We must pay to preserve western Pitkin County | AspenTimes.com

We must pay to preserve western Pitkin County

Pitkin County Commissioner Dorothea Farris has made a conservation proposal that deserves serious consideration.

Farris said this week she would like to see environmental activists and local governments pool their resources to purchase leases on areas slated for oil and gas drilling.

Gas and oil companies have identified two places along Thompson Creek outside Carbondale as potentially lucrative, and both will be up for bid on May 13. If Farris has her druthers, there will be one bidder with no intention of building roads and clearing pads for exploratory drilling.

Farris argues the money would be well-spent to protect an unspoiled ” and unprotected ” wilderness from development. The minimum bid on these leases is $2 per acre; the average price at the last auction was $17 per acre. That’s not a lot of money for at least 10 years of protection. But Farris is apparently alone in her enthusiasm for the idea.

State and local environmentalists argue their money and energy should be devoted to fight the allocation system that allows pristine areas to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Rightly, they point out that the system is rigged in favor of energy development.

A manager with the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency in charge of the areas to be leased, says all of the areas up for bid this month ” 77 around the state ” were reviewed for their wilderness value and determined to be better-suited for drilling. But one still has to wonder.

The so-called “forgotten wilderness” encompasses 125,000 acres of public land between Carbondale, Silt and McClure Pass. It contains old-growth spruce and what is believed to be the largest aspen forest in the world.

Environmentalists are also right to question the Bush Administration’s haste to allow drilling on unspoiled public lands that may be more valuable to the local and state economy in their relatively pristine state. And they are correct that the system needs reforming.

But under the current public land regime, the only way to play is to pay. If Pitkin County and other interested organizations step up with their own bids, it could at least buy the time needed to enact the changes environmentalists seek.

Part of what makes this part of Colorado an amazing place to visit and live is the fact that it is ringed by wilderness: the Hunter-Frying Pan Wilderness east of Basalt, the Flattops above Glenwood Springs; the Maroon Bells-Snowmass south of the Roaring Fork River, and the Collegiate Peaks between Aspen and Buena Vista.

All of those areas are protected from the industrial-type development that comes with gas and oil exploration. Pitkin County’s western flank deserves similar protection, and Commissioner Farris has come up with an imaginative step to achieve the goal.