Wilderness vs. gas drilling | AspenTimes.com

Wilderness vs. gas drilling

Scott Condon

Conservation groups and a sympathetic Colorado congresswoman leveled charges Thursday that the Bush administration is targeting specific public lands for gas development to foil efforts to designate them as wilderness.

A coalition of environmental groups led by the Wilderness Society held a teleconference along with U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, to lash out at Bush’s “relentless efforts to open the West’s remaining wildlands to gas and oil drilling.”

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management will offer oil and gas leases on 77 parcels in western Colorado on May 13. They comprise nearly 74,000 acres. Some of those leases are on lands that DeGette has proposed for designation as wilderness. She is a prime sponsor of a bill in Congress to expand Colorado’s wilderness lands, which receive special protection such as a prohibitions on mechanized travel.

“I realize it was not a mistake to pick these areas out for drilling,” said DeGette. “I think it’s an attack on wilderness.”

The debate affects the Roaring Fork Valley in a direct way. Land in the Thompson Creek area west of Carbondale will be offered for lease in the BLM auction. Two parcels in the far western edge of Pitkin County are part of a vast roadless area contained in the White River and Gunnison national forests, according to conservation groups.

But the debate really represents a broader “ideological battle” over how BLM lands will be managed rather than the fate of specific parcels, according to Steve Torbit, a biologist with the National Wildlife Federation. He claimed the Bush administration believes that BLM lands “should never be set aside” from extractive uses.

Suzanne Jones said that battle began more than one year ago when the U.S. Department of Interior cut a deal last year with the state of Utah to stop considering additional BLM lands for wilderness designation.

Through that agreement, the Bush administration agreed that only lands that had been identified as potentially suitable for the wilderness designation in a study released in 1993 could actually become wilderness.

Thousands of acres that conservation groups believe meet the wilderness criteria but weren’t included in the BLM’s 1993 inventory are ineligible, according to Jones. That is an important distinction because it affects the status of thousands of acres now targeted for gas and oil exploration.

Under previous administrations starting with President Reagan, lands that were included in a wilderness bill pending before Congress received special protection from activities like drilling while the bill’s fate was determined. But Bush has reversed that policy, Jones said. Bush is allowing lands included in the wilderness bill to be opened for gas drilling.

DeGette said drilling activity could alter those properties to the point where they would no longer be eligible as wilderness.

But BLM administrators contest the claim that they are opening up lands suitable for wilderness. Duane Spencer, a branch chief with minerals in the BLM regional office in Denver, said whenever land is nominated by the oil and gas industry for lease the BLM holds a deliberate review. It must determine if oil and gas development on specific parcels is appropriate under the Resource Management Plan for the area. It also studies whether new information has been submitted that demonstrates lands deserve different consideration.

Therefore, Spencer contended, the lands being offered for lease on May 13 have been found to be appropriate for gas and oil development rather than for wilderness designation.

Jones countered that President Bush’s directive to the BLM to place a priority on gas and oil development has tainted its review. In addition, the BLM has historically had a disposition favoring extractive industries over wilderness protection, she said.

The two sides agreed that gas production is a strong possibility on the lands, such as those near Thompson Creek, that will be offered for lease May 13. Spencer said there is little speculation involved when a gas or oil company proposes a specific parcel for lease. Jones agreed, noting that companies “are leasing everything they can.”

The conservation groups hope to place enough pressure on the BLM to remove some of the lands from the lease sale May 13. If the agency ignores that pressure, which is expected, formal protests will be filed by the conservationists.

Jones wouldn’t rule out litigation if administrative appeals fail.

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