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SUNDANCE — The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has begun the long process of revising the document that defines how it approaches management of everything from livestock grazing and fire management to air quality and minerals on the lands it governs within northeast Wyoming.

It’s the first time this century that the Resource Management Plan (RMP) for the tri-county region of Crook, Weston and Niobrara counties will be revisited.

“The last time we went through this process for the Newcastle Field Office was in the 1990s,” said Tyson Finnicum, public affairs specialist. “The current plan that we’re working off was signed in 1999, so it’s quite old.”

At this time, the process to revise the RMP is in its infancy and has not yet left the pre-formal stages.

However, the BLM is already welcoming as much input from the public as possible to guide the process as it gets going.

“Where we’re at right now is that the BLM is soliciting public input in support of developing a new management plan for the Newcastle Field Office,” Finnicum said. “[We’ve been] holding open house meetings to get it started – we held one in Newcastle on August 30.”

An additional pre-scoping public meeting is expected to take place within the three-county region in the near future, Finnicum said, with the date and location to be determined.

“The purpose of the meetings is to provide the public with an opportunity to speak to BLM specialists and managers, ask questions and make comments,” he said.

Comments can also be submitted in writing to the Newcastle Field Office or via the project website at https:// eplanning.blm.gov/eplanning-ui/home.

“Based on the feedback we received at our first meeting in Newcastle, we decided to extend the comment period by nearly 45 days. It will now close on October 28,” said Finnicum.

The revision will take place alongside a second RMP for the State of Nebraska.

“We have two resource management plans,” explained Kathleen Lacko, project manager, explaining that these are the same as the documents often called “land use plan” by other agencies. “One is for three counties in Wyoming – Crook, Weston and Niobrara, which is the Newcastle Field Office Resource Management Plan – and then one for the entire State of Nebraska.”

Both of these plans are managed out of the BLM office in Newcastle, Lacko said, so it made sense to revise them together.

Nebraska only requires a single plan for the entire state due to the small presence of BLM-administered surface lands and federal minerals.

“For Wyoming, we’re going to make allocation decisions on approximately 292,000 surface acres and 1.6 million sub-surface federal mineral acres,” she said.

In Nebraska, on the other hand, those decisions will be made on a much more limited area: 6600 surface acres, all spread out, and 242,000 subsurface federal mineral acres.

“We are revising two distinct plans together in one environmental impact statement, or EIS, at the same time. But we will come out with two unique records of decision and two unique plans,” she said. “It’s a little unique, but it has been done before.”

The new plan will update and amend the current one, which includes all the allocation decisions made in the 1990s regarding BLM lands in this area.

“Allocation decisions” refers to the process of deciding what the BLM will allow or be open to in a certain area, and what will be restricted and disallowed in that area.

“That could be things like oil and gas leasing, it could be whether it’s open or closed for recreation and what types of uses can happen there, it could be what we’re willing to dispose of and what we want to retrain, or other protections for culture and wildlife,” Lacko explained.

When it comes to public comments, Lacko said, the BLM is looking for input on, “Anything that they feel isn’t working, or they aren’t getting their needs met, is particularly helpful because that’s going to help us identify an issue or something we need to look at closer.”

One topic that may be of interest to local landowners, said Commissioner Jeanne Whalen, is the availability of BLM land for sale or exchange.

She points out that almost every part of Crook County has at least a few small pieces of BLM land, some as tiny as five to ten acres, and these are often surrounded by private land and inaccessible to the public.

According to Whalen, the county is writing a letter to the BLM through its consultant, Dru Palmer, to ask for more outreach to landowners adjacent to these small parcels.

Palmer has been jointly hired by Crook, Weston and Niobrara counties, she said.

“In every RMP that we do, we identify lands for disposal,” Finnicum said.

The BLM would certainly like to hear from landowners who would like the BLM to consider specific parcels. However, Lacko cautions that disposing of land is not a simple process and identifying a parcel in the RMP is only the first step.

“In order for someone to come to the BLM and say they’d like to purchase the ten acres they’re surrounding, we have to look at whether it’s in conformance with the allocations already in the current resource management plan,” said Lacko.

It makes the process easier when it has already been identified, which is why it’s an important part of the planning process to identify which lands meet the criteria, said Finnicum.

But, said Lacko, “We can do a cursory review that said it’s an isolated, scattered parcel that has no public access and that would be something that would typically meet the initial criteria for disposal. That could be decided as an RMP revision-type process; however, there are other considerations that have to go into it.”

For example, she said, the presence of an endangered species on the parcel would impact the decision, as would any cultural significance.

Identifying a piece of land for disposal therefore only means that the initial set of criteria have been met – the full analysis is only initiated once a request to purchase or exchange the land has been received.

To see how the BLM is currently operating in this county, access the existing resource management plan via https:// eplanning.blm.gov/eplanning-ui/project/63095/510. You can also find the revision effort at https://eplanning.blm. gov/eplanning-ui/project/2013064/510.

“We’ll take any comment right now, because it’s just going to help us to make sure we’re considering the things that people want considered,” said Lacko.

The revision project is in its pre-scoping phase at this time. The formal land use planning process will not begin until spring.

“Right now, it’s really an open book. We just want to find out where or what the public is interested in, or if there are certain issues or concerns that people want us to look at and address in the planning process,” Finnicum said. “The pre-planning process is really just a start. We’re expecting a notice of intent to initiate the formal process to go out next summer.”

The current comment period is far from the only chance that members of the public will have to get involved. The formal process includes numerous steps for public input, meetings and other opportunities for the public to have its say, Finnicum said.

The pre-scoping meetings that have been held this summer are not actually a required part of the process.

“Last summer, we held meetings in each county in Wyoming specific to recreation. We did quite a bit of reaching out,” Lacko said.

A year later, the BLM didn’t want the public to wonder if its input was being ignored, which led to the idea of the pre-scoping meetings.

“When we get to the formal process after the notice of intent, then we have a lot of requirements for public engagement and there will be at least three opportunities to provide comments, but because it’s been a year and we’re not quite there yet, the state director asked us to go back out and said we should really touch base with the public one more time,” she said.

Local meetings will likely be scheduled shortly after the notice of intent is published, Lacko said.

This story was published on Sept. 22, 2022.

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