BLM auctions gas drilling rights on 139,555 acres | AspenTimes.com

BLM auctions gas drilling rights on 139,555 acres

Judith Kohler
The Associated Press

DENVER ” Companies bid on nearly 22,000 acres of roadless forest sites offered for oil and gas leasing in a federal auction Thursday, increasing calls for protection of the 4.1 million acres of remote forest land in Colorado until the state decides how it wants the areas managed.

The Bureau of Land Management, which manages all federal minerals, sold oil and gas leases on 139,555 acres in Colorado out of 169,194 acres offered for $4.8 million. The BLM won’t issue the leases until considering protests from conservationists, wildlife advocates and local governments.

Gunnison County Commissioner Jim Starr said the county protested leasing the areas designated roadless under the Clinton administration in the Grand Mesa-Uncompahgre-Gunnison National Forest in western Colorado because tourism is important to the area’s economy.

“Part of the draw of the county is we have areas that are roadless,” Starr said. “We had comments from recreationists, hunters and people who fish that they want to see these areas remain essentially roadless.”

Roadless areas in the White River and the Manti-La Sal national forests were also on the auction block. The White River surrounds Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley.

Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., and Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., had asked the federal government to delay selling the leases until Colorado decides whether to request protection for the roadless areas scattered among national forests in the state.

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Sen. Salazar hasn’t received a response to his letters to Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns and Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, said the senator’s spokesman, Cody Wertz.

“First of all, it’s disappointing that they went forward and that they didn’t respond,” Wertz said.

A state task force released its proposed recommendations Wednesday that essentially call for no development on the land. Members will consider public comments when it writes a final report, due to Gov. Bill Owens by Sept. 13.

Owens has until mid-November to petition the federal government to keep development off the land. An advisory committee will consider the petition, but the agriculture secretary, who oversees the U.S. Forest Service, has the final say.

The 4.1 million acres under consideration from the Colorado Roadless Areas Review Task Force was among 58.5 million acres nationwide declared off-limits to development in the waning days of the Clinton administration. Some of the sites have trails and roads, but generally are prized for their pristine qualities and are considered important as wildlife habitat, watersheds, scenic and recreation areas.

The 2001 roadless rule, issued after 600 public hearings and 1.6 million comments, was challenged in court and replaced by the Bush administration last year, potentially opening the land to logging, roadbuilding and other activities.

Forest Service officials have said that energy development on roadless areas is allowed under individual forest management plans. Roads could be built on some of the parcels to extract the oil or gas, but are prohibited on others.

Industry representatives say access to Western public lands is crucial because much of the oil and natural gas are on federal lands. High energy prices and the push for more domestic production have driven the gas drilling and leasing rates to record rates in the mineral-rich Rockies.

The increases have escalated conflicts with landowners who have rights to the surface, but don’t own the minerals underneath. The western Colorado communities of Palisade and Grand Junction protested leases sold in their watersheds.

The BLM is required to offer parcels at its quarterly auctions if companies nominate the sites and the land has been declared suitable for development.

Tony Prendergast, who has worked as a backcountry ranger for the Forest Service, said he doesn’t think the roadless areas near his hometown of Crawford should be drilled. He said the spots provide important links for wildlife moving from the mountains to the Grand Mesa.

“These areas have also provided a sustainable part of the economies in these little communities for the past 100 years, between grazing and hunting and outfitting,” Prendergast said.