Though the BLM has received thousand of comments, many are too general or out of the RMPA's scope, BLM spokesman says

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FARMINGTON — The Bureau of Land Management’s Farmington District Office Resource Advisory Council was met with criticism on public feedback and frustrations with bureaucratic efficiency last month during its first meeting since 2016.

The RAC met in late January in part to discuss the development of the resource management plan amendment that is being drafted in regard to oil and gas development in the Greater Chaco area. It was the RAC’s first meeting since May 2016 after Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke suspended RAC meetings as the DOI reviewed advisory bodies and their functions and effectiveness.

The RAC heard criticism from the public over what some perceived as failure to take public feedback into account and inadequate effort to include tribal consultation in the ongoing RMPA decision process.

Some members of the council expressed frustration over a change in regulations finalized and published in the Federal Register in January 2016 that aims to expedite decisions regarding resource management plans. Some Farmington RAC members said that, in this case, the order is hindering the process rather than making it more efficient.

RAC member Theresa Pasqual said though there are likely a number of projects that would benefit from an expedited process, the Greater Chaco area RMPA is not one of them, especially as the project must comply with not only the National Environmental Policy Act, but also the National Historic Preservation Act.

“I don’t think that neither NEPA or NHPA were created with the intent to streamline,” Pasqual said. “They were created with the intent to get agencies and stakeholders to put (on the) brakes and certainly give due evaluation to the implications of the development of either natural resources or cultural resources or environment implications. It seems as though the more that we’ve engaged with this particular project and the more we have engaged with stakeholders, the expedited process of this is causing more problems as opposed to being a benefit. …  It just makes no sense right now, as an advisory board member, how fast it’s going when you have so many people who are tied to it saying, ‘Wait a minute, we haven’t done our due diligence yet.’”

The RAC lacked a quorum at the Jan. 30 meeting, which means the council could not take any action, but some members expressed intent to submit a letter that would formally advise the BLM of their frustrations with the regulations change and ask for more time.

“We as a council have a right to speak up and say, ‘This is a timeline that doesn’t fit our cultural ways,’ and ‘Can we have more time?’” RAC member Carmen Johnson said during the meeting.

The discussion came after the RAC heard a review of the resource management plan given by Farmington Field Office Manager Rick Fields.

The Mancos-Gallup amendment of the Farmington resource management plan came under scrutiny in 2014 when officials found that the RMP, which was completed in 2003, needed updating as oil and gas production in the Greater Chaco area was projected to boom, Fields said. The BLM began the process of making amendments to the RMP in 2014, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs joined the effort and became a co-lead on the environmental impact statement in 2016.

The BLM hosted public scoping meetings in 2014 and after the BIA joined as co-lead in 2016 and 2017 to gather public feedback as they developed amendment alternatives, which were scheduled to be finalized in mid-February.

The environmental impact statement is scheduled to be released in the late spring, and BLM management, including staff from the Farmington Field Office and state BLM office, and the BIA will decide on which alternatives each agency will use likely in early 2019.

The alternatives are based on BLM and BIA research that takes public feedback into account, and some members of the public and environmental stakeholders who attended the Jan. 30 meeting say that consultation with the public has been taken too lightly in the amendment alternatives.

“To date, when we’re consulted with and other people are consulted with, we say ‘no more drilling’ (and ask for) a moratorium until EIS and RMPA is completed, and the BLM and other agencies are just saying, ‘Thanks. Thanks for your opinion.’ It’s not right,” San Juan Citizens Alliance Energy and Climate Program Manager Mike Eisenfeld said.

Allottee Daniel Tso said part of the problem with the process is there’s no official procedure for tribal consultation.

“Tribal consultation isn’t defined; you just say tribal consultation. You don’t say, ‘These are the steps that lead to tribal consultation.’ Right now, tribal consultation is, ‘Here’s the plans; chose one,’” Tso said. “That’s not tribal consultation. Tribal consultation starts by being out there and listening to what the people truly hold dear.”

Several members of environmental groups and the public spoke in support of not developing the greater Chaco area, including Robert Tohe, a Sierra Club organizer who said the alternatives lack “the human element.”

“To me, the human dimension is missing. The impacts due to that massive development down there, you just have to go down and tour the area — not the BLM sponsored tour. Do the tour that Mr. Daniel Tso gives, and really get down to where you can see the impacts,” Tohe said.

However, one public commenter — Lybrook-area allottee Delora Hesuse — spoke in support of development in the area, saying that her family signed oil and gas leases and the benefits from the leases are sending her children and grandchildren to school.

“I am talking for some of the allottees that won’t speak out and say that I’m glad to be part of the oil and gas development,” Hesuse said. “… I don’t know where it’s coming from — the negativity of all this. We are Native. We do have respect for the earth (and) water, and we always make that a (priority) in our protocol when we meet, and we try to get this word out and we do educate those who don’t know. ... I’m glad I was here today. I have a better understanding of what the BLM does.”

The RAC discussed the difficulties in spreading information about the RMPA process and collecting feedback that will aid the decision process. BLM Farmington Field Office spokesman Zach Stone said the BLM has received thousands of comments, but many were outside the scope or too general to be considered substantive comments.

“Substantive comments are those that suggest the analysis is flawed in a specific way,” Stone said in an email. “Generally, they challenge the accuracy of information presented; challenge the adequacy, methodology or assumptions of the environmental or social analysis with supporting rationale; present new information relevant to the analysis; or present reasonable alternatives, including mitigation, other than those presented in the document. Such substantive comments may lead to changes or revisions in the analysis or in one or more of the alternatives.”

BLM Farmington District Manager Victoria Barr said during the meeting that the RMPA process has become so large — involving an entire separate government agency in the partnership with the BIA, as well as more than 20 other cooperating agencies and consulting parties — that accommodating schedules to gather feedback can turn into an impossible task.

“It’s great that we have such diversity of cultures and traditions and people coming to the table, but at the same time, I don’t know that we can create a realistic schedule that accommodates the legally mandated review times of 60, 90, 10 days — whatever phase we’re in that can accommodate everybody,” Barr said. “I don’t know if that’s realistic.”

RAC member Cory Styron said that if the RAC does formally request more time, it should be used wisely, because the process has the potential to become a moving target.

“If it’s just to give more time or to hit the brakes, we need to make sure that everybody uses that window very effectively, or we’re going to have another four years and we’re still not going to have anything done,” Styron said. “The sad thing is our entire world dynamics have changed since this project started four years ago, so we’re still learning as we go. Whatever they put into effect for this (RMPA) coming in, the problem is that it’s going to be obsolete at that point (when it’s finished) because of technology and a new election (and) a new set of regulations, so time is of the essence and we want to find that balance.”

Megan Petersen covers business and education for The Daily Times. Reach her at 505-564-4621 or mpetersen@daily-times.com.

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