What’s at stake? The backcountry | AspenTimes.com

What’s at stake? The backcountry

In contrast to the dry, barren lands along Interstate 70 around Rifle where it is busy pecking holes, the oil and gas industry has now set its sights on drilling in heavily forested, mountainous terrain in the backcountry of Pitkin County.

Between snow and rain squalls Thursday, the environmental air force known as EcoFlight flew newspaper reporters, ranchers and local elected officials southwest of Carbondale to show how the battle over wilderness versus energy development has hit home.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management sold two gas leases in Pitkin County Thursday. As an auctioneer was taking bids at the BLM’s regional office in Lakewood, Colo., EcoFLight pilots Bruce Gordon, Victor Gerdin and Murray Cunningham of Aspen provided a glimpse of the lands at stake.

The airplane piloted by Gerdin flew up Marion Gulch into the heart of a 760-acre parcel that the BLM labels COC67538. It’s home to modern cowboy John Burtard.

The parcel is a combination of private property and public lands in the White River National Forest. Burtard, who watches over the stock for a pool of cattlemen and helps with his brother’s outfitting business, spends summers in a cabin in the area the BLM has deemed fit for natural gas production.

Burtard, wearing a white cowboy hat, boots and a denim jacket, hardly fits the mold of an environmentalist. Yet he’s aligned with them on the issue because he figures gas well drilling will devastate the backcountry area he’s known all his life.

He confirmed the environmentalists’ claims that the Thompson Creek roadless area, where the Pitkin County parcels are located, is valuable wildlife habitat.

“There’s turkeys, elk, deer, bear. There’s mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes. You name it. There’s pretty much everything,” Burtard said.

Mark Nieslanik, who helps run cattle in the area for the North Thompson Creek Cattlemen’s Pool, said drilling would be devastating for the ranchers who use the area for summer grazing.

“It’s going to make it a lot more difficult to run cattle there,” Nieslanik said, citing increased traffic, more dust and the need to build more fences to keep cattle from gas rigs.

From the air it’s evident why the area is used by ranchers. Lush natural meadows and parks are surrounded by thick aspen and blue spruce groves climbing steep slopes.

The parcels leased by the BLM are secluded so far into the backcountry that most Roaring Fork Valley residents have never laid eyes on them. However, one corner of COC67538 juts down to the Spring Gulch nordic ski area, which draws thousands of people each winter.

Over the ridge and south of Spring Gulch are the parcels the BLM has determined appropriate for gas development.

Going into those areas, said Carbondale Town Councilman John Foulkrod, would be like tramping around someone’s living room with muddy boots. The pristine backcountry cannot be preserved if opened for gas exploration.

Environmentalists concur. They filed protests to try to get the Pitkin County parcels and others withdrawn from the gas lease auction the BLM held Thursday. The protests on the Pitkin County lands, 1,560 acre in all, are under review, but the auction was held.

The oil and gas industry as well as the BLM beg to differ on the preservation issue. A Resource Management Plan for public lands, formed with citizen input, determined that the Pitkin County parcels were appropriate for gas development, said BLM spokesman Vaughn Whatley.

He also claimed that whatever company drills in the area must follow stringent rules. “Keep in mind, oil and gas development is one of the most regulated activities on public lands,” he said.

Ken Wonstolen, senior vice president and general counsel for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, echoed sentiments that the BLM will closely regulate gas development to protect the environment of Pitkin County. Before issuing a drilling permit, the BLM will conduct an on-site inspection of the area and dictate conditions, such as prohibiting drilling in late spring when elk drop their calves.

Economics could also dictate environmentally friendly actions. If the terrain is so rugged that road development is prohibitively expensive, a company could choose to use directional drilling so that several wells are clustered at one location, Wonstolen said.

On the other hand, clustering at one spot could create a visual blight that doesn’t exist if individual wells are scattered throughout the forest, he noted.

“There are trade-offs on these things,” Wonstolen said.

Conservation groups such as the Aspen Wilderness Workshop and White River Conservation Project contend that drilling, however it’s done, will severely damage the unique characteristics of what is one of the largest contiguous wild places in Colorado.

That’s definitely not worth the $44,120 that the gas leases on public lands were sold for, they contended Thursday.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com

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