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Dear Editor,

Public land recreators, we need your help in Chaffee County. Specifically, we need you to comment on the BLM’s Chaffee County camping plan to stop the local politicization of public lands. You may think, what, a camping plan? Why should I care about a camping plan? And you may even think camping should be restricted in certain areas because you have seen the negative impacts. I share your concerns.

I am a local business owner in Chaffee County and a fourth-generation native. I have witnessed camping and recreation explode over the last four decades. Some level of management is needed and appropriate. However, the decision process to determine management should be as objective as possible. A few individuals cannot sabotage public land management.

Therefore, you should care about this seemingly irrelevant camping plan because it’s the first step in a process designed to limit all forms of recreation over time. It would be naive to think politicizing public lands hasn’t happened for decades at the federal level, but this concept is relatively new at the local level. A republic (which we are) practices democracy to make majority decisions, but natural rights protect the individual. This means a majority vote can’t take away the rights of an individual. It’s essential to understand this concept because if we were a true democracy as a nation, then 51 percent of the people all thinking the same way could vote to force the other 49 percent to follow their rules.

Look at it this way; the entire American public owns public lands. What if a local group decided to manipulate public land usage by claiming a simple political majority to make the entire American public abide by their desires while on public lands? Would you think that should be allowed? I once heard politics described as the ability to take a selfish desire and turn it into a community need. There is no more explicit example of this than a few local people trying to steer public land rules for everyone.

Think this can’t happen locally?

Some say the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) Process is supposed to limit the ability of a special interest group to force an agenda upon public lands, and NEPA instead mandates Public Land Managers to follow an objective process. You would be correct that NEPA should legitimize a process by limiting bias and giving all public land users a voice in decision-making. However, the politicization of public lands seeks to influence NEPA by finding a simple majority to exploit decisions for public lands. This is directly contradictory to all of us owning public lands and participating in the NEPA process, which informs decisions for public lands.

This issue is front and center in the previously mentioned BLM camping plan in Chaffee County.

Comments are now being accepted concerning this plan. The camping plan stems from the group Envision Chaffee County, which was conceived by a few residents, one of whom became a County Commissioner. They formed a group masquerading as a county-led initiative, and they passed a sales tax hike in 2018 to support their mission. This tax hike passed 51 to 49 percent.

Yet, this group is being passed off as [being] supported by the entire county. It is pushing the BLM Royal George Field Office to run a project they deem necessary to manage the future of camping in several locations on public land within the county boundaries. In simple terms, this group wants public land users locked out of public lands in favor of county residents who don’t like the increased use of public lands within Chaffee County.

As a county resident, it’s a challenging balancing act to see recreation and recreation-related impacts increase and understand the frustration of county residents and property owners. It’s equally frustrating, however, to watch new people move into an area, only to decide that there are too many people here now, and we should limit others from coming here and recreating here. At one time, none of us were residents of this county, so why should a few of us ultimately decide the future for everyone?

It’s even more frustrating to realize that a small group can force this type of centralized planning on all public land users. This behavior is risky at best because of the potential bias and fallibility of the group doing the planning. In this case, the planner is Envision Chaffee County, and in their own words, their group was started by six citizens of the county to enact their vision for the future. The arrogance of a few people to use government resources to pass their vision for public lands should alarm everyone. This group’s glaring conflict of interest has been swept under the table. Chaffee County has allowed seated commissioner Greg Felt to co-found Envision and serve as Envision Co-Chair while also actively holding office. This is simply mind-boggling. At this point, Envision and Chaffee County are not even trying to hide what they are doing.

This is how the local politicization of public lands looks. Groups within a county get a slight majority to win an election and then push that ‘majority’ agenda upon everyone. This is particularly concerning when it comes to public land owned by all of us. The Trails Preservation Alliance (TPA), Central Colorado Mountain Riders (CCMR), and Colorado Offroad Enterprise (CORE) warned of this happening in 2018 when Envision Chaffee County was formed and when the individuals behind Envision put the tax initiative to fund Envision on the ballot. We cautioned it would be used as a justification to limit existing and future recreation. We even went so far as to suggest it could be used as a justification to close roads and trails and could compartmentalize the county and dismiss future trail proposals. Our concerns fell on deaf ears, and we were told we were making too much out of nothing. We were told this process wasn’t intended to close anything but was necessary to ‘balance’ public land use. Well…enter the BLM camping plan, which closes 40 percent of the roads analyzed for the least restrictive alternative being considered and 85 percent of roads analyzed for the most restrictive alternative under consideration for the project. But, pay no attention to that fact because ‘we don’t intend to close roads’ is what Envision has said openly multiple times. Yet, every time I hear this, it’s as if the scene from Star Wars is playing in my head where Obi-Wan Kenobi controls weak minds causing them to say…’ These are not the droids you are looking for ”…

The red flags with Envision are everywhere. The very word ‘balance’ is being manipulated. The Envision project took on a ”Rec in Balance” mission to balance recreation use within the county. These words are specific jargon chosen as propaganda to advance an agenda. Suppose something is out of balance, then by default. In that case, it needs balancing. By branding your project as the solution to balance the equation, you define the endpoint before starting the ”public,” and ”objective” processes used to determine what we (Chaffee County) need to do. Simply put, this project was intended to limit and restrain the growth of recreation (all types) within Chaffee County.

It’s one thing to say things need to be balanced, but then you need a catalyst to motivate unknowing people to act favorably on your plan. The Envision Plan’s catalyst became wildlife and propping wildlife habitat and big game herds up on a pedestal that creates an impossible scenario to argue against. Envision’s own words were this: “Local herds of elk, bighorn sheep, and mountain goat are really taking a hit as human pressure moves them out of high-quality habitat and shrinks the area they need to survive.” Some people looked at this on the surface and thought, fantastic; they are balancing recreation use and protecting wildlife. I can get behind that. On the flip side, some of us were highly skeptical and were then branded as not caring about nature and only caring about recreation, which according to Envision, destroys wildlife habitat. See how propaganda works? You create a problem, offer a solution to said problem, control the narrative, and then brand those questioning your narrative as bad people. Envision Chaffee County is a textbook example of this method.

As the above quote shows, Envision tried to use declining big game herd numbers in Chaffee County to justify their group’s intentions. This tactic got people’s attention. Just one problem, the Big Game Report put out by Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) showed that for the region encompassing Chaffee County, the herd numbers were at their desired management range, not below. Never mind that Mountain Goats are an invasive species not native to Colorado, and they compete with Big Horn Sheep for habitat.

On top of that, the Envision Wildlife Data was peer-reviewed by several biologists and was found to have inaccurate information, and they had misapplied wildlife science for Colorado. We should always be skeptical of groups trying to justify controlling other people out of an urgent need to protect something. It’s not that these needs are always false. However, the burden of proof is on those suggesting the rule changes. They are the ones who should thoroughly provide the evidence to support their solutions. Envision has never done this and has taken a hostile, defensive posture whenever their plan was scrutinized. Good plans can survive scrutiny, and when good plans use scrutiny and adjust accordingly, they can become great plans.

Many people have asked Envision Chaffee County tough questions throughout this process. One of those questions was, why are we recreating the NEPA process? Envision responded with; ‘our plan does not replace NEPA’. Ok, so what does your plan do then? ‘Our plan informs the NEPA process’. And there it is, the real reason for doing this, trying to leverage and steer NEPA. How does ”informing” NEPA do that, you might say? Well, it’s simple, NEPA does not make decisions; it informs a decision. It gives land managers a broad spectrum of information to use when deciding. So, if NEPA doesn’t make decisions, how can you inform a process designed to inform land managers for decision making? Right, you can’t. Envision seeks to influence the NEPA process used to inform land managers’ decisions, which is unacceptable. Again, NEPA is supposed to guard against that effort. Instead of allowing NEPA to run as required, they don’t trust the objective outcome to achieve their desired results. So, they are now trying to lobby NEPA into pushing their agenda.

Chaffee County and Envision have cried, we can do this as a ”Cooperating Agency,” and we are well within our rights to ask the Forest Service and BLM to act in the interest of Chaffee County. This is primarily true but needs context. There is a regulation that is, in fact, part of NEPA describing a cooperating agency and allowing participation for that agency within the process. Chaffe County has leapfrogged this and started a group (Envision) designed to push the BLM, in this case, into running the projects they want.

This may not be unprecedented, as a cooperating agency (a county) will sometimes create a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with a land manager, clearly spelling out their relationship and understanding before pushing a project. And then, once the project is initiated, the Land Manger has county employees work with the Land Management ID team to inform the project for specific county details. This is the central issue here; Chaffee County is 100 percent in the gray area with Envision. The county didn’t setup an initial MOU with land managers. They also are not participating in the NEPA process as a cooperating agency. They started a ”Community Group” (Envision) to steer land management decisions within the boundaries of Chaffee County. They have stood by and allowed Envision to act as their proxy. That is unprecedented and does the exact thing NEPA was set up to mitigate, special interest influence.

Envision Chaffee County is what started the Chaffee County BLM Camping project. This is the first project spurred by their work, and that’s why all public land users must make their voices heard. Not only does dispersed camping stand to be severely limited in select areas, but there are also lots of road closures proposed along the way. And concerning is the fact that the BLM and Envision have not even acknowledged a severe problem in Chaffee County that is making camping an attractive option – affordable housing. Many people camp on public lands all summer (against the existing regulations) to live and work here. This is not a good practice, and it does damage to public lands, but it is a reality, and it should be acknowledged if we are ever going to solve the camping problem.

Maybe you are in favor of limiting camping within the areas included in the BLM project, maybe these impacts are causing issues for you and your property, so you are OK with the project and the draft alternatives. But what about the results? Are you confident that a non-objective process manipulated to achieve a desired outcome will succeed? If the process didn’t account for reality and didn’t come up with a plan to mitigate the real issues, how can it be successful long-term? Maybe you push your problem onto your neighbor, or maybe you ultimately make the problem worse.

So, what can you do? You can send comments to the BLM to inform them you are not satisfied with their draft alternatives for the Camping Project. You should tell them none of the alternatives are acceptable, and there should be no road closures to manage camping impacts. Tell them they should enforce the existing public land camping regulations and tell them they should consider another alternative to expand dispersed camping in an organized manner to help account for the demand. Tell them the BLM should also broaden their project area because if they close campsites in small sections of Chaffee County, users will undoubtedly make new sites in other locations as a result. Ignoring these issues will not ultimately fix the problem.

Follow the below link to the project page and the Alternative Maps. You can also make comments on this page:

Marcus Trusty

Buena Vista