BLM’s Eastern Colorado Draft Resource Management Plan ignores public input, fails to protect critical wildlife habitat and favorite outdoor recreation spots
by John Sztukowski, Wild Connections
From its headwaters at an elevation of 14,000 feet near Leadville, Colorado, the Arkansas River slices through the Rocky Mountain Front Range to travel a meandering 1,500-mile route to the Mississippi River north of Louisiana. Carved by the Arkansas at its Colorado source, the Royal Gorge region, called the “Grand Canyon of the Arkansas,” is a hub for river rafters and outdoor enthusiasts seeking adventure, pristine scenery, and an abundance of wildlife.
In 2015, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) initiated a land management planning process for 668,000 acres of public lands in eastern Colorado, mostly along the Arkansas River corridor west of Pueblo. Since then, the agency has considered input from the public that will determine which areas will be conserved for their wilderness, recreation, and wildlife values, and which will be made available for extractive or industrial uses such as mining and drilling for oil and gas.
In June 2019, the BLM Royal Gorge released their long awaited draft plan, only to threaten the future of our local Colorado public lands by systematically ignoring public input and local economic benefits, while prioritizing development over conservation and area wildlife. The BLM’s preferred alternative (Alternative D) fails to conserve the area’s wildest lands and natural resources.
Going into this plan, the BLM manages 79,108 acres for Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) and recognized over 27,000 additional acres to have these same ACEC values in their planning area. In 2017, the BLM proposed to manage 106,800 acres as ACEC in Alternative D, what has become the preferred alternative. However in this 2019 draft plan’s preferred alternative, the BLM has decided to drastically reduce this number, while also blatantly ignoring public input, and only proposes to manage 46,300 acres as ACEC in their “preferred alternative.”
BLM has also identified 190,000 acres of wilderness-quality lands (LWCs) in the planning area. Yet, BLM only includes 1,300 acres of lands with wilderness character, and does not include appropriate management to protect their wild values, making them vulnerable to fragmentation and development. This is despite LWCs receiving the second most substantive comments out of 188 BLM category issues in BLM’s 2017’s preliminary alternatives public comment period as well as the second most substantive comments out of 31 BLM category issues in BLM’s 2015’s scoping public comment period.
This draft plan is accompanied by a 90-day public comment period, open now until Sept 20! Let the BLM know that this “preferred alternative” is not preferred by Coloradans. This version of the plan has been manipulated by this current administration, which prioritizes special interests over the public and public input processes.
Unfortunately, Colorado’s Royal Gorge is not the first Resource Management Plan under this administration to strip conservation protections from our country’s wildest lands. In Southeastern Oregon, Lewistown, Montana, and Alaska, for example, it has been made clear that the Bureau of Land Management is seeking to remove as many protections as possible from public lands. The systematic approach of ignoring local input, zeroing-out conservation, and prioritizing development makes it clear that it is open season on public lands.
We are the public in public lands, and we all have a say in how our lands are managed. Visit wildconnections.org to learn how to speak up for wild places in Eastern Colorado, and if you live in the area, how to get more involved through attending hikes and public meetings.
12 Threatened #BLMWild Places in Eastern Colorado
Echo Canyon, Table Mountain
This area is one of the wildest and inaccessible in the Arkansas River Canyonlands, and also the largest, containing over 30,000 acres of wilderness character land. The scenic Table Mountain over Echo Canyon can be glimpsed from a drive along US Highway 50, or better yet, a boating trip on the Arkansas River. This area is also an important wildlife corridor and habitat for many species, including Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, black bear, elk, mule deer, pronghorn, mountain lion, as well as bird species such as the bald eagle, American peregrine falcon, and Mexican spotted owl.
Of the 31,661 acres of Lands with Wilderness Characteristics that the BLM found at Echo Canyon, Table Mountain, they have proposed to manage none of it, 0 acres, for its wilderness character in their “preferred alternative.” Of note, the BLM had intended to incorporate local public input and properly manage Echo Canyon for its wilderness character. A sneak peak into BLM’s draft plan in 2018 showed us that they had proposed to manage 29,600 acres as LWC in the preferred alternative! However that was prior to this draft plan being corrupted by this “Energy First” administration, which obviously has put its thumb on the scale to exclude conservation and ignore Coloradans’ input in favor of development opportunities. Tell the BLM that this is not acceptable!
North Badger Creek
Badger Creek, with headwaters just a few miles north in South Park, is one of few perennial streams in the rugged Arkansas River Canyonlands, located just east of the Chaffee/Fremont County line. A hike along this vegetated stream section speaks to the great amount of life that this watershed supports. Or take in a breathtaking view of Bighorn Sheep Canyon and the scenic Sangre de Cristo Mountains beyond from atop Jack Hall Mountain, one of the higher peaks in the area at over 11,000 feet and few areas to stroll through bristlecone pine trees in the region.
This area, part of a larger Badger Creek public lands complex, has been proposed for wilderness numerous times, and has just been proposed again recently as part of the 2019 Colorado Wilderness Act! The BLM found 11,265 acres of wilderness character land at North Badger Creek, and in 2017, proposed to manage 9,300 acres for its wilderness character in Alternative D, what has now become BLM’s “preferred alternative”. The BLM had even proposed to increase this acreage to 11,100 acres in their initial 2018 Draft plan, due to public input and support. However that was prior to Washington DC oversight and their dictations, as the current draft version of this plan backtracks completely. Now ignoring public input for this wild landscape, in an unabashed fashion the BLM proposes to manage 0 acres for its wilderness character in their “preferred alternative!”
Badger Creek South
The lively and yearlong running Badger Creek flows four miles through this unit before depositing into the Arkansas River, about 10 miles east of Salida, CO. The creek dissects rugged, arid terrain, including impressive steep red sandstone uplifts. Badger Creek offers excellent opportunities for trout fishing, hiking, and wildlife viewing. You may see a herd of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, mule deer, brown trout, or many other forms of life that depend on this important waterway.
The BLM found 8,137 acres of Lands with Wilderness Characteristics at Badger Creek South, however has proposed to manage 0 acres for its wilderness character in their “preferred alternative.”
North of Coaldale/Cotopaxi: Sand Gulch, Falls Gulch Mountain
This area offers exceptional backcountry hiking and big game hunting opportunities. It encompasses the epitome of the Arkansas River Canyonlands with dense pinion-juniper woodlands that roll over hilly and canyoned terrain, while also providing mid-elevation mixed forests in the higher sections to the north. There are also rare and vulnerable riparian plant communities and wetlands on the east side of Falls Gulch Mountain. And a short hike to the top of Falls Gulch Mountain offers incredible views of the surrounding Arkansas River Canyonlands with the jagged Sangre de Cristo Mountains as your backdrop.
The BLM found 17,375 acres of wilderness character land at North of Coaldale, and in 2017, proposed to manage 7,500 acres for its wilderness character in Alternative D, what has now become BLM’s “preferred alternative”. However in the current draft version of this plan, the BLM has again decided to backtrack and ignore public input, and brazenly proposes to manage 0 acres for its wilderness character in their “preferred alternative,” evidently preferred by this self-proclaimed “Energy First” administration, as input from local Coloradans have publicly stated otherwise.
Nestled in between two motorized areas, north of Texas Creek, CO, Bear Mountain and West Table Mountain loom large over the pinyon-juniper rolling hills and incised gulches and sandy washes. The rugged cliffs and steep terrain provide excellent nesting areas and habitat for birds of prey, including the bald eagle, golden eagle, and osprey. However this area is not completely arid, as Monument Creek flows year round through the center of this landscape. Riparian vegetation — cottonwoods, willows, watercress, and more — line the creek bed. That is until the creek tightens and slots through granitic rock, with pools carved out from the slow passage of time and Monument Creek Falls spilling over from above.
The BLM found 8,204 acres of Lands with Wilderness Characteristics at Bear Mountain, an area that desperately needs adequate management for its wildlife and wild characteristics as it is frequently disturbed and trespassed by illegal motorized use. The BLM had intended to adhere to public input and manage Bear Mountain properly, as was illustrated in BLM’s 2018 initial draft plan in which they proposed to manage 8,200 acres as LWC in the preferred alternative! However and again, that was before this current administration hacked away at this plan and its balanced management approach. Now the BLM has decided to continue to neglect this area, proposing to manage 0 acres for its wilderness character in their “preferred alternative.”
Eightmile Mountain/Thompson, Gribble, Twin Mountains
Enjoy a hike or horseback ride to Thompson Point from one of two trailheads in Deer Haven Park, off of High Park Road. From there, you can take in the best of what Colorado has to offer — landscape views of the snowcapped Sangre de Cristo Mountains draping over central Colorado’s canyon country — highlighted by the Arkansas River and Bighorn Sheep Canyon. This mostly untouched, rugged landscape is also an important wildlife connectivity corridor, providing species safe travel and refuge from the Gold Belt region and greater Pikes Peak area north of Canon City to Bighorn Sheep Canyon and the many mountain ranges in central Colorado.
The BLM found 17,855 acres of Lands with Wilderness Characteristics at Eightmile Mountain, one of the largest intact wild areas that they manage in the Royal Gorge Field Office; however have proposed to manage 0 acres for its wilderness character in their “preferred alternative.”
Upper Red Canyon
Established areas off of Shelf Road offer some of the best rock climbing opportunities in the region. However just west into this unit you can find excellent backcountry climbing opportunities as well as rugged mountain biking trails. Or take a nice easy stroll or a multi-day backpacking trip through the massive backcountry and enjoy the trickling streams, high grasslands, cavernous valleys, red rock outcroppings, and mountainous views.
The BLM found 22,706 acres of Lands with Wilderness Characteristics at Red Canyon, the second largest contiguous area that they manage in the Royal Gorge Field Office; however have proposed to manage 0 acres for its wilderness character in their “preferred alternative.”
Cooper Mountain is a large and diverse 21,000 acre area, bounded by the historic Gold Belt Byways of Phantom Canyon Road and Shelf Road. Mountain biking is popular to the west in the Garden Park/Oil Well Flats area off of Shelf Road, an area also protected for its nationally renowned paleontological sites. This is where the stegosaurus was first discovered! Cooper Mountain offers excellent opportunities for solitude and backcountry experiences. Established trails from either side of the mountain take you from the arid canyon terrain through mixed-forests, to high elevation grasslands. Take in views of Pikes Peak, the Wet Mountains, or the Sangre de Cristo Mountains from the buttes and lookouts atop Cooper Mountain.
The BLM found 21,752 acres of Lands with Wilderness Characteristics at the historic Cooper Mountain, the third largest intact wild area that they manage in the Royal Gorge Field Office; however have proposed to manage 0 acres for its wilderness character in their “preferred alternative.”
Cucharas Canyon is a rare intact wild canyon area on Colorado’s eastern plains. Once vital for Native Indians, American settlers and ranchers, can now be enjoyed as a camping trip, hike, horseback ride, or hunting opportunity. Take a through-hike down the canyon and enjoy the sounds of the trickling river or the songs of a canyon wren. Or visit one of the lookouts on either side for a scenic vista of the Spanish Peaks over this colorful picturesque canyon.
The BLM found 6,046 acres of Lands with Wilderness Characteristics at this incredible canyon on the plains, however has proposed to manage 0 acres for its wilderness character in their “preferred alternative.”
This distinctive landmark in South Park, east of Fairplay, is the highest elevation and one of the most valuable landscapes that the BLM manages in Colorado. Reinecker Ridge not only boasts significant cultural and paleontological history, it is revered for its high biodiversity due to extreme rich and unique wetland fens and grasslands. Once a strategic location and valued hunting area for indigenous peoples for millennia — Reinecker Ridge remains a wildlife sanctuary — providing habitat for Canadian lynx, boreal toad, bobcat, mountain lion, moose, elk, deer, pronghorn, black bear, ermine, goshawk, bald eagle, golden eagle, great horned owl, burrowing owl, and migratory snow owl, among others! And while woolly mammoths may be long gone, 20,000 year old fossils and bones have been found here, and are on display at a local gallery and the Denver Museum of Natural History.
Reinecker Ridge is the largest intact BLM managed land in South Park at 4,300 acres, and is adjacent to the protected 17,429 acre James Mark Jones State Wildlife Area; however BLM proposes to not close any of it to fluid mineral leasing and development in their Preferred Alternative, despite local support, including that of Park County, as the BLM continues to prioritize development over conservation and local input.
Beaver Creek is one of the most exceptional and wild areas managed by the BLM’s Royal Gorge Field Office. Located south of Pikes Peak, the primitive and scenic Beaver Creek area provides a significant wildlife corridor that connects the Front Range mountains to Colorado’s interior mountains and canyons. It is no surprise that Beaver Creek is a continual nomination for the Colorado Wilderness Act, and was just proposed again in 2019. Over 26,150 acres of the rugged granite canyonlands, valued for its varied ecosystems, supporting significant wildlife and fish habitat, is managed by the BLM as the Beaver Creek Wilderness Study Area (WSA).
The BLM found additional areas adjacent to the Beaver Creek WSA as having similar values: finding 12 areas, totaling about 7,000 acres of Lands with Wilderness Character. In BLM’s 2017 Preliminary Alternatives Alternative D, the BLM proposed to manage four of these areas, totaling approximately 3,200 acres for its LWC. However in 2019, despite increased local public support, the BLM is proposing to manage just one of these areas, totaling a mere 150 acres for its wilderness character. Furthermore, the BLM is proposing to risk local wildlife, wildlands, and primitive recreation by completely eliminating the current 12,081 acre Beaver Creek Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC)!
What is even more perplexing is that the BLM had proposed to increase this ACEC substantially in 2017’s Preliminary Alternatives. The BLM had adhered to local public input by proposing to expand this ACEC to not only include the current Phantom Canyon ACEC (which now also faces proposed reductions) but also the wild and valued BLM land in between, for a total of 41,600 acres in a new larger ACEC, dubbed South Pikes Peak ACEC.
Unfortunately a lot has changed in two years, as the BLM is now systematically ignoring public input and stripping conservation from Colorado’s wildest public lands. The proposed 41,600 acre South Pikes Peak ACEC is now missing from BLM’s preferred alternative, as is the current 12,081 acre Beaver Creek ACEC. BLM thinks it is open season for our most valuable local public lands. Let the BLM know that this is a travesty and that Coloradans will not stand for this!
Grape Creek is a rare perennial waterway in the rugged Arkansas River Canyon region, valued for its significant wildlife and biodiversity, as well as phenomenal primitive recreation opportunities. These valued resources led to the creation of the Upper and Lower Grape Creek Wilderness Study Areas, totaling 21,400 acres along the Grape Creek riparian corridor, and make up two of the five WSAs that the Royal Gorge manages in this region. This area is so exceptional that it is also one of the few regional public lands areas to be nominated as part of the 2019 Colorado Wilderness Act.
The BLM even found additional areas adjacent to these WSAs as having similar values: finding 16 areas, totaling about 8,100 acres of Lands with Wilderness Character. In BLM’s 2017 Preliminary Alternatives Alternative D, the BLM proposed to manage five of these areas, totaling about 3,400 acres for their wilderness character.
However despite overwhelming public support for Grape Creek, and in the face of ever increasing developmental threats - particularly mining - the BLM has decided to slash its protections of this renowned area. They limit proposed LWC management to just two of these 18 areas, with the proposed LWC management prescriptions now being much more favorable for extractive industries than they proposed just two years ago.
Similarly and even more alarming, the BLM is proposing to reduce the current 18,200 acre Grape Creek Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC), to just 2,300 acres! The BLM was planning to have the full 18,200 acre ACEC in Alternative D, as they illustrated in 2017’s Preliminary Alternatives, however again is ignoring local public input in favor of DC’s “Energy First” administration’s directives.
Some of BLM Royal Gorge’s most intact wild public lands that they manage are in the heart of Bighorn Sheep Canyon, known as the Arkansas River Canyonlands, located between Salida and Parkdale, CO. This significant watershed is primarily comprised of Echo Canyon and McIntyre Hills Wilderness Study Area (WSA), separated only by the Arkansas River.
The BLM currently manages 24,900 acres of the Arkansas Canyonlands as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC), recognized for its outstanding recreation, scenic views, and critical and valued species. Given the extraordinary values of this area, it was an easy decision for the BLM to continue to manage these 24,900 acres as an ACEC, which it proposed to do in Alternative D of their 2017 Preliminary Alternatives.
However continuing the trend of ignoring local public input, which called for expanding this ACEC to protect these incredibly valuable and delicate ecosystems, the BLM now proposes to reduce this ACEC to 19,600 acres. This is on top of the BLM proposing to manage 0 of the 31,661 acres at Echo Canyon for its Lands with Wilderness Characteristics. Similarly, the BLM only proposes to manage one area totaling 200 acres contiguous with the McIntyre Hills WSA as Lands with Wilderness Characteristic, despite finding almost 3,300 acres of LWC contiguous with McIntyre Hills. BLM is making it clear that it is open season on our local public lands.
It is evident that the BLM is systematically ignoring local input, zeroing-out conservation, and prioritizing development, leaving our most cherished public lands at risk.
Help protect these #BLMWild places! Get involved and add your voice at wildconnections.org.