Senator calls for putting halt on gas leases | AspenTimes.com

Senator calls for putting halt on gas leases

Joel Stonington

U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar yesterday urged the Bush administration to halt plans to lease 20,000 roadless acres in Colorado to oil and gas companies on Thursday.Twenty-five hundred acres of roadless land in the White River National Forest are scheduled to go on the auction block this Thursday.”[Act] immediately to preserve the opportunity for the State of Colorado to recommend how roadless areas within our state should be managed,” Salazar, of Colorado, wrote in a letter to the U.S. secretaries of agriculture and the interior. Roadless areas were inventoried and protected under the Clinton administration. In 2005, the Bush administration told the Forest Service to go back to the states to ask whether to preserve or develop roadless areas. After 10 months of work and several public hearings, a task force formed by the Colorado Legislature and Gov. Bill Owens recommended last week that new roads be banned on most of the 4.1 million acres of roadless forest lands in the state, The Associated Press reported.The task force is expected to release its recommendations to the public this week. The public will have a chance to comment before the report goes to Owens.In his letter, Salazar quoted Mark Rey, undersecretary of agriculture, as saying; “We are providing interim protection to roadless areas, pending development of state-specific rules provided for in our 2005 rulemaking.”The question comes down to what, exactly “interim protection” means. During the task force process, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have gone ahead putting roadless areas up for lease. “It’s disingenuous to ask the governor and citizens for comment while at the same time contractually obligating agencies to develop these areas,” said Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of the Wilderness Workshop, a local environmental group. “[The Forest Service] never analyzed and disclosed to the public the scope of the impacts that this boom will have on our economy, community and culture.”Until this point, Salazar has not come out against the gas leases in roadless areas. The letter, however, leaves no question:”To uphold the stated intent and the plain meaning of the May, 2005 Forest Service rules, inventoried roadless areas should not be subject to leasing for any purpose until the states have their opportunity to recommend future management,” Salazar wrote. “There will be ample time to consider and adjust the management status of these lands after each state has made its recommendations to Secretary Johanns. In the meantime, it is obvious that the oil, gas, coal and other mineral deposits under these lands will not disappear and will remain available for development in the future, if that is the chosen course.”If the sale goes ahead as planned, more than 20,000 acres of roadless areas will be leased in the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre-Gunnison, White River and Manti-La Sal national forests. The only hurdle that will remain is the official protest. “When the parcels come up for auction on Thursday, it will be noted that they are under protest,” Shoemaker said. “We think they’re doing it illegally, that they are vulnerable to challenge.”While Salazar wouldn’t say he felt the sale was illegal. He did write that the sale is directly contrary to the intent of the 2005 rule. “Salazar is being responsive to the growing outcry across the Western Slope of Colorado,” Shoemaker said. “He wants to make sure, when the boom leaves and the bust hits, we haven’t spoiled the foundations of our lives on the Western Slope.”Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is jstonington@aspentimes.com

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