The governor — calling it a "uniquely Colorado solution" — tried to strike a balance between environmentalists opposed to federal plans for drilling on the Roan and industry officials who see expanded drilling as a boon to the western Colorado economy.
The balancing act drew some praise from environmental groups, energy companies and politicians in both parties.
"This is a Colorado treasure like few others," said Steve Smith, regional director for the Wilderness Society.
The governor's stance "sends a strong signal that Colorado wants this protected," Smith said.
State Sen. Josh Penry, a Grand Junction Republican who fought attempts to block drilling on the Roan, said Ritter "came to the right conclusion in the face of some heavy political pressure from people in his own party and the environmental community."
Ritter's comments followed a 120-day review he had requested after the federal Bureau of Land Management announced plans in June for limited drilling on public lands on top of the 9,000-foot plateau.
While the agency has no obligation to incorporate Ritter's recommendations, the governor said he is in "productive discussions" with the U.S. Department of the Interior and believes federal officials will take his recommendations.
The governor called for expanding four wildlife-protection zones by 15,000 acres, to 36,000 acres.
That is same size requested by the state Division of Wildlife in 2005, but it was cut in the federal proposal.
Staggered leasing possible Ritter and Harris Sherman, director of the state Department of Natural Resources, said they will push for phased-in leasing, letting energy companies bid on land ready for development within 10 or 15 years instead of 30 or 40 years.
The incremental leasing would sustain long-term economic benefits for local economies near Rifle, plus allow for advancements in drilling technology, Ritter said.
Environmentalists called Ritter's comments a "positive first step" in protecting the Roan, an ecological gem that is home to the state's largest elk and mule-deer herds, golden and bald eagles, and the rare genetically pure cutthroat trout.
Steve Craig, president of the Colorado council of Trout Unlimited, commended the governor for trying to find middle ground but argued that any drilling is likely to damage streams and animal habitat, and leave near-permanent scars on the land.
"A lot of times when those places are gone, they're gone forever," Craig said.
Oil-and-gas industry officials said the governor's comments serve as vindication, showing it's possible to drill in environmentally sensitive ways.
"We've said it before and prove on a daily basis that energy development and protection of the environment can and do co-exist," Meg Collins, president of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association, said in a statement.
The rock plateau — visible from Interstate 70 — already has 157 miles of roads and 31 wells drilled on private lands. Energy companies have cut two new roads to the plateau top on private lands.
Energy claims staked early In 2002, when the BLM first proposed opening the plateau to drilling, 30 percent of the Roan's 127,000 acres already were owned by energy companies, and 15 percent of public and private lands already had been leased for oil and gas.
Among those awaiting the governor's decision was EnCana Oil & Gas, a Canadian company developing 45,000 acres on the west end of the plateau.
The company is drilling up to 28 wells from a single pad and collecting gas condensates and water more efficiently, reducing the number of trucks to carry it out, said company spokesman Doug Hock.
U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., who is trying to stall drilling on the Roan for a year, said he hoped Ritter's comments would help build "constructive dialogue" with the BLM.
Salazar helped secure the 120-day review for Ritter.
Steven Hall, a BLM spokesman,said the agency can work with the state to stagger drilling and take into account environmental concerns such as wildlife seasons and runoff.
"The goal for everyone is to find a way to recover a tremendous natural-gas resource in an environmentally sensitive manner," he said.
Hall said, however, the agency also is charged under federal law with opening the lands for energy exploration "as soon as practicable."
"It was not set aside as a national park," Hall said. "It has not been designated as a wilderness area. It was designated for multiple use under the BLM's mandate."
The BLM's 52,000-acre development plan was hammered out with the state's Natural Resources Department after years of negotiations.
It limits drilling operations to no more than 1 percent of the plateau's surface land at any given time and requires that area to be restored before new drilling can begin.
Some state lawmakers, led by Penry, want to create a permanent trust fund from Roan drilling revenues that would fund higher education and communities affected by the oil-and-gas industry.
Staff writers Steve Lipsher and Aldo Svaldi contributed to this report. Jennifer Brown: 303-954-1593 or email@example.com
April 2002 — The Bush administration prepares a new management plan for 198 square miles on the Roan Plateau, turning public- lands agencies away from the Clinton administration's preservation orientation.
April 2003 — Interior Secretary Gale Norton initiates a new policy that prohibits the BLM from considering wilderness protection in future energy planning efforts. Norton's new policy also strips temporary protection granted to areas, including the Roan Plateau.
December 2003 — The Colorado Division of Wildlife's suggestions that four areas on the Roan Plateau be protected from development are omitted from the state's final report to the BLM.
November 2004 — The BLM submits a draft environmental impact report on gas drilling on the Roan Plateau, which gives five alternatives and says it could be 16 years before the first wells are drilled. The state says the report downplays the economic benefits of hunting and recreation on the plateau.
June 2006 — Federal land managers choose to open the top of the Roan Plateau to oil and gas drilling without waiting until resources at the bottom of the plateau are tapped, despite requests to keep the top off-limits. Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., asks that the new leasing plan be opened to public comment.
February 2007 —Conservationists, wildlife advocates and local officials ask for congressional action to stop or curb the planned drilling on the Roan Plateau.
June 2007 — The BLM decides to allow immediate drilling on nearly 70 percent of the Roan Plateau. U.S. Reps. Mark Udall and John Salazar attempt to put a one-year hold on the plan. Gov. Bill Ritter criticizes the BLM for not giving state officials time to review the plan.
July 2007 — Sen. Salazar presses the BLM to provide a 120-day extension for the state to review the resource management plan for the Roan Plateau.
August 2007 — Reps. Salazar and Udall insert language into a bill to prevent all drilling on the plateau, except when it takes place on private land or at the base of the mountain.
August 2007 — Ritter is given 120 days to review federal plans for development on the Roan Plateau.
Dec. 20, 2007 — Ritter proposes phased drilling and a 70 percent larger area for wildlife protection — 36,000 acres, or slightly more than a quarter of the plateau.