Kane County has just joined suit with counties in five western states, including a soil and water conservation district, against the Department of Interior (DOI) for violating federal law for adopting planning rules for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that will change the way public lands are managed. The group filed suit in federal district court in Utah on Monday, December 12, challenging the BLM’s new resource planning rules that will severely impair the county’s ability to work on future planning and management issues to the detriment of their citizens.

The petitioners in the suit are Kane County, Utah, Big Horn County, Wyoming, Chaves County, New Mexico, Custer County, Idaho, Garfield County, Colorado, Modoc County, California and the Dona Ana Soil and Water Conservation District in New Mexico.

The new rules, which were published in the Federal register on Monday, violate the coordination requirements imposed in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) created in 1976 by Congress. This law requires the BLM to coordinate with local governments on land use inventory, planning, and management activities and to resolve inconsistencies with local land use plans. The new rules allow only limited local government involvement, yet will govern how resource management plans will be prepared and implemented for more than 175 million acres of public lands in 11 western states (excluding Alaska). These plans determine the level of resource use, including grazing, mineral exploration and development, rights-of-way, timber production, and outdoor recreation. They also designate areas for special restrictions and control access to the public lands.

“We recognize the BLM is charged with managing public lands,” said Commissioner Jim Matson, Kane County, Utah, “But we are charged with protecting the people and the resources within our county. We have the institutional knowledge of how the resources should be managed and what our community’s need, which often times means we are the agency’s strongest critic. It is easier for them to plan if they can keep local governments on the sidelines where we are unable to hold them accountable.”

Most counties in the West have more than 50 percent of their land base owned by the federal government. Congress requires coordination to ensure local plans are carefully considered and incorporated into federal planning efforts to ensure consistency and protect the people most affected by the BLM’s planning and management activities. Only Congress can change the requirements of FLPMA though the DOI is attempting to circumvent the process with their planning rules by saying their changes are procedural and not substantive.

The BLM has taken the position that they will coordinate with local governments during the cooperating agency process under a different federal law, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). NEPA requires federal agencies to consider the effects on the human environment in making decisions. However, the NEPA process is not intended to resolve conflicts with local land use plans and programs. Moreover, the rules governing NEPA require local governments sign agreements with the BLM and keep all discussions and materials confidential.

“The new rules fail to recognize that we are authorized by law to represent the public in our county,” commented Commissioner Tom Jankovsky, from Garfield County, Colorado. “We are charged with protecting the health, safety and welfare of the people in our community. The public should be allowed to hear our concerns and the BLM should not be afraid to answer our questions and defend its position in the public view.”

The BLM’s new planning rules have been adopted to implement two Obama administration programs, the Department of Interior’s Climate Change Adaptation and Landscape-scale Mitigation Programs. Both programs were created by secretarial order, but were not authorized by Congress, and will dramatically change how public lands are managed. The group is also concerned with other parts of the new rules, which shift decision-making authority to Washington, D.C., and eliminate the requirement that the impact on local economies be considered during the planning process, while downplaying the principal public land uses identified in FLPMA.

The coalition of local governments is represented by Norman James of Fennemore Craig in Phoenix, and Shawn Welch of Holland and Hart in Salt Lake City.

The American Stewards of Liberty, a private property rights organization that trains and helps local governments coordinate with federal agencies, is managing the litigation effort.

For more information, go to www.americanstewards.us.