Roadless ruling could prevent some gas leases in White River | AspenTimes.com

Roadless ruling could prevent some gas leases in White River

Local environmentalists believe they finally found a way Wednesday to prevent the federal government from leasing roadless areas for gas drilling.A federal judge reinstated former President Clinton’s “Roadless Rule,” which banned road construction on 58.5 million acres of national forest (see related story).Sloan Shoemaker, director of the Wilderness Workshop, said the ruling should prevent the offering of more roadless lands for lease on the western fringe of the White River National Forest and in the adjacent Grand Mesa-Uncompahgre and Gunnison national forests. The gas boom in western Garfield County has spread into parts of the national forest south of Rifle and Silt.

The ruling could also scuttle plans to build the Bull Mountain pipeline across sections of three roadless areas, Shoemaker said. The Forest Service recently disclosed that its “preferred alternative” for the gas industry project would allow construction of 8.33 miles across the roadless areas. Now, Shoemaker said, the agency may have to find ways for that pipeline to use road networks outside of the roadless areas.Shoemaker said he tried to contact White River National Forest officials to press those points but wasn’t able to talk to anyone.The Wilderness Workshop and its allies also hope the ruling helps them prevail in protests over past leases. A coalition of conservation groups contends that leases offered on 25,000 acres of the White River and neighboring forest should be nullified because they were on roadless areas.

The coalition discovered in 2004 that roadless lands in western Colorado had been leased for gas development since 2001. Leases were issued from 2001 through 2003 without protest. Since then, the leases on roadless lands have been contested, but no decision has been handed down.The Wilderness Workshop and other groups called on White River National Forest Supervisor Maribeth Gustafson this year to stop the leases on roadless lands. She said she didn’t have the power to stop leases on lands that forest plans had identified as suitable for gas exploration.Shoemaker said Wednesday’s ruling is probably just a start of legal battles over roadless lands, not the end.

“I think it’s a foregone conclusion that the Bush administration is going to appeal this ruling,” he said. “The Ping-Pong match is still on.”Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com.