "real prog-ress on the San Juan Plan compared to the draft, issued a year and a half ago," Swanson said. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance submitted detailed comments on the draft plan, and in many cases the BLM strengthened the plan.
The plan drew the wrath of Rep. Howard Nielson, R-Utah, who attacked it in a March 7 press release.
Kemp Conn, BLM acting state director for Utah, said the agency reopened the comment period for three reasons.
First, the nature of the land covered by the San Juan Resource Management Plan and the number of important issues addressed make it more complex than most such plans.
Seconds, meetings the BLM held with interested citizens and elected officials showed "a widespread lack of understanding of just how the plan would change existing management."
"Third, and perhaps most importantly, there has been a lot of concern that the BLM did not provide adequate opportunity to address changes that were made between the draft and final environmental impact statement. The additional 60 days should give everyone who is interested the opportunity to learn more about the plan and provide comments."
Steve Howard, planning coordinator for the BLM in Utah, said resource management plans have been reopened for public comment in other states.
The biggest controversy is over the designation of Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, where special restrictions would be applied. In the draft plan, seven special areas were identified. Three more were added in writing the final document, increasing by 126,000 acres the total area protected in this way.
The new areas are Indian Creek, 8,000 acres; Valley of the Gods, 38,000 acres; and the U-95 scenic corridor, 80,000 acres.
The total area thus protected would be 536,000 acres.