Enviros push Hogback protections | AspenTimes.com

Enviros push Hogback protections

Dennis Webb
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

GARFIELD COUNTY ” A push to provide special protections to Bureau of Land Management acreage in the region mostly likely will have to be balanced against energy development interests in the case of an area north of Rifle.

Environmental groups have proposed that the BLM create a 12,340-acre Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) on the Grand Hogback from Rifle Gap to Piceance Creek Road in Garfield County.

The area is one of several the groups are proposing for protection in the region, with other local ones including the Thompson Creek area south of Carbondale and Deep Creek east of Glenwood Springs.

The part of the Grand Hogback proposed for protection includes the Rifle Arch. The area also is home to elk, red-tailed hawks, golden eagles and the rare Wetherill’s milkvetch plant.

However, the entire area also is open to oil and gas leasing. And Heath Nero of The Wilderness Society said some of the area already has been leased.

Where leasing already has occurred, Nero said, the effort to protect the land may come down to asking the BLM to impose the strictest possible conditions of approval on drilling to minimize impacts.

Environmentalists also are hoping to convince the BLM not to lease unleased parcels, and not to renew any leases that expire after 10 years without development occurring.

The Grand Hogback, a geological uplift stretching across part of western Garfield County, is at the eastern edge of the natural gas-rich Piceance Basin. The gas-bearing sandstone formations surface along the Hogback, and it remains unclear how productive drilling will be close to the Hogback.

However, Marc Smith, executive director of the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, said it makes sense to allow extension of gas development to areas close to where development already is occurring and support infrastructure is nearby.

Nero counters that with so much development already occurring in the Piceance Basin, special places such as the Grand Hogback north of Rifle should be protected.

“It’s kind of becoming an island in a sea of gas development,” Nero said.

The Roan Plateau, just west of the Grand Hogback, already has been a national focal point in the debate over what federal lands should be off-limits to drilling. The BLM is planning to allow drilling on the plateau, with strict limitations aimed at reducing impacts.

Now, the BLM is working on a separate management plan for the rest of its Glenwood Springs resource area, including the Grand Hogback north of Rifle. Nero said one possibility on the Grand Hogback would be to require reclamation of any given area before energy development could move on to the next area.

Smith believes reclamation can leave land looking as if it never had been drilled.

“Most people who work in this industry are from the West and work in the West. We have every intent of keeping it a nice place to live, so there’s strong sentiment within our industry, especially in Colorado, to really take excellent care of all of our development areas and make sure that we’re using the best technologies and practices to ensure the least temporary impact possible,” he said.

Environmental groups also are proposing expanding an existing ACEC from 4,286 acres to 9,250 acres at Thompson Creek, an area known for its red rock fins, and protecting additional acreage at Deep Creek, a gorge on the east side of the Flat Tops. Both areas also include land managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

An initial 60-day public comment period on the BLM’s Glenwood planning process ended May 2. The agency next will be proceeding with work on a draft plan that evaluates a range of management alternatives. BLM spokesman David Boyd said the agency also will be holding public meetings in June to seek input on the travel management aspect of its plan.

Environmentalists are asking the BLM to do away with “open” travel areas for off-road vehicles and instead adopt a “designated routes only” policy.

Boyd said the BLM welcomes comments such as those that environmental groups have been submitting.

“This is what we want to hear – people’s concerns and the issues they want to see addressed in the plan,” he said.

He said the plan will have to take into account federal laws and policies and the need to balance competing interests.

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