Nov. 8 energy lease sale prompts protests

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Oil and gas leasing where nary a drilling rig has ever touched the ground will exact a tremendous toll on wildlife, tourism and the Colorado River, Grand County officials, environmentalists and wildlife managers said Wednesday.A slate of environmental groups, the Colorado Division of Wildlife and U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., are asking the Bureau of Land Management to either remove thousands of acres of parcels from the agency’s Nov. 8 oil and gas lease sale or cancel the sale outright.

Massive tracts of public land —  including more than 31,000 acres in Grand County and more than 56,000 acres in wildlife-rich Jackson County —  are slated for the auction block next month in Middle Park, North Park, sensitive wildlife habitat in Moffat County and in the Paradox Basin south of Grand Junction.

“North Park, Middle Park, the area around Craig: Those are core areas of most of the greater sage grouse in Colorado,” which could be devastated by widespread energy development, DOW Regional Manager Ron Velarde said.

Habitat damage from energy development, he said, could lead the federal government to list the sage grouse as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

To stop the damage before it starts, the DOW is asking the BLM to remove more than 120,000 acres of parcels in North and Middle parks and Moffat County from the BLM’s lease sale, Velarde said.

Wildlife officials are hardly alone. Udall asked the BLM on Wednesday to postpone the entire 189,000-acre lease sale because local communities and wildlife officials haven’t had enough time to analyze the impact of potential oil and gas drilling in an area that has seen little development.

Udall said he wants the BLM in Colorado to follow the lead of the agency’s Utah office, which canceled that state’s November oil and gas lease sale because of inadequate environmental analysis.

“My impression is everyone was caught a little off guard by this,” Hot Sulphur Springs Mayor Hershal Deputy said. “I’m not sure we particularly saw this coming.”

Neither did the town of Granby, Mayor Ted Wang said.

The BLM announced the sale at the end of the summer, and its details have been available on its Web site,, since then.

“Granby is a cooperating agency with the BLM, and we had no notification about this at all,” Wang said. “My board is not pleased they didn’t let us know.”

BLM spokeswoman Jaime Gardner said the BLM does not communicate with individual towns, but instead relies on county commissioners and the media to spread the word about oil and gas leases sales.

Even though Grand County Commissioner Gary Bumgarner said he thinks there has been adequate communication between the BLM and the county about the lease sale, “We are protesting.”

The BLM didn’t do adequate environmental analysis of the lease sale because it is using a 15-year-old analysis, he said.

“We’d like to have (the BLM’s) management plan updated before they went ahead with oil and gas leases,” Bumgarner said. “They’re in the process of upgrading that management plan now.”

“If it becomes like Rifle and down in that country, it would be a major impact,” he said.

Wang said if such large tracts of land in the county are leased, it could hurt water quality in the headwaters of the Colorado River and send an influx of workers into an area already in a construction boom.

“I think the changes would be really profound,” he said. “We have so little water in the river now because of transmountain diversions. Consequently, the Colorado and its tributaries are in a perpetual state of drought.”

More silt from new roads and new oil and gas well pads and any new interference with an already strained Colorado River “could be disastrous,” Wang said, adding that he expects most of Grand County’s municipalities to join Granby’s protest of the lease sale.

Kremmling Mayor Thomas Clark said his town will not protest the lease sale.

“I think it’s a pretty high-risk area for oil and gas,” he said.

The town board, he said, agreed that the county, state and federal governments have enough safeguards in place to ensure energy development won’t harm the environment.

But he said he understands how Hot Sulphur Springs and Granby are frightened by the prospect of a natural gas boom akin to that in Garfield, Rio Blanco and Mesa counties.

“Looking at what’s going on on the Roan Plateau and thinking that’s going on here, it could really scare them,” Clark said.

In North Park, where there are more state wildlife areas than towns, Jason Bodner of North Park Anglers said he worries energy development could hurt the quality of the area’s fishing.

Oil and gas drilling “is also going to detract from recreation if it screws up the watershed,” he said. “It’s my biggest concern.”

Walden Mayor Dirk Ramsey said energy development is a concern “to a point,” but he needs to “look into it further.”

At least seven environmental and sportsmen’s groups have also filed protests against the lease sale, including the Colorado Wildlife Federation, the Audubon Society, Trout Unlimited, the Wilderness Society, the San Juan Citizens Alliance, the Colorado Environmental Coalition and the Center for Native Ecosystems, whose objections to Utah’s lease sale proved successful in getting it cancelled.

“This lease sale is indicative of the BLM and its mad rush to drill new country despite the existing values these places harbor,” said Scott Linn, president of the Colorado River headwaters chapter of Trout Unlimited. “These areas are extremely important to hunters and anglers. The habitat for fish and game is just excellent.”