BLM taking input during scoping phase of environmental study
By Bob Berwyn
FRISCO — Lynx, elk, owls and other high country forest critters in western Colorado will get at least a temporary reprieve from potential oil and gas drilling, as the federal Bureau of Land Management announced last week that it will do an in-depth environmental study for 65 existing oil and gas leases on 80,000 acres of public lands managed by the White River National Forest.
The leases are spread roughly west to east along biologically important mid-elevation lands between Carbondale and DeBeque and overlap designated roadless areas. Conservation advocates have long argued that the sale of the leases was inconsistent with efforts to protect wildlife, water quality and other high-value natural resources.
The move to finally do a proper environmental study only came after conservation advocates challenged the leases. Ultimately, the Department of Interior Board of Land Appeals identified “deficiencies” in the leasing process and remanded the issue back to the local BLM office.
The board’s ruling came in 2007, but the BLM didn’t act on it until early April this year. Officials said controversy over the leases — especially those in the Thompson Divide area — triggered the plan to do a full-scale environmental impact statement.
Wrangling over the leases dates back to 1995, said Peter Hart, an attorney with the Wilderness Workshop. The Pitkin County based group wants the BLM to void the leases, which is one of the options, since they were issued illegally in the first place.
“Basically, all these leases are in lynx habitat and in watersheds of Colorado River tributaries. A lot were issued over the top of roadless areas and 42 are in roadless areas,” Hart said, adding that fossil fuel development in the area threatens a slew of sensitive species.
“The issue is, they were sold by the BLM without the BLM doing any NEPA,” he said, referring to the bedrock federal environmental law that requires careful evaluation and public disclosure of potential environmental impacts. Half the leases are in the contested Thompson Divide area, he said. The leases were also issued without any specific consultation on impacts to rare plants and animals — also required by environmental laws, specifically the Endangered Species Act.
As a first step, the BLM is now in a so-called scoping phase, soliciting public comments to identify issues that need to be studied in the environmental impact statement.
“Scoping comments that are specific to this area and these existing leases will be the
most effective as we draft the alternatives we will analyze in the EIS,” said BLM
Colorado River Valley Field Office manager Steve Bennett. “Public involvement is a
critical piece of this analysis and we will consider a wide range of alternatives, which will
be made available for public review and comment when drafted.”
As part of the review process, the BLM also extended lease suspensions for 18 leases
held by SG Interests and seven held by Ursa Resources Group in the Thompson Divide
area west of Carbondale because these leases are included in the EIS. Both companies
have pending development proposals that will not be analyzed by the Forest Service and
BLM until this EIS is completed. Continuing the suspension of the leases prevents any
development activity and pauses the 10-year deadline leaseholders have to begin
developing their leases.
“This is like twilight zone stuff,” Hart said. “They’re going back to analyze the impacts of decisions made back in 1995,” Hart said, adding that fossil fuel development has already started on eight of the leases.
“We’ve been working on this since 2001, and our big concern is, these are roadless lands and they should be adequately protected. You’re not supposed to build roads and do a lot of surface disturbance. For us, it’s a chance to revisit decisions wrongly made 20 years ago,” he concluded.
Information about the EIS scoping period is available at: http://www.blm.gov/co/crvfo. Scoping comments are due May 16 and may be emailed to WRNFleases@blm.gov; faxed to 970-876-9090; or mailed to Bureau of Land Management, Colorado River Valley Field Office, 2300 River Frontage Road, Silt, CO 81652.