Ritter visits with mountain mayors in Rifle | AspenTimes.com

Ritter visits with mountain mayors in Rifle

Heidi Rice
Rifle correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

RIFLE ” The Roan Plateau, oil and gas impacts in western Garfield County and severance tax were some of the issues touched upon in a meeting Friday afternoon with Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter and the mountain mayors group.

The group meets monthly in an informal setting and consists of mayors from Aspen to Parachute.

Ritter, along with state Rep. Bernie Buescher, a Grand Junction Democrat who is chair of the Joint Budget Committee, and Harris Sherman, director of the state Department of Natural Resources, made the stop in Rifle on the way to Grand Junction for a two-day tour.

About 25 people attended the Rifle meeting, which opened with discussion about the Roan Plateau.

Ritter told the group that his administration would continue talks with the U.S. Department of the Interior about the future of the Roan Plateau over the next several weeks.

“During this period of discussions with the Interior Department, we will continue to actively engage all those with a stake in the future of the Roan Plateau,” Ritter said. “This will include local officials and community leaders, energy industry representatives, conservationists, sportsmen, state lawmakers and members of Colorado’s congressional delegation.”

During the ongoing conversations, Ritter says he hopes to achieve several objectives that include:

– Ensuring protection for critical fish and wildlife habitat by expanding the size of wildlife protection zones known as “Areas of Critical Environmental Concern.”

– Exploring the concept of phased or incremental leasing to increase state revenues, better protect the environment and properly pace future development.

– Achieving sustainable economic prosperity for local communities and industry.

– Exploring a possible amendment to the 1997 federal Transfer Act to ensure that the state receives bonus payments from future leasing on the Roan.

– Incorporating state-of-the-art technology to minimize environmental disturbance.

While the Bureau of Land Management currently plans to lease all the available acres on the Roan Plateau at once, the concept of phased leasing would better benefit the state, federal and local communities, Ritter contends.

“Phased leasing is something we believe can happen in the (BLM) record of decision and make it possible to protect 80 percent of the Roan at one time,” Ritter said.

He suggested that phased leasing would allow development to be paced and also allow drilling technology to evolve over time.

Sherman said he hopes sportsmen can still use the Roan Plateau while a limited portion of it is being developed

“That’s our goal. With phasing, we would be better able to control the pacing of the development and from an economic standpoint, it has benefits,” he said.

Ritter said he had seen a letter written by the mayors to the Americans for American Energy organization, which is pushing to open the public lands on the Roan Plateau for energy development.

“What most western Coloradans want is a balanced plan for the Roan Plateau that avoids the need for drilling on the public lands on top,” the mayors wrote. “For the health of our long-term economy, these lands must remain available for other uses such as hunting, fishing, camping, backpacking, mountain biking, wildlife viewing, scenic drives and encounters with solitude.”

Ritter pointed out that minimizing the impacts of oil and gas development was a challenge all over.

“I understand the importance of the oil and gas industry in this state,” he said. “But we’re trying to figure out how to responsibly develop oil and gas throughout the state of Colorado.”

In addressing the local community impacts of the oil and gas industry, Mayor Bruce Christensen of Glenwood Springs said it affected the available workforce and the housing market.

“A lot of us have the fear that in 15 years, these (oil and gas) guys are going to be gone,” Christensen said. “In Glenwood Springs, one-third of our hotel rooms are filled with oil and gas workers, which is impacting our tourism. There are very, very serious impacts.”

Ritter acknowledged that affordable housing was a significant issue around the state.

Severance tax distribution from oil and gas development was also a hot topic at the meeting, with the mayors saying that an increase was needed in local distributions to mitigate the impacts being felt by the energy industry.

“If you look at the distribution of the severance tax, it looks like an NCAA playoff chart,” said Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland, referring to the complicated allocation formula. “It seems to me that part of the issue is money and I hope you will support a severance tax increase.”

Ritter responded that it is not yet known exactly what will be on this year’s ballot.

“The issue of increasing severance taxes is a conversation that is ongoing,” he said. “It could wind up on the ballot in 2008.”

Parachute Mayor Roy McClung said his experience in Parachute and Rifle with the oil and gas industry showed that the companies were all in favor of paying more severance tax – as long as the money went back to the local communities.

When asked if he had any questions for the mayors, Ritter simply asked that they keep him abreast of the issues facing the Western Slope.

“Keep me informed, because it’s hard when you’re not living in the area,” Ritter said. “It’s an important time in the history of the Western Slope. We need as much information as possible.”

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