ST. GEORGE – Utah’s Congressional delegation had no misgivings Friday calling out agency leaders in the Bureau of Land Management for what they said was a total disregard for the law and local government authority.
During a two-hour Congressional field hearing at the Dixie Center St. George with members of a U.S. House subcommittee, the BLM came under fire for its controversial draft resource management plan for the Red Cliffs and Beaver Dam Wash national conservation areas within Washington County – the 45,000-acre protected tortoise habitat located north of the City of St. George.
“Start over again, and this time do it the way the law says to do it,” said U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican and head of the House Natural Resources Committee.
Federal Lands Subcommittee Chairman Tom McClintock, R-California, said committee members convened the special hearing after receiving several complaints condemning the BLM for its unwillingness to coordinate efforts with locals in drafting the proposed plan.
“This subcommittee doesn’t normally hold hearings on individual land use plans,” McClintock said. “But it appears that the BLM, which administers nearly half of the land area of Washington County, has ignored the will of Congress and thumbed its nose at the people whose taxes support this government and whose livelihoods and quality of life are now directly threatened by it.”
The committee members’ concerns also grew, he said, when they learned the BLM’s actions while drafting the local plan violated the 2009 Omnibus Public Land Management Act – legislation officials touted at the time as a model for public lands planning across the nation.
“Congress is hearing a crescendo of complaints about BLM tactics and policies across the country and St. George seems to be a poster child of BLM bad behavior,” he said. “The overwhelming consensus of these local representatives today is that what was painstakingly agreed to in the legislation that they negotiated and Congress ratified has since been distorted by unelected BLM bureaucrats to fit a narrow ideological agenda.”
Congressional members heard local officials and stakeholders testify during the hearing, the BLM had not invited government leaders to help in creating the RMP but, instead, turned to special interest groups for input.
“Both state and the county signed up early to be cooperating agencies and also requested full coordination as mandated by law in the development of the draft RMP’s alternatives,” said Kathleen Clarke, director of the Utah Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office. “They were left out of the critical deliberations and were not invited to the table to discuss the challenges the BLM wrestled with or the decisions that followed.”
The 2009 law ordered the BLM to “identify one or more alternatives for a northern transportation route,” in the RMP that would later be included in the transportation plan. The route, when finished, would allow traffic to travel east and west across the Red Cliffs area.
Of four choices included in the 1,100-page RMP draft, only the last alternative considers the corridor, essentially making it a nonissue in the transportation plan, Bishop said.
“If it’s not going to be in the management plan, it’s kind of disingenuous to say it’s going to be considered later,” he said.
Bishop censured the BLM for its actions which he said appeared to have ignored the “intent” of the law.
“The spirit and letter of the 2009 law, and the good faith negotiations that went into crafting it, appear to have been, at best, ignored, and, at worst, forgotten by BLM,” he said. “The federal government can’t pick and choose which laws to enforce and you can’t choose to operate unilaterally at the expense of people. These actions hurt people and the very livelihood of this community.”
While the law states only one alternative has to be “identified” in the plan, Washington County Commissioner Alan Gardner said the BLM should include a plan for the corridor in all four RMP options.
“There should be a part outlined for the corridor in every option in order to fulfill Congress’ direction,” Gardner told St. George News after the meeting.
As it stands now, the only option incorporating the corridor in its plan is the last one.
“And it’s the least preferred option. So the way it is, the corridor will not be part of the transportation plan because, in order for to be part of the transportation plan, it has to first be part of the RMP plan,” he added.
Local government officials said they would never have signed on to the 2009 law had they known the future of the northern corridor would later be at stake.
“What are agreements if there is no honor behind them or no real commitment behind them,” Clarke said to committee members.
There were also those in opposition to the highway who packed the hearing room Friday, many of whom separated themselves from the dozens of cowboy hats and boots, coloring much of the crowd by carrying bright-yellow “Protect Wild Utah” signs and sporting uniform colored hats and shirts.
Paul Van Dam, a conservation advocate representing those in opposition to the highway, testified negotiations in 2009 never included any promises of the northern corridor.
Van Dam, a former Utah Attorney General who now lives in Ivins, said it would not make any sense to build a major throughway in the middle of a protected area.
“It was made into a national area for our tortoises, and now we want to build a six-lane highway up there?” he said.
When finished, the highway is expected to carry as many as 32,000 vehicles per day by 2040.
Van Dam said those numbers will only increase pollution. He then accused local officials of not caring about “dirty air.”
Congressman Chris Stewart, whose district incorporates the southwest corner of Utah, admonished Van Dam for this and other statements, including one in which he claimed Utah is unique in their “distrust of the federal government.”
“This contemptuous and condescending attitude toward the local planning process and the directive of Congress is not unique to my district and it is fostering mistrust between Americans and the government,” he said.
Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Arkansas, who also attended the hearing, echoed Stewart’s sentiments.
“These issues are not only important to, not only Utah, they are important to the whole country. It appears to me that the law is being ignored, this law passed by Congress,” he said. “This seems to be a pattern with the BLM.”
The Republican Congressmen on the panel grilled Utah’s acting BLM director Jenna Whitlock with questions on how the agency developed the RMP draft.
With the Utah BLM office responsible for managing about 42 percent of an estimated 23 million acres inside Utah’s borders, Rep. Jason Chaffetz quizzed Whitlock on how many employees were accountable for taking care of those lands.
Whitlock said there are more than 900 employees to which Chaffetz responded, “Well that’s ridiculous. That’s got to change.”
Chaffetz followed this line of questioning by demanding Whitlock bring him the names of the 10 to 12 BLM staff members that worked on the RMP.
Whitlock defended her agency on the accusations local elected leaders were not involved in the planning of the RMP and said she felt the BLM had a “good record.” Additionally, she said she believes the proposed plan follows the 2009 law.
Westerman asked Whitlock if she understood that agency representatives through their actions are creating “some really bad publicity for the BLM across the country.”
Democratic Rep. Alan Lowenthal from California jumped to the BLM’s defense. He argued the planners had spent more than six years and written an estimated 1,100 pages trying to write a plan that would meet with the approval of all stakeholders.
“We have to recognize the complexities of developing a management plan,” he said.
The only Democrat on the subcommittee, Lowenthal is responsible for introducing the controversial America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act legislation that, if passed, would designate 9.2 million acres of public lands throughout Utah. He has proposed the legislation more than once and has the support of many conservation groups.
While elected leaders have said they will sue if the corridor isn’t included in the RMP, Gardner told St. George News he feels the BLM has been more willing to work with local officials recently.
“But only time will tell,” he said. “We’ll see what happens.”
Conservation groups have also said the approval of the northern corridor will follow with legal action, arguing the highway would compromise the tortoise habitat and the recreational value of the Red Cliffs area now owned by “the people” and open for everyone to enjoy.
While the final RMP is due by the end of June, federal officials have filed to extend the deadline. Stewart said he wants to see the BLM start over and believes they have plenty of time to do so in the allotted time.
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