Board works to block wilderness designation

The Moffat County Land Use Board voted Monday night to recommend that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) adopt an expedited policy revision of a land management plan for areas in the Vermillion Basin.

The board's call for a plan change comes on the heels of a recent decision by the Bush Administration that opponents say halts more than 10 years of BLM policy and aims to keep millions of acres of public lands from receiving wilderness distinction.

According to the new directive, the BLM may be required to revise the land use policy of areas such as Vermillion Basin while including all new information.

In 1998, BLM officials charted that almost 80,000 acres in Northwest Colorado's rugged Vermillion Basin represented wilderness characteristics.

However, while drilling for oil and gas is allowed under the current policy, that decision is discretionary and BLM officials haven't yet gone through that process for opening up areas for drilling.

That's one reason why Moffat County officials want to speed up the process -- citing revenues from oil and gas drilling could bulk up revenue of $200,000 to a million dollars of a year benefiting county coffers, said board member T. Wright Dickinson.

"We want to see immediate leasing through the plan and during the revision we want to look at that," he said. "This is the perfect opportunity to embrace oil and gas with the community if we can do it in a timely fashion. No one can say that we haven't looked at all the issues."

Recently, Moffat County officials have embarked on a "ground-truthing" effort to claim lands in areas such as Vermillion Basin for their public-right-of-way, citing Revised Statute 2477, a Civil War-era law that claims a right of way is granted for roads with travel prior to 1976.

These road claims are one example of the new information Moffat County officials want included in a revised management plan for Vermillion Basin.

According to John Husband, BLM's Little Snake field officer, the agency's hands are tied from including the county's recent land claims in a new land management policy with a moratorium placed on the issue from Congress.

And he said an expedited process on a revised policy might face legal action from opponents.

Currently, about 344,000 acres of public land is proposed for wilderness in the county's more than 3 million acres, some of which is inside the Vermillion Basin.

"I think we haven't decided yet how we want to approach a plan revision for the area," he said, adding that a revised plan would cost dollars and require re-assessing all new significant issues.

"I think the big issue is oil, gas and wilderness and it's more than ripe to get this settled," he said. "It's a big deal. It may not be starting over but it will be looking at the whole thing again."

The southern tip of the Green River Basin, which intersects the northwest corner of Moffat County, is thought to contain the largest natural gas concentration in the world, said Dickinson.

The public process to gain approval for drilling on public lands could come with the input of those in the Northwest Stewardship Partnership, made up of citizens' interest groups.

A planned revision management plan for the Vermillion Basin was previously projected for 2007, but that may change with the ruling passed down from Bush administration and recent aggressive energy policies.

"I don't think it will be too long, if not already that we get state energy department knocking on our door, nominating these lands in Vermillion Basin for (oil and gas) leasing," Husband said.

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

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