Feds shoot down effort to block gas exploration | AspenTimes.com

Feds shoot down effort to block gas exploration

A last desperate attempt by Pitkin County and environmentalists to prevent natural gas exploration southwest of Carbondale failed Monday.The county and a coalition of conservation groups, trying to prevent the federal government from leasing 1,560 acres of public land to gas companies in the rugged western tip of Pitkin County, filed appeals May 12. They claimed, in separate appeals, that those parcels should be preserved for their ecological value rather than drilled.The Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service dismissed the appeals Monday. The Forest Service said the land had been deemed appropriate for gas exploration in the 2002 White River National Forest Plan, which dictates land uses and management. The Forest Service’s response to the appeals said there is “no new information or changed circumstances” that would convince it to make the land ineligible for leasing.The disputed land is in the Thompson Creek area, south and southwest of where roads lead to the Spring Gulch cross-country ski area. They are part of a broader complex of territory between Ski Sunlight and McClure Pass that has few roads – including large chunks with no roads.County Commissioner Dorothea Farris said the disputed parcels are important because one is located in the vast roadless area and another is adjacent to Jerome Park, land that Pitkin County residents paid millions of dollars for to conserve.Farris said she thought the federal agencies would reconsider if it was appropriate to lease lands of that importance for gas development. She said the time has come for the agencies to recognize the value of public land for something other than the resources that can be extracted.”On the other hand, I think they’re doing what they’re told to from the top down,” Farris said, referring to direction from the Bush administration. “I’m disappointed to say the least.”Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Wilderness Workshop, one of the environmental groups that appealed the lease of the parcels, said the decision “is another example of local community concerns being completely ignored in the headlong rush to turn public lands over to energy corporations.” In addition to the formal appeals, the town of Carbondale and hundreds of citizens objected to the leasing of the land, he noted.Shoemaker claimed the rejection of the appeals also reflects the administration’s disregard for other regulations, like the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, in favor of priorities like energy development.”Adding insult to injury, 95 percent of the landscape containing these leases is already leased,” Shoemaker said. “Why the headlong rush to lease these last few parcels when the vast majority of the already leased parcels sit undeveloped?”At least 50,000 acres surrounding the two latest leased parcels are already in the hands of gas companies, according to research by the environmental groups. So why the concern over this latest land?For one thing, many of the other parcels have been leased for years and even decades, according to Cindy Houben, director of Pitkin County’s Community Development Department.”These stood out because they were new leases,” she said.In addition, county officials and environmental groups only recently became aware of the extent of leasing of public land in the White River National Forest. The forest plan identifies most of the forest west of the Crystal River Valley as appropriate for gas development. Groups like Wilderness Workshop were intimately involved with the public process used to create the forest plan. It lobbied to get wilderness protection for many lands now targeted for gas development. Even so, environmentalists acknowledge that they were caught unaware by the amount of leasing taking place in the forest.The BLM holds quarterly sales of gas leases for public land. It administers the sales for the Forest Service as well as itself.The leasing of the 1,560 acres in May is just the latest example that the natural gas boom that hit the West Slope is spreading into Pitkin County. EnCana Oil and Gas USA has applied to drill an exploratory well north of the latest leased parcels. An analysis by the Forest Service indicated that up to 60 wells could be drilled if exploration proves fruitful.Shoemaker and Farris said they didn’t know if the appeals to the latest leases would be pursued further. Another administrative appeal can be made to the Interior Board of Land Appeals in Washington, D.C. Litigation is also an option.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com

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