Dear Ms. Connell:
I would like to thank you for this opportunity to comment on the proposed Areas of Environmental Concern (ACECs) in the BLM’s Roan Plateau Planning Area. I am submitting these comments on behalf of Colorado Trout Unlimited. With approximatly 10,000 members, Colorado Trout Unlimited (CTU) has been active for more than 35 years participating with federal and state agencies in the on-the-ground efforts to protect, restore and enhance coldwater fisheries and their watersheds. Our volunteer members have worked especially hard in the Roan Plateau, establishing grazing exclosures, and in-stream structures on upper Trapper Creek to expand Colorado River cutthroat trout habitat and provide healthier downstream water quality.
While Colorado Trout Unlimited (CTU) applauds the protective measures proposed by the BLM for what in your own words are the “unique and irreplaceable” populations of Colorado Cutthroat Trout and other wildlife habitat on the Roan, we still do not believe that these measures will prove sufficient. Areas of Critical Environmental Concern should include the entire watershed.
Two of the proposed ACECs, East Fork Parachute Creek and Trapper/Northwater Creek contain both Conservation and Core (99% genetically pure) populations of Colorado River Cutthroat Trout. These are streams and populations which the BLM has identified as being of high regional and national importance. While no longer considered endangered, the CRCT is identified as a Sensitive Species in Colorado. In the BLM’s original Evaluation of Proposed Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (August 2002) you stated that “The BLM considers the entire watershed in which these fish reside to be important to the long term functionality of vital ecosystem processes which maintain upland and stream habitats important to these fish.” The report concludes that “Conservation populations are important in the overall conservation of the species and are given the highest priority for management and protection. These populations are unique and irreplaceable.” CTU couldn’t agree more. If these populations are to be provided the fullest possible protection, and if these species and their habitat are to be given “the highest priority for management and protection,” we would encourage the BLM to make the entire watersheds Areas of Critical Environmental Concern. That indeed is what these watersheds are, all the way to the top of the ridgelines.
Placing a boundary for ACECs on East Fork Parachute Creek and Trapper/Northwater Creek based on slope angle, and promoting full development of the ridgelines for energy exploration and production, does not recognize the reality of how watersheds function. Any significant storm event - such as the many we have had in this region over the past month - could and wouldcause catastrophic failure of protections placed at a well or construction site. Gravity would carry the resulting discharges directly into the ACECs below, and the “unique and irreplaceable” populations of Colorado River Cutthroat trout could be severely impacted. Given that these populations are most prevalent lower in the drainage where the water supply and cooler temperatures are most consistent, the risks are magnified with every up-basin disturbance. That is why the BLM’s own report stated that the entire watershed needed protection. For the ACECs to be truly protected, the entire watershed, including the ridgetops, must be included.
Furthermore, the ACEC along Northwater Creek ends at the western boundary of a block of private land (owned by W.F. Clough of Rifle, according to Garfield County records). The ACEC does not continue past these lands into the headwaters of Northwater Creek on BLM land. This is absurd. The fact that the intervening land is private is irrelevant. BLM owns the subsurface mineral rights and has sole jurisdiction and control over the development of these rights. Any development on Northwater Creek in the headwaters or on Mr. Clough’s property will have impacts downstream, in the proposed ACEC. The headwaters of Northwater Creek – on Mr Clough’s property and especially the BLM land above it – must be included in the ACEC if the BLM expects to manage the watershed to protect the native trout population for which the ACEC is being recommended.
The East Fork Parachute Creek and Trapper/Northwater Creek ACECs should be subject to strict NSO/NGD requirements, and to range management strategies that protect fish habitat.
The BLM has stated that the ACECs will be off limits to any development with stipulations of No Ground Disturbance (NGD) and No Surface Occupancy (NSO). At a meeting with you in June we were assured that all construction activity would be limited to the ridgelines. Pipelines would be required to follow the roads and ridgelines. This does not inspire confidence that the native cutthroat trout will be preserved; as described above, impacts on the ridgelines can and will effect the ACECs below. Moreover, we were told that no solid and absolute NSO or NGD stipulation would be mandated, as that might interfere with the cattle operations and make it impossible to construct fencing or a simple water line to a stock tank. Without a clear prohibition of surface occupancy or ground disturbance being placed on energy development and production, through lease and permitting conditions, we remain concerned that the shortest, least costly route for a pipeline will be taken, even if that route cuts right through the heart of any of the proposed ACECs.
The BLM can provide for reasonable flexibility for other land uses while still establishing solid NSO requirements for oil and gas development. We recommend that NSO/NGD requirements be placed on oil and gas development – without exemption – upon the East Fork Parachute Creek and Trapper/Northwater Creek ACECs. The BLM could include language allowing ground disturbance for other land uses, provided that those disturbances were designed to enhance or restore habitat for the cutthroat trout populations which motivate the ACEC designations (e.g., establishing an off-channel watering location to help keep cattle out of the stream).
Along these same lines we would request that cattle be excluded by fencing from the riparian areas along all of the streams in the East Fork Parachute Creek and Trapper/Northwater Creek ACECs, with the exception of spaced access to the streams for crossing and drinking. There is no need for cattle to continue the damage they cause to the “long term functionality of vital ecosystem processes” in these riparian areas. Such continued practice would be counter to the ACEC designation and contrary to good range management. To assist BLM in this regard, CTU would be happy to help recruit volunteers to assist with fence construction.
Strong stewardship of ACECs is necessary to advance the purposes of the Colorado River cutthroat trout Conservation Agreement and Strategy.
Many ranchers have fenced out riparian areas as a part of the “Conservation Agreement and Strategy for Colorado River Cutthroat Trout, in the States of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming”, an agreement to which the BLM is signatory and a partner. CTU has supported this agreement and recovery process as a more viable option for conservation than listing the Colorado River cutthroat trout through the Endangered Species Act. We trust that the BLM will continue to uphold its part in this agreement. If imperiled and sensitive populations of Colorado River Cutthroat trout that are under BLM care, such as those found in East Fork Parachute Creek and Trapper/Northwater Creek, become more threatened, then the viability of the Conservation Agreement as an alternative to ESA listing will be weakened, increasing the likelihood of agency review or legal challenge on the Fish and Wildlife Service’s “not warranted” determination for the Colorado River cutthroat trout. Achieving the purposes of the Conservation Agreement will require that BLM provide the East Fork Parachute Creek and Trapper/Northwater Creek ACECs with sound range management and effective protection from adverse impacts associated with construction and operation associated with oil and gas development,
Again, CTU applauds the efforts and all the proposed ACEC designations on the Roan Plateau planning area. However, we are concerned that the proposed designations and protections are inadequate for the task at hand. Only full protection of the watersheds will work. This means extending the ACECs to cover the full watersheds involved; establishing real NSO/NGD restrictions to ensure protection of cutthroat trout habitat; and incorporating greater riparian protection into grazing management along these streams.
Thank you for your consideration in this matter.
Ken Neubecker, Vice-President