Orders from Interior Department brass in Washington, D.C., have halted local work on a travel management plan for access to 137,000 acres of BLM-managed land in Blaine County, staffers from the agency’s Twin Falls District told the county commissioners Tuesday.
The directive casts doubt on the future of a comprehensive approach to governing use on public land stretching from Willow Creek in the west to the Little Wood River in the east, between U.S. Highway 20 in the south and the Sawtooth National Forest boundary in the north. It leaves local stakeholders—including the commissioners—to piece together smaller-scale plans while the BLM determines the future of access on its acreage.
That’s up to federal officials at the local office. Following a series of letters from then-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and his successor, acting Secretary David Bernhardt, BLM acting-Director Brian Steed halted development on all management plans, except those mandated by court order.
“This is certainly a need that we recognize,” Twin Falls District Manager Mike Courtney said. “But I’ve been asked to put it on pause.”
Courtney said he doesn’t have a sense of where the court-ordered plans are in their approval process with the Director’s Office, which signs off on all travel-management proposals, so he doesn’t know when lower-priority planning may resume.
More than a decade ago, Courtney was manager of the Shoshone Field Office when Blaine County initially reached out to the BLM to design a recreational access plan for its land in the Wood River Valley. That project stalled midstream, as the agency redirected resources away from planning.
The public process began again in 2017, as residents were asked to weigh in on options outlining use of existing and potential trails across a huge swath of terrain. Environmental assessments on the approved draft were 90 percent complete when the project screeched to a stop in March, according to Commissioner Angenie McCleary.
“A lot of work has gone into getting us this far,” BLM Shoshone Office Field Manager Codie Martin told the commissioners. “This has been a great collaborative effort—something I’m proud to be a part of. I don’t like sharing this news any more than you like hearing it. I hope we can start brainstorming a Plan B, so we can move forward with something. Because, at this point, I’m not comfortable with doing nothing.”
Since all official travel management plans must be approved by the same group that ordered them halted, “Plan B” must be carefully considered. One option, advanced on Tuesday, could be to use the completed portions of the environmental assessment to draft smaller-scale plans to connect trails and regulate what sort of uses are permitted there.
“Our intent is to use as much of the work as we can,” Martin said. “We’re looking to copy and paste as much as possible. The travel plan was our No. 1 priority. Our Plan B will fall right in line with that, but under a different title.
“We need to be strategic, how we move forward. We’re hearing they may want everything open for everybody. Specific trails for specific uses—that may not be palatable [to Washington].”
The drafts presented to the public described in detail what sort of activities would be allowed on each trail. Discussion reignited debate between motorized and nonmotorized recreationists; according to Josh Johnson, conservation associate at the Idaho Conservation League, the current administration falls squarely in favor of the former.
Courtney seemed to suggest the same.
“When you brief a travel plan [to the BLM director], you brief them on every restriction, and why,” he said. “Right now, restricting motorized use might be seen as restricting access. You have to be ready for that discussion and have a good rationale. It doesn’t always go like you’d expect.”
The BLM cannot designate or restrict uses without either a comprehensive management plan or a site-specific environmental assessment, Martin told the commissioners. Currently, though, legislation protecting sage grouse habitat bans cross-country travel, limiting motorized transit to existing trails, Courtney added.
Martin’s piecemeal strategy garnered support from representatives speaking on behalf of the Blaine County Recreation District, as well as the cities of Hailey and Bellevue. First priority: find ways—and partners—to connect front-range networks close to town.
McCleary and Commissioner Dick Fosbury agreed to move forward in whatever way possible. (Board Chairman Jacob Greenberg was absent.)
“The fact that the administration in theory wants to promote access to public lands, but doesn’t prioritize travel management, is ridiculous,” McCleary said. “You promote access through these plans. This would help their goal—not inhibit it—and make it more appropriate for our local area. The only way residents have any say in their public lands is through this process. Some people in the public have disagreed with some of the ideas [in this plan], but that’s what the process is for.
“We shouldn’t have to look for a Plan B. ... Hopefully, people see this as an opportunity to re-engage.”
McCleary volunteered to take point on gathering public input and alternative ideas.
“I’d like to see us work with the BLM, the Rec District and the cities to see what we can get done in the meantime,” Fosbury said. “We’ve got some things to work on.”