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Farris wheels, deals for land

Pitkin County Commissioner Dorothea Farris wants to prevent oil and gas companies from snatching up leases for land outside Carbondale by using good old American ingenuity.

Farris is floating the idea of putting together a coalition to raise funds and outbid the oil and gas companies for leases that will be offered at a public auction May 13 in Denver. She touted the idea as a way to prevent development of roads and gas well drilling from carving up a vast roadless area on Pitkin County’s western boundary.

Lands in the Thompson Creek area west of the town are among 77 parcels of public land in western Colorado that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is offering for lease. All the parcels were nominated by oil and gas companies, and conservationists fear the leases will quickly result in development.

A coalition of elected officials and environmental groups, led by the Wilderness Society, announced last week they want to prevent the BLM from offering 31 of those parcels for lease to the gas industry. The conservationists believe the lands have wilderness characteristics that should be protected.

The Pitkin County lands that could be affected include the largest concentration of old-growth spruce fir in the White River National Forest, according to the Wilderness Society. It contains what also may be the largest aspen forest in the world, the group claims.

Farris believes the only sure-fire way to prevent gas well development from affecting those lands is to buy the leases. But at least two leaders of environmental groups oppose the idea.

Steve Smith, assistant regional director of the Four Corners office of the Wilderness Society, said the goal in opposing the land leases is to show that the BLM’s process is flawed, in addition to protecting the lands. The Wilderness Society maintains that the BLM is required to consider qualities of the property in addition to its potential for oil and gas development. When property is eligible for wilderness designation, the BLM should give that equal consideration, he said.

By bidding on the leases, the Wilderness Society would preserve the targeted lands but do nothing to change the BLM’s process, Smith said. “They shouldn’t be on the lease docket anyway,” he said.

Pete Kolbenschlag of the Colorado Environmental Coalition agreed that bidding on the leases avoids the main issue of overhauling the BLM’s “wilderness-busting” methods.

Smith claimed there is also a practical flaw to conservation groups bidding for the leases. If no drilling activity commences and a lease parcel isn’t producing within 10 years from the time it is leased, the leaseholder surrenders the property. Smith said the money would be spent for nothing.

Farris countered that holding off the oil and gas companies for a decade on parcels like those near Thompson Creek could lead to long-term victory. The BLM’s policies might change and conservation might be a higher value for the federal agency in 10 years, she said.

BLM rules don’t prevent someone other than an oil and gas company from bidding on a lease. Anyone can place a bid, said Duane Spencer, who will oversee the May 13 lease auction for the BLM.

There is a minimum bid of $2 per acre, but leases for property coveted by gas producers often go for a much higher rate. A check of the latest auction held by the BLM’s Denver regional office showed an average lease rate of about $17 per acre, Spencer said.

There is no standard size to the parcels being leased. A parcel of 700 acres, for example, would require Farris’ coalition to cough up a minimum of $1,400 and as much as $11,900 under the average lease price.

Spencer said leaseholders have certain obligations – they must drill if they want to retain the lease past 10 years but they also have the liability for issues such as drainage. In some cases, drilling on adjacent property can create water and drainage issues on the leased parcel of federal land. In that case, the leaseholder of the property affected must make improvements, Spencer said.

He said no conservation group has bid on leases in auctions he has witnessed.

Farris said she has discussed the idea with county staff members and will discuss it with the other commissioners. If the county decides to pursue that strategy, it need partners, such as environmental groups.

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


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