Private landowners, Gunnison County, businesses dependent on outdoor recreation, and conservation groups all plan to file formal challenges today to portions of the Bureau of Land Management’s August 10 oil and gas lease sale in Colorado. That sale would lease nearly 20,000 acres of roadless areas within three national forests, BLM lands proposed for wilderness protection, state wildlife areas, as well as private lands. The sale threatens key watersheds, some of Colorado’s most scenic unspoiled areas, important wildlife corridors, and habitat for lynx, black bear, bighorn sheep, elk, and Colorado River cutthroat trout.
“A huge wave of oil and gas drilling is sweeping over Colorado’s West Slope, and now it’s threatening some of the wildest, most scenic areas of our forests,” said Jeff Mead, who operates Mamm Peak Outfitters, which guides hunting trips in the Mamm Peak Roadless Areas, which is blanketed with over 3,000 acres of leases. Mead pointed out that petroleum leases and development are now surrounding and creeping onto Battlement Mesa and Grand Mesa near Collbran. “A thoughtful approach to energy development means balancing development with other important values, like wildlife habitat, drinking water supplies, and recreation. It makes no sense to destroy the reasons people love to live, work, and play on the West Slope for a few weeks’ supply of gas.”
The roadless leases come just weeks before the Colorado Roadless Area Task Force is scheduled to complete its recommendations to Governor Bill Owens, recommendations that could lead to protection of roadless forest from damaging road construction and drilling. “The Forest Service shouldn’t be pushing to drill while the task force is working with the public and the governor to complete recommendations on how to protect these lands. It undermines the task force’s work,” said Sloan Shoemaker, Executive Director of Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop.
The protest also comes days before a federal judge in San Francisco will hear arguments challenging the Forest Service’s current policy allowing development in national forest roadless areas. The August 1 court hearing in San Francisco will spotlight how the Bush administration abandoned roadless area protections on national forests that were enacted under the Clinton administration.
Decades of logging and mining, coupled with a history of subsidized road-building, have combined to create a web of roads across Colorado’s seven national forests. Only 6 percent of the state’s national forests are more than two miles from a road. The upcoming oil and gas lease sale would auction off inventoried roadless lands within Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison (GMUG); White River; and Manti-La Sal National Forests.
Jeff Miner, who operates Collbran-based Battlement Mesa Outfitters, running hunting, fishing, and horseback riding trips in roadless areas proposed for leasing on the Battlement Mesa, said: “We want to keep this great outdoor recreation area the same as it is now, for all Americans to enjoy. To put large roads in this area will be detrimental for us all. We must protect the areas that we still have, so that our children can also have the opportunity to enjoy these great backcountry areas.”
Roadless areas being put out for bid include 9,000 acres of the GMUG National Forest including lynx and cutthroat trout habitat in the Clear Fork and Huntsman Ridge roadless areas northeast of Paonia. In the White River National Forest over 3,000 acres to be leased include the Mamm Peak Roadless Area of Battlement Mesa, a dramatic ridge that divides Plateau Creek from the Colorado River. Another 6,000 acres of roadless lands on the Colorado-Utah border in the Manti-La Sal National Forest are proposed for leasing at Roc Creek, a proposed Wild and Scenic river that flows out through red rock canyons and ponderosa pine forests. While some of these leases will have limitations that could prevent road and well pad construction in the roadless areas, the Forest Service could remove these limitations at the lease-holder’s request. In fact, the Forest Service and BLM are proposing to remove such limits that currently protect another Colorado roadless area, the HD Mountains in the San Juan National Forest.
Outdoor recreation equipment manufacturer Black Diamond is joining a number of conservation groups in formally protesting the roadless area leases today. Gunnison County has approved a separate challenge to roadless leasing in the county, where most of the GMUG National Forest roadless leases are located. Conservation groups are filing separate protests of leases in state wildlife areas and in the Citizens’ Wilderness Proposal areas on BLM lands at Sewemup Mesa near Uravan and the Troublesome area north of Kremmling. Private landowners in the Uncompahgre Valley south of Montrose also plan to protest leasing on private lands there.
“Businesses, property owners, hunters and outfitters, conservationists, and local governments all agree that some places are just too valuable to bulldoze, drill, and develop,” said Tony Prendergast, a Western Colorado Congress member and former backcountry ranger for the Forest Service who enjoys horseback riding in the Clear Fork roadless area which BLM is proposing to lease. “The broad range of folks protesting this sale demonstrates that Coloradans want oil and gas companies and BLM to take a more balanced approach to gas development.”
More information, including maps showing leases in Forest Service roadless areas, photos of some of the threatened Forest Service roadless areas, is available on the Colorado’s Forest Legacy website.
Earthjustice Attorney Keith Bauerle (303-996-9615) can address questions about legal issues related to the protests.