PHOENIX — After six years in the making, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) finished updating its resource management plan, which will increase hunting and recreational opportunities within the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area (SPRNCA).

The statement of notice was published on the Federal Registry as required on Tuesday.

The approved resource management plan (RMP) updates and prioritizes active resource management and allows for a broad array of management tools for ecosystem restoration and conservation stewardship, said Scott Feldhausen, BLM Gila district manager.

“The RMP gives us more flexibility to successfully manage the area’s important resources,” he explained. “We look forward to working with our partners in the coming years to actively manage the area through shared conservation stewardship.”

The agency did heed a request from the public to prohibit additional grazing on the SPRNCA. Grazing already permitted will continue.

Highlights of the plan also include the expansion of areas open to licensed hunting and provisions for a diverse mix of recreation opportunities for the community and visitors.

“It increases outdoor recreation opportunities and enhances conservation stewardship while increasing outdoor recreation opportunities,” according to Feldhausen.

BLM staff worked with federal, state, local, tribal governments and the public to develop a range of alternatives. Four were presented to the public.

Though most of the people who attended RMP presentations around the county preferred the alternative with the least amount of impact — no grazing, no hunting, no camping — the planning team instead tried to meld public opinion for reduced human impact with the Secretary of the Interior’s mandate to open up more areas to recreation.

So, Plan C, BLM’s original choice, was tweaked, and after vetting the plan with the public, it was approved.

The RMP, a crucial component of the land stewardship program, will guide management of the SPRNCA for the next 15 to 20 years, Feldhausen said.

“The RMP focuses on active resource management, using the broadest array of management tools where appropriate, including use of heavy equipment, herbicide, hand tools and prescribed fire,” he added.

Vehicle use would continue to be permitted, but only on designated routes, consistent with the enabling legislation protecting the SPRNCA.

The notice on the Federal Registry indicated 28 protest letters were received during the 30-day protest period and were resolved prior to the issuance of the Record of Decision. Only 10 protest letters were valid and required a response from the BLM. Eighteen were dismissed because the commenter did not have standing or because the letter did not contain valid protests.

It also states there “are no appealable decisions included in the Record of Decision.”

No comments regarding potential inconsistencies with state and local plans, programs, and policies were received from the Governor’s Office during the review process.

Opposition to plan

Cyndi Tuell, Arizona and New Mexico Director of Western Watersheds Project, said the plan goes against BLM’s mission.

“They are supposed to be conserving, protecting and enhancing this conservation area, but instead the BLM has approved business-as-usual in allowing livestock grazing, which causes great ecological harm. Despite our best efforts, the BLM has blinders on about the adverse impacts of livestock grazing in the SPRNCA, and is prioritizing livestock even in this fragile desert oasis.”

The approved plan allows livestock grazing to occur on four grazing leases within the SPRNCA, including within the riparian area of the Babocomari River. It doesn’t address issues of trespass livestock or discuss the recreational disadvantages of grazing impacts. The plan also authorizes unspecified and unrestricted use of “targeted grazing” anywhere within the SPRNCA, a change the agency made late in the planning process and failed to fully analyze, according to Tuell.

Sandy Bahr, chapter director for Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, also said BLM missed the mark with its new plan.

“With all of the stresses on the San Pedro River and this wonderful conservation area, and the mandate in the legislation that created it, BLM should have produced a plan that maximizes protection of the river and the plants and animals it sustains. It did not.

“Like the Rosemont Mine decision, the rubberstamping of deleterious land uses will not stand, and we’re evaluating our options going forward to ensure the full protection the SPRNCA deserves.”

Michael Gregory, another long-time advocate for the river and one of the local activists who began the original campaign to establish the SPRNCA, is equally disappointed. “Rather than adhering to the primary purpose of the SPRNCA legislation, and despite overwhelming public support and clear legislative intent for protective management, the BLM insists instead on a far-fetched notion of ‘balancing’ resource protection against destructive resource use.”

Tuell said conservation groups will be evaluating the approved plan to determine next steps in ensuring the SPRNCA’s protection.

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