In 1996, the Forest Service described the 1.8 million acre Rio Grande National Forest, which rings the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado, as "large … and … essentially undeveloped."
The agency expected things to stay that way, at least as far as petroleum extraction was concerned. An analysis of the management plan the Forest adopted that year concluded "development of oil and gas is not likely" by 2011.
And for the dozen years since that analysis, not a single acre of the Rio Grande NF was leased for oil development. That’s about to change. On May 8, the Bureau of Land Management (which manages federally-owned minerals) will put up for bid 144,000 acres of the Forest for oil and gas drilling.
That’s more than 225 square miles, or about half the size of Rocky Mountain National Park. Areas to be leased to industry include tens of thousands of acres of roadless lands, deer and elk winter range, lynx habitat, watersheds of the Rio Grande a few miles upstream from two national wildlife refuges and agricultural land, and steep slopes prone to erosion and landslides.
While some of those areas may be "protected" by lease conditions that restrict the amount of bulldozing, road construction, logging, pipeline building, and other surface disturbance that petroleum development requires, the Forest Service could waive these conditions, essentially rendering them meaningless. Back in ’96, when the domestic oil bidness was slow, the Forest Service predicted only 9 wells would be drilled and less than 130 acres disturbed in the area where BLM proposes its enormous sale. Now, with the price of oil through the roof and natural gas prices nothing to sneeze at, far more development seems possible. Previous lease sales in and around the San Luis Valley have run into significant opposition.
The public has until April 23 to file official "protests" of each lease parcel. We’ll see what happens with this one.