Critics of a plan that makes tracts of public lands in western Colorado available to oil and gas drilling say the final insult is its release in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, when people are dealing with health and economic concerns.
The plan by the Bureau of Land Management, in the works for several years, covers 675,800 surface acres of public lands managed by the federal agency across Montrose, Gunnison, Ouray, Mesa, Delta, and San Miguel counties. The BLM administers a total of 971,220 acres of minerals, including oil and gas, in the area.
The North Fork Valley, which has become known for its organic farms, wineries and artists, has been a center of dispute as the BLM wrote a new resource management plan for the area, the first comprehensive update in about three decades. The new blueprint for managing the public lands managed by the BLM Uncompahgre Field Office was released April 10 and could open up 95% of the valley to drilling, critics said.
“The Trump administration dropping this broadly opposed plan now, in the midst of a pandemic, only adds insult to the deep injury many North Fork farms and businesses are already suffering,” said Pete Kolbenschlag, a Paonia resident and consultant to community groups that campaigned for limiting oil and gas development.
Kolbenschlag and other area residents and elected officials have criticized the BLM for approving a plan that wasn’t one of the four widely debated and discussed through the process. Federal law requires public input into the management plans, providing for formal comment periods and protests.
“We worked collaboratively with a broad range of partners, stakeholders and cooperators. Public involvement is vital and throughout this effort, BLM provided multiple opportunities for the public to engage,” BLM spokesman Eric Coulter said in email. “The BLM looked at a range of alternatives, including a sub-alternative developed by a group that proposed restricting oil and gas leasing in the North Fork Valley in Delta County.”
But Kolbenschlag said the selected management scenario was sprung on the community in the final environmental assessment. He said while the plan might contain portions of other proposals that were discussed, the public didn’t get a chance to comment on it like it did the others.
“It’s probably for a court to decide whether the plan is outside the scope of the (previous) alternatives, but it’s certainly outside the scope of good community relations,” Kolbenschlag said.
Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet said the BLM’s efforts to address the potential impacts on air and water quality, wildlife and the growing recreation economy were inadequate. In a statement, Bennet said the counties and area residents “were met with a lack of transparency and eleventh hour changes” from the BLM.
“While this is a disappointing outcome, I will continue to work with the community on a path forward,” Bennet said.
The alternative that the BLM chose is being mischaracterized, said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, an industry organization.
“BLM took input on the draft, adjusted the alternative based on input from the state, counties, stakeholders, and the general public, and then issued a final plan tailored to that input. That’s exactly how the process is supposed to work,” Sgamma said in an email.
Dan Gibbs, executive director of the state Department of Natural Resources, said the BLM did make changes after Gov. Jared Polis and Colorado Parks and Wildlife raised issues. He said the federal agency agreed to give state wildlife managers more opportunities for input. The BLM also gave more consideration to important wildlife habitat, including wintering areas for elk, deer and bighorn sheep.
“And we were able to get a commitment for a future statewide planning effort on concerns about the density of development in big game habitat areas,” Gibbs said.
However, Gibbs said the BLM plan doesn’t include a strategy for dealing with the Gunnison sage grouse, a bird listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. State wildlife officials are concerned about the bird’s plummeting numbers.
And the plan doesn’t address new state laws that are intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and manage oil and development in a way that protects public health and safety and the environment, Gibbs added.
Source: Read Full Article