Wildlife office groups question multiple Roan Plateau decisions | AspenTimes.com

Wildlife office groups question multiple Roan Plateau decisions

Dennis Webb
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

GARFIELD COUNTY ” The Colorado Division of Wildlife and some conservation groups are questioning why the federal Bureau of Land Management opted to issue two decisions instead of one regarding management of the Roan Plateau.

They fear the move could negatively impact how the plateau is eventually managed for wildlife and other resources.

The concerns of the DOW and conservation groups are among input recently submitted when the BLM held a new comment period on the Roan to address areas of critical environmental concern (ACECs).

The agency issued a final decision in June addressing management of more than 50,000 acres of public land on the Roan. That decision included going ahead with a controversial plan to allow oil and gas drilling on the plateau top.

However, the agency put off a decision on management of more than 21,000 acres it proposes for ACEC designation. The delay is because of a protest it received regarding the fact that a Federal Register Notice regarding its draft Roan plan didn’t contain enough detail about the proposed ACECs.

In a letter to the BLM, DOW Northwest regional manager Ron Velarde voiced concern about the BLM’s approach.

“To our knowledge, there is no management necessity or biological need for splitting the plan into two separate record of decision documents,” he wrote.

He said this is the first time such a planning process has led to split decisions in Colorado. BLM spokesman David Boyd said he’s not aware of another planning process that led to two federal land management decisions.

The DOW is worried because it “compromised heavily” in agreeing to smaller ACECs in the final Roan plan after being told larger ones wouldn’t be accepted by BLM’s Washington staff, Velarde wrote.

“It is very concerning that these smaller ACES could be altered further based on additional public comment. Without these very minimum ACECs, we can say that the plan will jeopardize the Roan Plateau’s important wildlife habitat. We persist in communicating that larger ACECs would more fully protect Colorado River cutthroat trout habitat and other wildlife concerns.”

Western Resource Advocates, in 21 pages of comments on behalf of 10 conservation groups, called two Roan decisions “one too many.”

It said that the BLM “pre-judged the boundaries and protections applicable to the proposed ACECs” by prematurely issuing its first Roan decision.

The groups contend that all federal lands above the plateau rim should be protected as ACECs, and not leased for drilling.

Boyd said it was a protest by Western Resource Advocates that led the agency to decide to issue two decisions, holding off on deciding how to manage ACECs. He said the BLM considered whether to postpone the overall decision instead.

“One reason for doing it this way was to make it clear what the comment period was on,” he said.

Another benefit is that the BLM was able to immediately proceed with closing nearly 100 miles of roads to motorized vehicles because those roads are generally outside land proposed for ACEC designation.

Oil and gas leasing isn’t expected to occur for at least six months, after the second decision is issued, Boyd said. In the meantime, he said, the agency will consider requests not only on how to manage the 21,000 acres proposed as ACECs, but whether to apply that designation to other areas.

It’s also theoretically possible the agency could reduce the acreage designated as ACECs, he said.

The Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, in a letter to the BLM, didn’t ask for a reduction in ACEC acreage but said expanding that protection isn’t needed, either. It argued that the Roan drilling plan already is the most restrictive ever for public lands, and already protects beautiful canyons and riparian areas. As for the plateau top, while it offers “incredible vistas,” it isn’t a unique ecosystem, having 157 miles of roads, grazing and off-road vehicle use, the group argued.

“The pristine nature of the landscape on top of the plateau has been wildly exaggerated in the media and by many politicians. Despite the impression created in the public, the Roan is not one of the last great wilderness areas in the nation,” it said.

Boyd said ACECs can include a designation of no surface occupancy by drilling operators, meaning directional drilling would be required to tap the gas beneath those areas. But he said ACEC designation isn’t the only way to protect sensitive areas. For example, the BLM already is planning on no surface occupancy for more than half of the plateau planning area, he said.

While the BLM’s recent comment period was intended to focus on ACECs, many chose to comment on the Roan’s management as a whole. The Steamboat Springs City Council asked that the Roan and Moffat County’s Vermillion Basin in northwest Colorado be spared from drilling.

Sid Lindauer of Parachute wrote that his family owns a grazing permit on the plateau, and that considering the oil and gas industry’s history, letting it drill there “would literally be a disaster.” Caroline Metzler of New Castle sent in a postcard that said in all capital letters, “NO DRILLING ON THE ROAN PLATEAU!!”

But Lou Dawson, a Carbondale outdoor guidebook author, supported multiple use on the plateau, “including a limited amount of natural gas drilling, with careful attention to restoration of the land after drilling, and enforcement of all existing environmental laws.”

And Tom Tribble of Grand Junction wrote, “No matter what precautions are taken there is always a group of so-called ecologists that loudly express the opinion ‘not in my backyard or anyone else’s.’ After all the years of study it is time to drill the Roan Plateau in an ecology friendly manner.”