Roadless areas go on the auction block | AspenTimes.com

Roadless areas go on the auction block

Joel Stonington

The view of Clear Fork roadless area below Huntsman Ridge, as seen from an EcoFlight plane, could changes as leases for gas wells are being sold. (Mark Fox/The Aspen Times)

To the observer rising in a tiny plane from the Garfield County Airport in Rifle, natural gas drilling platforms and drill rigs are immediately apparent. In many cases, the spacing between drill platforms is five acres, with webs of roads connecting them.With the price of natural gas going through the roof, the crunch to drill is expanding out from areas with huge numbers of active oil and gas wells and into undeveloped roadless areas in Colorado’s national forests.On Thursday, about 2,500 acres of designated roadless land in the White River National Forest – and 20,000 acres or roadless areas in Colorado – go on the auction block for leasing to oil and gas companies. The sale takes place even while a gubernatorial task force is finishing its recommendations on preservation and development of roadless areas around the state.Gov. Bill Owens appointed the task force after President Bush invalidated roadless protections at the end of the Clinton administration. Clinton declared tens of millions of acres throughout the West as official roadless areas following one of the lengthiest and most far-reaching public review processes in the history of the U.S. Forest Service. When Bush removed the roadless protection, which made mining, drilling and logging off limits in areas that had yet to be developed, he directed governors of affected states to recommend how the roadless lands should be used. The statewide task force is now finalizing its recommendations. The Forest Service is proceeding with the gas leases in a White River roadless area despite the fact that Colorado as a state has yet to say what it wants done with its roadless areas.The affected portions of the White River National Forest are mostly between Parachute and the section of Highway 133 that stretches from Carbondale to Paonia. Conservation groups are calling the sale an illegal end-run designed to sell out roadless areas without proper public process. The Forest Service claims nothing can be done to stop the sales while the task force is in process.

“As there’s no other roadless direction, we’re supposed to rely on our forest plan,” said White River National Forest spokeswoman Sally Spaulding. “Our forest plan allows for drilling in the areas included in the lease sale, so we have little or no authority to remove those parcels from the sale.”In June, Maribeth Gustafson, the White River National Forest supervisor, told the task force she is powerless to stop the sale of leases. A 1993 study determined what areas in the 2.3 million-acre White River National Forest should be available for leasing for oil and gas extraction. When a gas company nominates a parcel for lease, the Forest Service checks to make sure the 1993 study identified that land as suitable. If so, it proceeds to the next scheduled sale, Gustafson said, and doesn’t even go before her for review. Of 640,000 acres in the White River National Forest that have the roadless designation, 27 percent, “are available for leasing” Gustafson said. “In 1993 the price of gas was a sixth or seventh of what it is today,” said Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of the Wilderness Workshop. “Based on things the Forest Service claimed at the time, they didn’t think it would get development of more than 20 wells. “But the boom is on – the demand is there,” Shoemaker continued. “They got caught with their pants down. Yet they’re blithely proceeding with authorizing this level of development.”The Wilderness Workshop, other conservation groups and, most recently, U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar (see related story) are protesting the leases up for sale Thursday. They are calling for the Forest Service to hold off on leasing roadless areas until a decision comes. The task force will forward a recommendation to Gov. Bill Owens on Sept. 13. The governor will review the recommendation, then forward a final opinion to the U.S. secretary of agriculture later this year.If the sales go forward and the leases are issued, then gas companies will be able to develop large swathes of the Mamm Peak Roadless Area, directly south of Parachute and Rifle. Other roadless areas that will catch the brunt of gas exploration and development are Battlements, Reno Mountain, Clear Fork, Huntsman Ridge and Tomahawk. The leases do have the a stipulation attached that there can be no surface disturbance in roadless areas. Conservation groups worry that the stipulation is too easy to get around and that environmental impact statements are not as thorough as they should be. “Companies can ask that [the stipulation] be waived,” Spaulding said. “It’s up to the forest supervisor to make that decision.”Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is jstonington@aspentimes.com