A plan to deal with 65 illegally issued oil and gas leases within the treasured White River National Forest in western Colorado was released by the Bureau of Land Management today as part of the agency’s Final Environmental Impact Statement. The plan would cancel 25 leases in the Thompson Divide, but it would rollback protections that BLM proposed to apply to other leases in the Draft EIS last November.
The illegally issued leases in the White River National Forest have been a source of controversy for more than a decade.
“We support BLM’s plan to cancel 25 leases inside the Thompson Divide,” said Peter Hart, staff attorney at Wilderness Workshop. “But based on our initial review, the agency appears to have abandoned its earlier proposal to protect the East Willow, Mamm Peak and Battlement Mesa areas. Much of Thompson Divide’s value is tied to the integrity of the surrounding landscape. BLM can’t just sweep those other lands under the rug.”
The illegally issued leases have been a source of controversy for more than a decade, threatening to allow drilling in important wildlife habitat, pristine roadless lands, public water supplies and the Thompson Divide. Public commenters overwhelming called for BLM to cancel all of the illegal leases.
Local, regional and national groups representing wildlife, sportsman, and environmental interests supported part of BLM’s plan, which would cancel 25 leases in the Thompson Divide. But they rebuked the agency for failing to protect dozens of other leases in the East Willow, Mamm Peak and Battlement Mesa areas of the forest. With the Thompson Divide, these areas are part of a single functioning landscape supporting wildlife across the region.
BLM’s draft Environmental Impact Statement, issued last November, would have added numerous protections for the East Willow, Mamm Peak and Battlement Mesa areas. Under heavy pressure from the oil and gas industry, however, the agency now proposes to eliminate protections for those areas.
“We’re glad the agency is moving to protect lands in the Thompson Divide,” said Mike Freeman, staff attorney at Earthjustice. “But under heavy pressure from the oil and gas industry, BLM has dropped its plan to protect the other half of the lands at issue here. These areas have garnered less publicity than the Thompson Divide, but they are just as important to protect.”
Agency regulations require BLM to wait 30-days after publication of the Final EIS before issuing a decision. The agency should use that time to craft a decision that cancels leases in the Thompson Divide while providing meaningful protections for all of the areas that were illegally leased, including the East Willow, Mamm Peak and Battlement Mesa areas.
The following are statements from organizations that have long been engaged in the effort to protect the White River National Forest:
“This plan would bring oil and gas development into one of America’s last remaining wild places,” said Amy Mall, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “This forest provides prime habitat for wildlife, a sacred destination for outdoor lovers, and drinking water for millions of people. The federal government should be protecting America’s national forests, not selling them to the highest bidder.”
“Much of the media coverage has focused on the 25 leases in the Thompson Divide, but our concerns are broader. Important fish and wildlife habitat will be affected by development of the other leases, including winter range for elk and mule deer, elk production areas, as well as vital range for bighorn sheep, moose, black bear and lynx,” said Kate Zimmerman, National Wildlife Federation’s public lands policy director. “There is broad support for protecting these areas as well, and we hope BLM will act to conserve the wildlife values of these lands outside the Divide.”
“We enthusiastically support BLM’s decision to cancel the illegal leases on the Thompson Divide, said Scott Miller Senior Regional Director for the Southwest Region of the Wilderness Society. While the decision from the BLM to withdraw the illegal leases on the Thompson Divide will keep it safe from drilling, the plan fails to put needed safeguards in place for other nearby roadless lands in the White River National Forest, one of our nation’s treasures and the most visited national forest in the country. There is room for both energy development and conservation on our public lands, and it is unfortunate BLM is not following the Forest Service’s lead to strike that balance.”
“Municipal water resources in the Garfield County seem to be under siege,” said Rifle resident and Western Colorado Congress member Leslie Robinson. “Any community that depends on the Colorado River and its tributaries for drinking water are put at risk as more drilling is approved in our watersheds. Residents of Rifle, Silt, Battlement Mesa, and Parachute find it problematic that the BLM may validate dozens of leases in our watersheds without even the minimum protections. The agency owes residents proper protection. ”