Our View: Emerald, BLM Land Swap Exemplary
September 16, 2003
A person could drive a pickup on unpaved Routt County roads for three days straight and not fully appreciate how much of the land is federally managed and how little of that total is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The pattern of public and private lands doesn’t begin to emerge until you unfold a color-coded map of the Routt National Forest.
Private lands are shown in white on the map, National Forest Land is green and BLM land is the color of sand.
The tan-colored rectangles denoting BLM land in Routt County are relatively tiny and irregular. Compared to the masses of white and green, they appear insignificant. The logic behind the pattern of BLM lands is difficult to discern at first glance. Just as difficult to discern is the broader public benefit.
Often, BLM lands are not accessible by public roads. Essentially, much of the BLM acreage is public in name only. And they are difficult to manage. For these reasons, the BLM previously had designated tens of thousands of acres of these parcels for sale or trade.
A community group, Emerald Mountain Partnership, seeking to conserve State Land Board property near Steamboat Springs, recognized an opportunity in the BLM’s sale list. The State Land Board is intent on selling thousands of acres of forested terrain on Emerald Mountain, just south of the Steamboat Springs’ city limits. The Land Board feels compelled to do that in order to fulfill its mandate to maximize funds its holdings generate for Colorado’s public schools.
The partnership recognized that the sale of about 14,800 acres of BLM lands could finance the purchase of far more attractive land within minutes of one of the fastest growing resort communities in the Rocky Mountains. It looked like a win/win situation. But the plan delivered a blow to longtime neighbors of BLM land. They had grown accustomed, in some cases, to exclusive access to BLM land bordering their property.
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We don’t dismiss lightly the impact the plan has on Routt County residents in this situation. We recognize that historical land use policies have shaped this region of the country.
The BLM has its roots in the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, which established the U.S. Grazing Service to manage public rangelands. The Grazing Service was merged with the General Land Office in 1946 to form the BLM. There is long-established precedent for managing BLM lands to help meet the needs of ranchers in the region.
However, the fact that neighbors of BLM land in Routt County have grown accustomed to enjoying its exclusive use is not of itself a persuasive argument that the situation should never be altered.
For the first three decades of its existence, the BLM operated under a maze of conflicting laws governing the management of public lands. Congress took steps to clarify the bureau’s mission with the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976. Among other things, the act formalized the concept of “multiple use” management. The BLM describes this philosophy as “management of the public lands and their various resource values so that they are utilized in the combination that will best meet the present and future needs of the American people.”
We believe the plan being advanced by the BLM and the Emerald Mountain Partnership is exemplary when compared to this standard. By disposing of a relatively small number of odd parcels of public land, the BLM can assist in the conservation of a significant landmark in this region, while ensuring public access for thousands of residents and visitors alike.
The Emerald Mountain plan represents a creative solution to several complex land management problems. At the same time, it achieves the most good for the greatest number of people.