To protect or to puncture? | AspenTimes.com

To protect or to puncture?

When people think about the battle over gas and oil exploration on public lands, the first thing that comes to mind is Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

But the clash between environmentalists and the Bush administration is hitting much closer to home. The outcome could shape the fate of millions of acres managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, including one of the most biologically diverse patches of land in western Colorado and some popular desert playgrounds around Moab, Utah.

Just 75 miles from Aspen, but worlds away from most Aspenites’ daily lives, a skirmish is taking place that embodies America’s battle over public lands.

Conservationists led by the Colorado Environmental Coalition (CEC) are trying to preserve and protect part of the Roan Plateau, an island in the sky that abruptly rises 3,000 feet above the surrounding countryside northwest of Rifle.

The plateau itself is about 54,000 acres. The BLM is crafting a management plan for more than 100,000 acres on and surrounding the plateau.

About 60 percent of the planning area is already owned or leased by companies interested in extracting the ample supplies of natural gas from the plateau’s sea of shale. The companies are seeking additional access to public lands on the top of the plateau.

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The BLM is studying if and how it could accommodate gas exploration without permanently damaging the environment. A draft environmental impact statement and land management plan are due to be released in late September or October.

The Colorado Environmental Coalition is shining a spotlight on that process and on the potential impacts to the wild lands, in hopes that public sentiment can mold the feds’ decision.

The coalition is trying to get gas exploration and drilling limited to the base area. It wants 40,000 acres on the top and the cliffs leading to the top designated as wilderness, which protects the land from mechanized uses and any type of development.

But the environmental coalition is attempting a Herculean effort. The Roan Plateau is one of 21 areas around the West that the BLM specifically identified for expedited planning.

“In a sense, this is our own Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It’s one that means a lot to both sides,” said Richard Compton, director of the Carbondale-based White River Conservation Project, a member in the Colorado Environmental Coalition.

Eye-catching lands eyed for oil leases

The debate over whether to protect public lands or open them to oil and gas development isn’t limited to obscure, sage-covered outback.

Some of the most eye-catching vistas in the Moab area could be reshaped by oil exploration given the right mix of circumstances. Hundreds of thousands of acres of BLM-administered land in places like Big Flat/Goldbar, Lockhart Basin and Canyon Rims have been leased to oil companies hoping for a big strike.

The sale of a lease to an oil company means nothing by itself. BLM officials in Moab noted that some lands have been leased for decades without extensive exploration or drilling activity.

The Canyon Rims Recreation Area, about 35 miles south of Moab, is known for great views of the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park to the west and the Behind the Rocks area to the north, as well as Arches National Park and the La Sal Mountains.

About half of the 100,000 acres on Canyon Rims’ high mesa is leased by oil companies, but only 14 wells have been drilled since the 1950s, said Katie Stevens, recreation technician in the BLM’s Moab office.

Below the towering cliffs of Canyon Rims is Lockhart Basin, where hundreds of thousands of acres are leased or available for lease. The Legacy Energy Corp. has permission to drill a handful of exploratory wells.

Stevens noted that oil and gas exploration has been occurring in Lockhart Basin since the 1920s, yet there is little activity and no current applications for permits to drill.

Those examples offer little comfort to environmental groups such as the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), which fears that the speculation by oil companies may pay off someday. When the price of oil goes high enough, exploration and drilling activity will increase. Vistas that now feature hundreds of square miles of red rock ridges and deep gorges will be littered with drilling rigs and oil well platforms.

SUWA has aggressively opposed oil exploration on BLM lands around Moab and southeastern Utah. It files formal protests when lands are leased to oil companies in areas that SUWA has identified as potential wilderness, according to Liz Thomas, an attorney and SUWA staffer in Moab.

The group is also pressing the BLM to adopt a “look before you lease” approach, Thomas said. Currently the agency leases land in quarterly auctions, then performs environmental studies when a company applies for a drilling permit. By that time, the company has likely invested in seismic exploration and, history shows, the BLM is unlikely to turn down an application regardless of environmental consequences, Thomas claimed.

SUWA wants the BLM to study the environmental impacts before it offers public lands for lease. If those consequences are considered too great, Thomas said, then the lands shouldn’t be leased.

For example, much of Lockhart Basin, squeezed between the Colorado River and the Canyon Rims cliffs, is eligible for lease. That land is directly across the river from the White Rim Trail, an immensely popular route for mountain bikers and off-road-vehicle users. Lockhart Basin is also highly visible from places like Dead Horse Point State Park and the Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky district.

Scores of drilling rigs and wells could devastate those views, said Thomas.

“If we could cut a deal where they wouldn’t drill in wilderness, we probably wouldn’t protest [other] leases,” she said.

The core issue

While the fight over oil and gas development on BLM lands takes center stage, the broader battle is being waged over wilderness designation.

“The big picture strategy is to get these wilderness areas [designated],” said Thomas.

SUWA and others are lobbying the U.S. Congress to pass America’s Redrock Wilderness Act, which would grant wilderness protection to an additional 9 million acres of BLM-administered lands in southern and eastern Utah.

The organization has conducted extensive field studies in a canyon network as convoluted as the human circulatory system. SUWA contends that 9 million of the 23 million acres of BLM land in southern and eastern Utah are worthy of federal wilderness status, which would prohibit oil exploration. The other 14 million acres would be available to new or continued oil and gas development, mining and other activities.

But the wilderness effort suffered a blow in April, when Interior Secretary Gale Norton, a former Colorado attorney general, prohibited the BLM from conducting further studies to see if lands qualify as wilderness. The directive did not include 3.2 million acres already designated “wilderness study areas,” where activity is limited in anticipation of future, broader protection.

Neither Goldbar nor Lockhart Basin enjoy any such protection, so they’re wide open to potential oil exploration.

Thomas and other conservationists believe Norton’s actions were illegal and will be challenged in court. Meanwhile, they are frustrated that Utah politicians and other foes have branded their Redrock Wilderness Act an extreme measure. The people and institutions that favor extraction over preservation don’t acknowledge that the environmentalists’ plan, while excluding 9 million acres, would keep 14 million open to potential development, said Thomas.

Bush’s direction

Norton’s directive added insult to the injury the environmental movement suffered in 2001 when, as part of his energy plan, President Bush called for speedier review and permitting for oil and gas development on some public lands. Environmentalists contend that the BLM cannot perform an impartial review of proposals with that type of directive from the president.

“I’m not terribly optimistic [about BLM reviews] because in the current political atmosphere, if you don’t go along with what the administration wants, you lose your job – one way or another,” said Compton.

But Maggie Wyatt, manager of the BLM’s Moab office, said the presidential directive hasn’t had much effect on her or her staff.

“It doesn’t mean the rules have changed,” said Wyatt. It means that her office now gets the funding it needs to perform speedier reviews of drilling permit applications.

Wyatt said the situation is the same as it ever was – the price of oil and the cost of extracting it affect the level of exploration around Moab more than any presidential directive.

Nevertheless, the Moab district is a “lightning rod” on the wilderness issue, with conservationists squaring off against oil companies and the off-road-vehicle lobby. Given a choice, Wyatt would avoid the controversy. However, the BLM is a “multiuse agency” so it’s probably not the right place to work for a die-hard preservationist, she said.

Battle for Goldbar

One primary battleground between different uses is an area known as Goldbar. The general area is well-known to mountain bikers and hikers because it contains the popular Gemini Bridges Trail.

SUWA wants to preserve 7,000 acres of rugged canyon country south of the Gemini Bridges trail network as wilderness. The area targeted for wilderness is bound on the south by Long Canyon Road and Pucker Pass, and on the northeast by the Goldbar Rim Trail. It wouldn’t engulf popular mountain bike trails like Gemini Bridges or Poison Spider Mesa.

Goldbar’s maze of unspoiled canyons, cliffs and ridges includes odd sandstone formations such as Monticello Rock and Pinto Arch. A hike from the Potash Road into the Goldbar area provides true wilderness solitude.

Overlapping some but not all of SUWA’s proposed Goldbar wilderness is the Big Flat/Bull Canyon territory, where the BLM makes public lands available for lease. The leasable lands include terrain around the Gemini Bridges Trail.

An oil company bought many of the leases and hired a firm to perform seismic exploration in fall 2001. “Thumper trucks” weighing 50,000 pounds and traveling on fat, 6-foot-high tires were used to send vibrations into the earth. Three-dimensional data was collected and used to identify potential pockets of oil below the surface.

Thomas claimed that the seismic exploration created 175 miles of new trails in the Big Flat area. On a tour of the area she showed how old trails, bulldozed years ago for oil exploration, were used where possible in 2001. But in other locations, new trails have created lines that creep through the pinon toward the horizon, sometimes as far as a person can see.

The BLM has marked the trails with green “closed” signs, but SUWA fears the paths will just provide more playgrounds for ATVs. The evidence appears mixed. In some cases, the paths have faded and grass has sprung up. In other cases, the routes are clear enough to tempt off-roaders or mountain bikers.

The `granddaddy’ well

While BLM officials correctly note that there isn’t much new drilling activity in Big Flat, SUWA appears justified in fearing there could be, and that it would spill into Goldbar. Along the paved Utah State Road 313 to Dead Horse Point is a well-maintained gravel road that serves Long Canyon Well No. 1, a working legend in Grand County.

“That’s the one that gives them hope,” said the BLM’s Stevens.

Long Canyon No. 1 has pumped oil for three decades, making it one of the oldest producers in southern Utah. A story in The Los Angeles Times said it has produced millions of dollars in tax revenues for the county.

That well isn’t alone. Views of distant buttes along the Dead Horse Point Road are occasionally interrupted by oil storage tanks, open pits and wells slowly tottering back and forth.

Much of the Big Flat/Goldbar area is too rugged to allow for cost-effective extraction. But SUWA’s Thomas flinches at the thought of new wells like Long Canyon No. 1 perched at the top of every canyon rim.

Intrepid Oil Co. of Denver, the firm that hired a subcontractor to perform the seismic exploration around Goldbar, hasn’t made its intentions known yet. So far, Wyatt said, the exploration hasn’t led to any drilling permit applications.

Gas in the Roan Plateau

While most of the exploration around Moab is for oil, 150 miles or so to the east it’s natural gas that has created a frenzy. At the base of the Roan Plateau, just north of Interstate 70 and west of Rifle, rigs have sprouted on public and private lands like mushrooms in the forest during a wet summer.

Across the interstate, drilling rigs with towering derricks are punching holes in private property along Grass Mesa. Ranchers and other landowners who own the surface real estate can do little to block the oil companies from going after the subsurface mineral rights.

“It’s amazing how in the last eight years these wells have started going in all over,” said Bruce Gordon, a pilot and president of EcoFlight, a nonprofit organization that recently flew journalists, government officials and interested citizens over Roan Plateau.

The flyovers were sponsored by the Colorado Environmental Coalition to show people what’s at stake in the drilling debate.

The worst-case scenario, said CEC’s Clare Bastable, would be high-density well development on the top, like the existing situation at the plateau’s base. A recent decision by the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission allows 20-acre-well spacing in some parts of western Colorado.

“Imagine what it means – which is absolute destruction on the top,” said Bastable.

Conservationists say 40,000 acres on the top of the Roan Plateau deserve wilderness protection, along with the majestic cliffs that lead to it. Ranging from 5,000 to 9,000 feet high, the biologically diverse plateau provides habitat for numerous animals and plants. There are rare plants like the Parachute penstemon and thriving populations of bald eagles, black bear, mountain lion, deer and elk. It also has some of the purest strains of Colorado cutthroat trout.

The CEC notes that studies indicate the Roan Plateau is one of the top four biologically diverse areas in Colorado. The BLM also found that parts of the plateau have wilderness characteristics.

The environmentalists want companies to undertake directional drilling from the base of the plateau instead of going to the top and drilling straight down. That would allow them to tap into the natural-gas reserves without disturbing the environmental ones. But, Compton said, oil and gas companies tend to resist directional drilling because of the greater costs.

The BLM view

Jamie Connell, manager of the BLM office in Glenwood Springs, said the environmental impact statement will look at a full range of options for the plateau, from leaving it alone to giving permits for up to 2,800 wells. None currently exist on the top.

Four options are being examined. The draft EIS will come up with a preferred alternative, then the public will be given 90 days to comment. Connell said the selected alternative could incorporate public direction and pieces of other alternatives. Some flexibility exists.

There is no doubt that the plateau holds a rich supply of natural gas. The land used to be part of the Naval Oil Shale Reserve held by the Department of Navy and Department of Energy. It was transferred to the BLM in 1997.

The area was thoroughly explored for natural gas in the 1980s, but those industry studies concluded it couldn’t be extracted economically, Connell said. Now it can.

Connell said she believes the country faces a problem with oil and gas supplies and, therefore, believes it makes sense to speed drilling permit reviews.

“It’s a high-priority program right now because there is a need from the national perspective,” Connell said. “Part of our job as land managers is to help with oil and gas development. We need to get the gas out of the ground in a responsible fashion.”

Gas drilling could affect anywhere from 1,100 to 27,000 acres of public land on the top of the plateau. Connell said it will be difficult to protect the feeling that the plateau is “untouched by man,” which is one criterion for wilderness designation. But she believes the ecologically sensitive areas can be preserved.

“We’re working on the answer,” she said.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com.

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