Monument drilling rights up for auction

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The Bureau of Land Management will auction 44,460 acres of public land for oil and gas leases near Dinosaur National Monument today.

The move is heralded by many environmental groups as an example of the Bush administration's efforts to eliminate wilderness designations on the Western Slope by making pristine public lands available to the oil and gas industry.

Dinosaur resident Leona Hemmerich questioned why an area so near the national monument was being opened up for oil and gas exploration.

"It makes no sense to me; there are other places than the south side of the monument where they can drill," she said.

Twenty-seven parcels are up for auction on the south side of Dinosaur Monument. In less than a week, the BLM will auction an additional 28 parcels flanking the western end of the monument in Utah. The Utah auction will include a total of 14 parcels located in the BLM's "Wilderness Inventory Areas" and 20 parcels located in Citizens' Proposed Wilderness Areas, a plan formulated by private citizens under the auspices of the BLM.

BLM spokesman Vaughn Whatley said late Wednesday night after impromptu meetings with National Park Service officials that a total of 640 acres had been spared from today's original auction -- a total of 45,100 acres. That includes the removal of two parcels along Harper's Corner Drive, the scenic road that enters the heart of the monument on the Colorado side.

Parcels for auction on the south end of the monument are inside Moffat County borders but managed by the BLM's White River office. Leases for those lands correspond with the area's Resource Management Plan created in 1997, said Vern Rholl, BLM's White River field officer.

Today's auction comes days after Moffat County citizens, environmental groups and BLM officials gathered for a roundtable discussion to compile a "community-based" vision for the future of Moffat County's public lands.

The idea to incorporate community into the public land planning process was proposed by officials from the Department of the Interior.

At the meeting, some group members expressed skepticism that the wide-range of public interests could be represented in Moffat County amid the push by powerful leaders and industry officials to drill for oil and gas.

State BLM Director Ron Wenker attended the meeting Monday night but made no mention of the imminent auction.

Moffat County commissioners toured the Monument with Wenker the next day to talk about the leases.

Wenker was unavailable for comment Wednesday.

Rholl, the BLM's White River supervisory natural resource specialist, said parcels go up for auction in response to oil and gas interest. He estimated 80 percent of the 1.5 million acres in the White River's jurisdiction are covered under oil and gas leases.

The lack of public notice drew the ire of many environmental groups.

"When you look off into the view now (from the Monument) you'll see oil wells," said Bill Wade the coordinator for the Coalition of Concerned National Park Service Retirees.

The group consists of 215 former career professionals of the National Park Service who speak out on issues that compromise the nation's protected areas.

"We see this as a situation that could affect the values of the monument," he said.

Commissioner Les Hampton said he first learned of the auction Tuesday.

He is in support of opening up the area to oil and gas exploration, and it falls under the "multiple use" category of the county's land use board. Hampton is a member of that policy-making committee.

Moffat County would see royalties on any oil and gas operations that resulted from drilling near the monument, but Hampton couldn't say how much that would be.

"I see this as progress," he said.

Fewer people visit the south end of the monument than the more-popular Utah side, Hampton said.

That means fewer visitors would be affected by views of oil wells or the impact of drilling, he said.

A quarry with exposed dinosaur bones attracts visitors to Utah's portion of the monument but visitors to Colorado side of the monument often side seek out Echo Park, the confluence of the Yampa and Green Rivers.

"I don't think the Welcome Center (in the town of Dinosaur) here has ever seen a lot of people," he said. "I've never seen more than about 50 people in Echo Park."

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

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