Wilderness proposal includes Colorado drilling battleground
October 5, 2009
DENVER – U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette’s new wilderness proposal includes about 40,000 acres on top of western Colorado’s Roan Plateau, much of which has been leased for oil and gas development.
The Democrat’s draft bill released last week would designate 34 separate Colorado sites totaling 890,000 acres as federal wilderness. They would be off-limits to many activities, including motorized vehicles and drilling.
Last year, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management approved a management plan for the public land on the plateau that allows oil and gas drilling in some places. The agency also approved oil and gas leases on nearly 55,000 acres on the plateau about 180 miles west of Denver.
The landmark has become a battleground between those who want to protect Colorado’s backcountry and wildlife habitat and proponents of increasing domestic energy production. The BLM estimates the plateau holds about 9 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas, although some environmental groups’ estimates are lower.
Environmentalists are suing to block the drilling, saying the federal analysis of potential impacts was inadequate.
Denver-based Bill Barrett Corp., which has a 90 percent stake in about 40,000 acres of the leases on the Roan Plateau, has spoken to environmentalists and federal officials about a possible settlement of the lawsuit.
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The company would “vigorously protect our property rights there,” Barrett spokesman Jim Felton told The Daily Sentinel in Grand Junction.
Other proponents of developing the Roan, including some area elected officials, counter that there’s drilling on private land there now and that the BLM’s management plan is highly restrictive.
BLM spokesman Jim Sample said he can’t comment on proposed legislation.
DeGette spokesman Kristofer Eisenla said many of the proposed wilderness sites on the plateau are in valleys and on cliffs while many of the proposed drilling sites are off existing roads that follow the tops of ridges. Some of the proposed wilderness overlaps with places the BLM has made off-limits to development because they are considered environmentally sensitive.
“We think they probably can coexist,” Eisenla said, referring to the wilderness areas and drilling.
DeGette has introduced a Colorado wilderness bill every session since 1999 and released the new draft to get feedback, Eisenla said. A wilderness bill she sponsored in 2007 included land on the Roan Plateau.
He said DeGette has spoken to various interest groups and is taking comments about her proposal on her Web site.
“We really want this to be a collaborative process,” Eisenla said. “We’re working closely with all of our colleagues in the (Colorado) delegation.”
DeGette has pared the proposal from previous bills, which had sought to set aside more than 1 million acres of additional wilderness. Other proposed sites include 72,000 acres on Handies Peak in southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains and about 65,000 acres on Sewemup Mesa near Grand Junction in western Colorado.
The Roan Plateau looms over the Colorado River and alternates among open flat spots, deep canyons and rugged peaks. The top of the plateau is considered sensitive because of pockets of pristine backcountry that are home to genetically pure native cutthroat trout dating to the last ice age and other wildlife.