Public Lands Partnership

Posted: May 3, 2004

Delta, Montrose, Ouray and San Miguel counties, Western Colorado

Objectives: To influence the management of Western Colorado's public lands in ways that enhance and help maintain diverse, healthy and viable economies, environments, and communities.

History: Rural west-central Colorado sits between the state's snow-capped Rocky Mountains and Utah's canyon-carved red rock desert. Juniper- and pine-covered plateaus, irrigated river valleys, 11,000-foot-plus peaks and sage-covered hills surround several small towns anchoring this arid region. It's a place where newly arrived retirees and work-from-home professionals share fences with coal miners, ranchers, orchard owners, and small-scale loggers.

By the early 1990s, aspen stand timber sales on the Grand Mesa-Uncompaghre National Forest (GMUG) had become a money loser for the Forest Service and the region's lead forester announced that the sales would be suspended. Many worried that the timber supply depended on by small-scale loggers and a large Louisiana-Pacific wafer board plant would dry up.

At the same time, the GMUG forest was poised to begin revising its Forest Management Plan, and locals wanted to have a say in the process. Some industry leaders and citizens were calling on county officials to join New Mexico's Catron County and Nevada's Nye County - two counties leading the wise-use movement - to declare county supremacy over the federal government. County and industry officials wanting to avoid the polarization joined with the federal land agencies and conservationists to form the Public Lands Partnership (PLP) in 1992. The PLP is open to anyone who wants to participate and meets on a monthly basis.

 Gunnison Gorge
Photo courtesy of BLM
Accomplishments: Working with state demographers, the partnership's first milepost was completing a study that determined the economic role played by the area's public lands. It also spelled out the intangible social connections that residents attached to that land. As the PLP gathered these numbers, the group started talking about issues and developed a common understanding of the federal agencies' mandates and budgeting processes, something that members say has been invaluable in terms of "getting everyone on the same page."

In 1998, when conflict simmered over efforts by local coalmines to expand production, the partnership initiated meetings among miners, environmentalists, small-business owners, and other citizens. Out of these meetings coalesced a group known as the North Fork Coal Working Group. The group negotiated a legally binding Good Neighbor Agreement - one of only a handful across the county - which allowed for expanded coal production, while addressing environmental concerns, as well as train and traffic safety issues.

The Partnership secured a five-year grant from the Ford Foundation in 2000 - one of the group's most notable successes - and pooled the money with another sizeable grant from Colorado's Department of Wildlife. The funding is earmarked for a landscape-scale, community-based restoration effort. That effort, a spin-off collaborative known as the Uncompahgre Plateau Project, is largely focused on restoring mule deer populations and native plant species, as well as restoring the forest through prescribed burns and mechanical forest thinning.

Since the Louisiana-Pacific wafer board plant closed its doors in 2001, some timber contractors have turned to the work generated on the forest through the Uncompahgre Plateau Project.

Other projects under way include:
  • The Living History Project to document the area's historical practices and events related to the area's forests;
  • The Logger Demonstration Project to educate the community about forest restoration and the opportunities for small-scale loggers; and
  • The Rancher Habitat Project, a partnership with the American Farmland Trust which involves grass-banking, stewardship contracting, and ranching for habitat.
Challenges/constraints: Members say the partnership has experienced "growing pains" since attracting funding and pooling financial resources with various state and federal agencies. It has had to face the challenge of designing the legal framework for administering and sharing the money. In 2000, the partnership created a non-profit companion organization to administer grant-funded projects.

The partnership, which was once loosely organized, has become increasingly formalized. While some members say it's an expected transition, others say that the group is becoming mired in the bureaucratic process and that citizens no longer have a strong voice in the partnership's decisions.

For more information see:

High Country News Story
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