Denver, CO; Aug. 22, 2004 – Fearing the imminent opening of precious Western Colorado lands to drilling by gas and oil corporations, a coalition of Colorado environmental groups has entered a formal protest with the United States Bureau of Land Management.
The six groups say the land parcels they wish to protect all meet federal criteria for "wilderness area" designation, according to research and study by the various organizations" volunteers and employees over the last twenty years.
The Wilderness Society, the Colorado Environmental Coalition, Colorado Mountain Club, Sierra Club, Uncompahgre Valley Association, and Western Colorado Congress collectively filed a formal protest two days before the August 12 lease offering by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
Steve Smith, Assistant Regional Director for the Wilderness Society, says the groups are protesting about 9,250 acres of the BLM's 159,453-acre lease offering. The lands they wish to protect are known as Sagebrush Pillows, the Dolores River Canyons, and Maverick Canyon. The groups say that allowing energy companies to operate on these lands, which would include clearing access roads and laying down drilling pads, could permanently harm their public value.
"The act of drilling a gas well brings with it a lot of other activity and structures as well," Smith noted. His group, the Wilderness Society was founded in 1935 and is dedicated to keeping wilderness areas in the US road free and protected from logging and oil development.
"In offering leases to the energy industry, not only has the BLM failed to recognize citizen proposed wilderness but, in many cases, the agency has disregarded its own findings that certain areas have wilderness characteristics or have a 'reasonable probability' of containing wilderness characteristics." -- Members of Congress
"As Colorado's population continues to skyrocket, we need to make cautious, well-informed decisions about the environment," said Vera Smith, Conservation Director for Colorado Mountain Club, an 82 year-old conservation and hiking enthusiasts' group funded by dues and corporate sponsorships. "Targeting our last wild places, as the administration is doing, is short-sighted, unbalanced and a disservice to all of us who value places like these," she said in an August 10 press statement.
Additionally, the groups say there is plenty of undeveloped, already-leased land, so it is unnecessary to lease more wilderness area for energy development.
Colorado currently has five wilderness areas covering over 147,000 acres, and an additional 55 wilderness study areas of 623,021 acres. The Wilderness Society has documented that 70 percent of the federal public lands already leased in Colorado for oil and gas development are not in production.
"Especially when there is such a surplus of land that is already leased but not being drilled, it is irresponsible for the BLM to consider adding leases in potential wilderness, of all places," said Smith. He also reports that land parcels are typically nominated for lease opportunities by oil and gas companies.
"Until April of 2003, it was the policy of the BLM not to offer these citizen proposal areas for leasing," Smith said. But within the last year, the BLM has given individual companies the opportunity to nominate parcels of land for potential exploration. According to Smith, until the leasing review process is completed, these companies remain anonymous.
"I don't know if there's any scandal involved," he said. "We just think it's unnecessary in terms of a national energy supply. The lands nominated are generally not gas productive. Doing without what little gas might be under them would be a drop in the bucket in terms of our national energy supply.
"If we knew [who nominated the three regions], we'd go ask them why," Smith said. "But the more practical answer is, it's gas and oil boom time in Colorado. Just over half the gas drilling rigs in the west are in this state right now."
The spirit of corporate charity displayed of late by the Bureau's offering of leases to energy companies has not gone completely unnoticed by lawmakers. Eighty members of Congress were troubled enough to send off a letter of concern to Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton on August 9.
"Over the past year, the [BLM] has carried out an aggressive program of oil and gas leasing that has opened up tens of thousands of acres of stunning wilderness quality lands in Colorado and Utah to potential energy development," the legislators wrote. "In offering leases to the energy industry, not only has the BLM failed to recognize citizen proposed wilderness but, in many cases, the agency has disregarded its own findings that certain areas have wilderness characteristics or have a 'reasonable probability' of containing wilderness characteristics."
The Bureau's stand on wilderness areas does not come as a surprise to those familiar with Secretary Norton's past professional affiliations. Norton has also served as an advisor to the Philip Morris-funded Defenders of Property Rights. That group's website says it works "to counterbalance the governmental threat to private property as a result of a broad range of regulations." Norton also founded the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy, which is sponsored in part by the mining, chemical and chlorine industries.
Smith said that in order to be considered a wilderness area, a parcel must have certain unique attributes. The land must currently be roadless, occupy at least 5,000 acres and provide opportunities for solitude and unconfined recreation. Other criteria can be a "visual specialness," said Smith, like "very colorful desert canyons, steep cliffs, or endangered vegetation and animal life."
He says the lands his group and the others are fighting to preserve meet these criteria.
Listening to Smith describe the lands in question, it is obvious he holds a special affection for each parcel. Maverick Canyon and Sagebrush Pillows, Smith illustrates, "form a transition to the [Dolores] River Canyons. You'll go up into juniper and sagebrush country, and then straight up into some spruce country."
In the Dolores River Canyons, Smith says, "the leases are in portions of land that would be additions to BLM study areas. They're uniquely remote. They have kind of a real back country feel." Maverick Canyon and Sagebrush Pillows, Smith describes, "form a transition to the [Dolores] River Canyons. You'll go up into juniper and sagebrush country, and then straight up into some spruce country." In the Dolores River Canyons, Smith says, "the leases are in portions of land that would be additions to BLM study areas. They're uniquely remote. They have kind of a real back country feel."
The Colorado Bureau of Land Management contends the three regions do not qualify for wilderness area designation. In a news release about the lease offerings, the agency acknowledged that environmental groups had asked for the designation, but said that many of the areas were already leased and developed. For instance, the Bureau said the Dolores River Canyon "currently has existing roads, a number of plugged and abandoned gas wells, as well as existing mineral leases."
Smith said the six groups have had an opportunity to study the three areas more often than the BLM. The last update the coalition did on the three was in 1999, and was included in a proposal of wilderness areas organized by the six groups and submitted to the BLM in 2001.
"We take the same list [out into the field] and the same set of criteria that the BLM uses," Smith said. "We have found that some of the areas that didn't meet the criteria do now. They're new changes," Smith said.
"Smith said some of the BLM's data is as old as 1980."
Vaughn Whatley, a spokesperson for the Colorado BLM, said protest filings are "commonplace" when lease offerings are announced.
"It doesn't prevent the lease from going through," Whatley said. "We try to have them resolved in 30 to 60 days."
Whatley said the standard procedure for reviewing formal protests goes through the BLM Field Office and/or the Colorado State Office. "If the protest is upheld, we strip the lease," Whatley said.
If the claims of a protest are denied by the BLM, there is a 30-day window for filers to make a second chance appeal to the Interior Board of Lands Appeals in Washington, DC.
Whatley said he had not seen the coalition filings, and could not comment on them yet.