Tom Heinlein, the BLM Field Office Manager in Monticello, approached the Commission on March 12 to discuss the issue.
Heinlein said that an internal BLM investigation shows the route was not blocked by berms, as had been alleged. The BLM report was submitted to the Sheriff on March 9.
In a separate interview, a BLM spokesman said that a web of paths lead to the Creek Pasture Campground, including an official one and several user-created routes.
In late 2011, the user-created paths were blocked. The BLM states that they used GPS coordinates from San Juan County to verify that the official road leading into and out of the campground was never closed.
The challenge, according to the county, is that portions of the initially-claimed road were washed out and have seen little or no use. When the berms were created, it was difficult to see the original road, thus causing the effective closure of the route.
Despite the BLM report, the majority of comments voiced at the commission meeting agreed with the Sheriff’s office statement, that the BLM did intend to close the road entirely rather than block off a spur of the road.
Heinlein said that a sign meant to mark the end of the road was placed one quarter of a mile short of its intended location, and has since been moved. Heinlein told the commission that they verified the path of route 0570 using GIS data and data from San Juan County.
Heinlein said that it appears that no one from the county field-checked the data before an investigation was launched to determine the actual route that was alleged to have been closed.
“This is unfortunate, because if we could have all talked about this we could have avoided it,” said Heinlein.
Commissioner Bruce Adams said he personally contacted Heinlein as soon as the allegation of road closure came to the commission. At that time, Heinlein said there had been no road closure.
Adams told Heinlein that county staff thought there had been a closure “and to be honest with you, I thought someone had done something that you didn’t know about within your staff. That’s why I asked the Sherriff to begin an investigation,” said Adams.
Freestone questioned the claim that the county should have done a GPS before the closure became an issue, asking if the BLM did a GPS before pushing the berms. Heinlein said they did not because the actual route was more obvious at the time.
Freestone also asked why the BLM staff did not initially state that the road was there and that only spurs had been closed. Freestone questioned why BLM staff was sent to the area with shovels to open the area after the investigation was launched.
Bob Turri, a retired BLM employee who works for the county as a public lands consultant, said that the disturbance in the area causes him concern due to a lack of environmental analysis or archeological work.
Heinlein said the entire area had been cleared in a 2005 study, including an environmental analysis and archeological clearance. Turri said he was told by several BLM employees, including the archeologist, that the clearances had not been done. Heinlein stated they can be viewed online or in his office.
County Surveyor David Bronson expressed concern that this will occur all over the county.
“When people drive out on a road, they don’t know where we GPS’d it.” said Bronson. “We did so where the public was driving at the time and now if there is some weather event or something that has happened, people don’t stop driving on the road, they just go around.”
Bronson said the public was driving the original road at the time of the GPS, but the road washed out and people moved over and drove a new access.
Commissioner Adams asked if the original road had been washed out, and if that is why people were using the “new” route. Heinlein said the road was not washed out and people use the original approved route.
Bronson disagreed, stating he had been to the site a few days earlier and there had been no use on the original road. Bronson said that where the public has been driving, a berm was built and a sign placed, “so anybody from the public who drove up to that would have thought the road was closed at that point. That’s the problem.”
Heinlein said that in order to adopt a different route than originally approved, they would need to go through the process to do so. He suggested that it needs to be signed correctly to show clearly where the public can travel.
Commissioner Phil Lyman said that when a route washes out and people take an alternative to get from point A to point B, it’s still the same road.
Bronson agreed, adding that holding the county to a tiny blue line on a map is dangerous, as the intent was the route and not the tiny blue line.
Commissioner Lyman said, “I think you’re trying to make an issue out of 15 feet of variance. . . BLM didn’t go in and say hey, we would rather you use this road. They went in and put a road closed sign, which to anyone that’s driving out there say’s they have closed this road.”
Lyman suggested the BLM could have taken a proactive approach to make sure the public didn’t have the impression they were closing the road, but they did not. He added that the BLM did not bring up the area during coordination meetings with the county.
Heinlein said that based on the 2008 resource management plan, the BLM response in closing the alternate route was fully legal.
Heinlein expressed appreciation and said he welcomes reports from the public regarding the condition of BLM lands. He said that the more people are involved in shared stewardship over public lands, the better the land can be protected.
Heinlein said he hopes that the concerned public will stop making attacks on BLM employees, their property and their families. Commissioners agreed that those types of things are unnecessary and should stop immediately.
Commissioner Lyman said that this is a very personal issue for people. “There are a whole lot of citizens in this county that take very personally their doors knocked down, fines for doing a good deed. It is personal. You can’t say you’re just enforcing an ordinance when you’re dealing with people’s lives. . . What the BLM has done down here has been unconscionable over the past few years,” said Lyman.
Turri said that when a similar situation occurred near Blanding, citizens were heavily fined for their violation. He said that this may not be as severe and not involve the same laws, but it is still a violation.
Turri said, “This is just as much as a violation. You can sit there and defend that until hell freezes over, but you’re never going to convince those of us who saw this first hand.”
Photo provided by the BLM. See previous story and photos submitted by Monte Wells here