Changes to wilderness process could affect Vermillion Basin

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A recent decision by the Bush Administration aims to change the way public lands become wilderness areas -- a move that may alter future land management for areas such as the rugged Vermillion Basin.

The ruling handed down Oct. 30 halts more than 10 years of BLM policy that opponents say may now keep millions of acres of qualifying public lands from receiving wilderness distinction.

The action stems from a settlement between former Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt and Interior Secretary Gale Norton in April 2003.

Because the directives are so new, land use officials are caught with how to move forward.

According to Moffat County's Natural Resources director, the decision may help "keep public land open instead of locking them up."

"It's a step in the right direction, but there are still issues that need to be worked out," Jeff Comstock said.

It's no secret that Moffat County officials have long butted heads with the BLM and environmental groups over the future of land management in Vermillion Basin, an area located in the far reaches of Northwest Colorado.

Around 1998, BLM officials charted that almost 80,000 acres of the Vermillion Basin contained wilderness characteristics. In 2001, the BLM wanted to take those findings one step further. The group posed a Notice of Intent on the Federal Register to Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, the first step in a two-year public process to re-evaluate the area for a change in land management that would continue prohibiting oil and gas exploration in some areas.

But Moffat County officials objected saying the BLM didn't have the authority to initiate the process. Now the federal government agrees.

Today, almost 12,000 acres in parts of Vermillion Basin, near Irish Canyon, are somewhat protected from gas and oil development because of its cultural significance and rare plants and animals that live there. An ancient Native American medicine wheel and numerous Indian drawings line the canyon walls of Vermillion creek.

There are seven areas in Moffat County labeled as Wilderness Study Areas, which aren't subject to land management changes under the new directives.

Currently, about 344,000 acres of public land is proposed for wilderness in the county's more than 3 million acres, Comstock said.

However, wilderness areas are designated solely by federal review.

But Vermillion Basin isn't on that list -- a prospect that makes Jennifer Seidenberg nervous.

"What this means is it will be a lot harder to track what's going on with oil and gas development," said Seidenberg, a representative with the Colorado Wilderness Network in Steamboat Springs. "This needs public attention because if nobody talks about it we could wake up next year and have several Vermillion properties on the list for drilling."

Drilling leases come up for sale every four months and the new policy may make it easier for companies to expedite the process, she said.

A record number of wells already have been tapped in Colorado this year with 24,655 active wells in the state by the end of August. That's nearly 1,000 wells more wells than all of last year.

Philosophical differences with public and land use officials over whether areas such as Vermillion Basin have wilderness qualities will continue to be a hot topic, said John Husband, BLM's Little Snake Field officer.

"The north half of Vermillion Basin is thought to be highly prospective for oil and gas," he said.

Yet the current Resource Management Plan for the Vermillion Basin area falls under a multiple use category and states that leasing land for drilling is allowed, he said.

However, that process is discretionary and BLM officials haven't yet gone through the method yet of opening up land for drilling in Vermillion Basin, Husband added.

Under the new process, the BLM needs to provide new information about an area's wilderness qualities and concerns when formulating a land use plan.

That plan should involve land use claims under Revised Statue 2477, Comstock said.

The Civil War-era law claims that a right-of-way is granted for roads with travel prior to 1976. Under scrutiny is whether Moffat County's road claims would be later be used as leverage for oil and gas development.

But the recent reversal of Citizen's Wilderness Policy is one tool of the Bush Administration to keep BLM and the public from considering wilderness areas and rescinds Colorado's "look before you leap" approach to approving gas and oil development, said environmental groups.

"The rescission of the Colorado Policy puts at serious risk areas such as Vermillion Basin," states a memo from several Colorado environmental groups. "It makes it difficult for the BLM to fully consider citizens' inventory information before allowing development."

Amy Hatten can be reached at 824-7031 or ahatten@craigdailypress.com.

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