Pitkin County commissioners pan oil, gas leasing on forest

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – Lands that have already attracted oil and gas interest in the White River National Forest would remain open to those uses in a first draft of plans under review by the U.S. Forest Service – a starting point that drew criticism from Pitkin County commissioners on Tuesday.

The county has already submitted its written comments to the Forest Service, which is in the process of updating its regulations regarding oil and gas leasing on the White River, the 2.3 million-acre forest that surrounds Aspen and Pitkin County.

The comments, along with those submitted by other agencies and jurisdictions, will be analyzed before the next draft is released in December or January, Forest Service officials assured commissioners during a face-to-face meeting in Aspen.

The Forest Service, which last updated its oil and gas regulations in 1993, has identified about 266,000 acres that could be made available for leasing. Virtually all of it already is. The agency is in the process of identifying what lands to make available and what stipulations it will place on the acreage that is open to oil and gas activity, explained David Francomb, leaseable minerals program manager for the White River.

Of the 266,000 acres, 180,000 acres are in roadless areas – a designation that may mean no surface activity is permitted, or that may mean no roads may be created to reach leases, he said.

Also, as the proposal now stands, if lands have already been leased, they would be open to new leases as the old ones expire, Francomb said. There are 36 leases on the forest within Pitkin County, he added.

That approach is “really disappointing,” said Commissioner Rachel Richards, urging the Forest Service to close off lands as leases expire, particularly in the Thompson Divide area and Crystal River Valley outside of Carbondale.

“This area is just so unique in terms of being an undeveloped habitat,” she said.

Existing interest in areas is merely a starting point, but it’s a legitimate one, Francomb said. There are 10 wells in the northwest corner of Pitkin County now, he noted, and a new well was OK’d just a few years ago, though it was never drilled.

“We looked at where there was interest, where there has been leasing on the White River, where there’s development … that’s the bottom line,” he said.

“Well, there’s interest on this side to not have it open,” said Commissioner Jack Hatfield.

The county has adopted zoning in areas bordering the national forest that aren’t necessarily compatible with oil and gas activity, noted Cindy Houben, head of the county’s Community Development Department. In the Thompson Creek area, for example, zoning doesn’t permit an access road to be plowed in the winter beyond a certain point.

The county’s land-use code hasn’t yet been considered, but it will be as part of the coming analysis, Francomb said.

In its written comments, the county urged the administrative closure of White River National Forest lands to future leasing, noting the importance of the forest to tourism and the local economy. The county also advocated withdrawing all roadless lands on the forest from leasing and asked that the Thompson Creek area be unavailable for leasing.

Once the next draft is released this winter, there will be another “scoping period” of 45 to 60 days, during which the Forest Service will again accept comments on what it has proposed, Francomb said.