The plan was distributed to federal and state agencies, interested organizations, elected officials and media this week, and it will be published in the Federal Register and posted on the local BLM website on Friday morning.
The alternative preferred by the BLM and laid out in a draft Environmental Impact Statement “generally increases conservation of physical, biological, and heritage and visual resources compared to current management,” says the draft, which totals nearly 1,850 pages when appendices and maps are included.
Greater protections would be afforded to some areas members of the public designated as special, such as the Clarks Fork and Sheep Mountain areas, the document says. The bureau does expect new restrictions to lead to a relatively small decrease in oil and gas development.
Regional BLM spokeswoman Sarah Beckwith said the draft will not be perfect for everyone, given differing opinions about resource use and conservation.
However, she said, “as a multi-use agency, we have to balance that (development and protection), and we think that there’s something in this draft plan for everyone.”
“This plan provides protections for some of those areas (that citizens said were special), but it also provides for the use of natural resources and the conservation of natural resources for the future — and it also takes into account the dependency of local economies on public lands,” Beckwith said, adding, “A lot of people depend on public lands for their livelihood.”
Roughly $1 out of every $30 earned in the Big Horn Basin — about 3.6 percent of earnings — is associated with BLM-managed lands, the draft document says.
The restrictions in the preferred new plan are projected to lead to a roughly 6.4 percent drop in oil and gas output over the next 20 years, and a 5 percent drop in jobs associated with agency-managed public lands, primarily because of decreased oil and gas development.
“In some places, certainly there’s a tradeoff; in some places there won’t be that economic gain, but in other places it would be easier to develop, and the local economy could benefit from those areas,” Beckwith said.
For example, the BLM would also create “oil and gas management areas” in existing fields where full development would occur with reduced restrictions.
The amount of land open to livestock grazing would essentially remain the same as under current management, the document indicates.
The preferred alternative would close four wilderness study areas to motorized vehicles and limit motorized access to designated roads and trails in the six others.
The bureau also prefers to stop managing 20 Big Horn Basin waterways as suitable for designation as a wild scenic river. Dropping that status, the agency indicated, would mean fewer restrictions on mineral development, livestock grazing and timber harvesting.
An expansion to the McCullough Peaks wild horse herd’s management area is also preferred to better reflect the area the horses actually use and save the agency the trouble of continued attempts to capture and move them.
Nothing in the plan is finalized, as it enters a three-month-long public comment period.
“People aren’t commenting on a decision that’s already been made. This is a draft,” said Beckwith.
The public will have 90 days to review the document and submit written comments beginning Friday, when the draft document is published in the Federal Register.
“Your review and comment on the content of this document are critical to the success of this planning effort,” wrote BLM state director Don Simpson in a letter to readers included in the document.
The existing plans now guiding the Basin’s land management were designed to last 10 to 15 years, but are now close to 20 years old. The new plan is intended to address “new data and policies, emerging issues, and changing circumstances” over the past two decades.
As with other federal plans, the impact statement analyzes four different alternatives for management:
Alternative A, which would leave management unchanged from prior plans; Alternative B, which would emphasize resource protection over development; Alternative C, which would emphasize resource development over protection; and the BLM’s preferred plan — Alternative D, which seeks to balance development and protection.
Any of the options discussed in the plan can be incorporated into the final decision.
“Comments may direct the proposed plan to lean a bit more toward resource use or to resource protection,” said a BLM newsletter sent earlier this month.
The BLM does want specific comments cited to specific citations in the document, rather than general opinions about the plan. Beckwith said folks should say what they agree or disagree with and provide a rationale.
For example, “Rather than just say, ‘Yes, you should protect the Sheep Mountain area,’ you should say why,” she said.
Given the document’s massive size, Beckwith recommends starting with the 16-page executive summary.
“You could read that in a nice short amount of time and figure out, what are the places, what are the topics that you really want to comment on or see what we are proposing,” she said, adding, “That (summary) gives a really nice summary of how the alternatives are laid out, what each alternative proposes in short, and then you could find what you’re really interested (in) from there.”
On Friday, electronic copies of the document will be made available for downloading on the BLM’s website. Hard copies can be viewed at the BLM offices in Cody, Worland or Cheyenne.
The BLM plans to hold six public meetings — in Powell, Cody, Lovell, Thermopolis, Greybull and Worland — to discuss the draft and solicit public comments in June.
Editor's note: This version corrects the proportion of Big Horn Basin earnings that comes from activities associated with BLM-managed lands.