BLM balances conservation, recreation in Dominguez-Escalante NCA plan

MESA COUNTY, Colo (KKCO) -- The Bureau of Land Management released a long-awaited resource management plan on Friday for the Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area. According to the BLM, the plan aims for the elusive middle ground between conservation, recreation, and ranching.

 Diverse members of the NCA's Citizen Advisory Council on a field trip with BLM during the planning process.

Diverse members of the NCA's Citizen Advisory Council on a field trip with BLM during the planning process.

The plan literally covers a lot of ground. It designates where ATVs, jeeps, and dirt bikes are allowed. It sets aside areas for quiet uses, such as horseback riding and hiking. The plan also allows for continued livestock grazing and big-game hunting in the NCA. Over 9,000 acres was established to protect rare plants and paleontology sites, and the plan provides protection for desert bighorn sheep, as well as petroglyph sites, historical cabins, and other archaeology sites throughout the canyons.

It’s a tall order with potential for conflict between different interest groups, but BLM officials said input from the public and the interest groups themselves was crucial in finding the right mix of resource protection, recreation, and traditional uses.

The Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area was established in 2009. It covers over 209,000 acres in Mesa, Delta, and Montrose counties, and includes over 66,000 acres of wilderness. The red-rock canyons are home to an abundance of wildlife and a rich history of Native American culture and early homesteaders in western Colorado.

Katie Steele’s family history is woven into the Dominguez-Escalante canyons. Her great-grandfather was surveyor general for Colorado and she has found some of his original survey markers in the NCA. Her uncle ran cattle in the canyons and on the Uncompahgre Plateau, and she said she spent a lot of time there growing up.

Steele joined the advisory council for the Dominguez-Escalante NCA in 2010, and helped in developing recommendations for the BLM on the resource management plan. She said hundreds of people came to the advisory council’s 35 public meetings to passionately express their ideas and concerns regarding the NCA’s future.

“Everyone came with different ideas, but everyone gave up a little bit to come up with a plan that was agreeable,” said Steele. “We decided if everyone walked away a little mad, we did a good job.”

The travel plan, which designates which trails and roads are open to what types of recreational uses, was one of the main points of contention. Some trails in the NCA were closed to protect sensitive species and cultural/historical sites, but most will remain mixed use, with motorized vehicles, mountain bikes, horse riders, and hikers sharing the trail.

Under the plan, seven areas will be managed for specific recreational uses. According to the BLM, the Cactus Park area will be managed for off-road, motorized vehicles. This means that the BLM will build campgrounds and facilities in the area specific to motorized uses. The BLM is also looking at opportunities to expand mountain biking trails in the Delta Sawmill Mesa area. The Nine Mile Hill area will be managed for hiking and horseback riding.

Collin Ewing, manager of the Dominguez-Escalante NCA, said a unique feature of NCAs is the ability to protect resources while still allowing traditional uses, such as grazing, farming, and hunting, which have gone on for a long time.

“Ranching will continue, hunting will continue, motorized uses are allowed…bring your dog, ride your mountain bike, or have a quiet wilderness experience,” said Ewing. “You have a lot of opportunities for primitive, unconfined recreation.”

Bob Jankowski joined the Dominguez-Escalante NCA advisory council as a motorized user representative because he was concerned about losing access to the NCA. He said he was impressed by the ability of the BLM to balance so many different interest groups.

“There are some big changes. We are losing a lot of trails but we are keeping a lot too," he said. “We’re living in a lot of more crowded world with a lot more recreational users.”

Joe Neuhof, executive director of the Colorado Canyons Association said he believes the Dominguez-Escalante planning process can be a national model for planning on public lands.

“One of the things with public land is that everyone isn’t going to get as much of the thing that they care about,” said Neuhof. “The BLM has gone above and beyond in their attempt to get all of the voices involved to the table…This is the way to do it right.”

According to the BLM, the plan is currently in a 30-day public protest period and 60-day Governor’s consistency review. After protests are resolved the plan will be finalized.

Click here to read the resource management plan and to find out more information.