BLM pulls plug on selling acreage for oil, gas leases

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— The Bureau of Land Management has suspended a controversial decision to auction off more than 45,000 acres of public land for oil and gas leases near Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado and Utah after environmental groups filed protests.

A total of 55 leaseable parcels near the monument, which straddles the northwest corner of Colorado and the northeast tip of Utah, are on hold until BLM officials decide whether the protests are legitimate, said Dwayne Spencer, chief fluid mineral officer of the Colorado BLM.

The BLM should issue its decision within a couple months, Spencer said.

A number of environmental groups including the Natural Resource Defense Council, the Colorado Environmental Coalition and the Coalition of Concerned National Park Service Retirees filed protests in connection with the Colorado parcels. Protests were issued because of the land's close proximity to the monument and the impact that nearby oil and gas drilling may have on the pristine character of area.

Colorado's leased parcels surround the scenic Harper's Corner drive that enters the heart of the monument and Echo Park. Parcels on the monument's Utah side include some areas that the BLM has said contain wilderness characteristics.

"It's in their court now," said Keith Bauerle, an attorney with the environmental watchdog group Earth Justice, which has filed protests on the lease sales in Colorado. "I can't make any predictions. I hope they do the right thing and take a serious look at what they're doing."

U.S. Park Service officials and the BLM came to a compromise over some of the parcels up for lease in mid-February. Some parcels butted up against park headquarters and the park's employee housing -- a fact Park Service officials said they weren't aware of until a couple days before the sale.

"That was something we weren't too pleased with," said Dinosaur National Monument Superintendent Chas Cartwright. "They probably had the feeling that might not be too intrusive, but we might think otherwise."

Temporary agreements between the two agencies will set all lease parcels at least a half-mile back from park headquarters, its housing and the park's main entrance roads. It also calls for no surface occupancy drilling within roughly a quarter mile of some park roads.

Also, BLM is required to keep in closer contact with park officials on notification of its lease sales near or inside monument boundaries. BLM's land public land leases are advertised on its Web site.

Cartwright said the recent situation has made park officials more aware of the situation, though the Park Service isn't opposed to land leasing that falls within the scope of BLM's land management plans.

All of Colorado's 27 parcels are allowed under a 1997 management plan with the BLM's White River Office.

Utah is in the process of creating a management plan for its public lands near the monument.

"In some places we're concerned with noise and visual impacts," Cartwright said.

"Our main concerns are working with them (BLM) to site the wells. We're not opposed to leasing. But certainly the park has a responsibility for figuring out what's going on and being on top of it."

Bauerle said Earth Justice members haven't yet decided what level of action to take if BLM denies the protests.

"We hope we won't have to go to an appeal," he said.

The temporary changes to some of the lease sales negotiated between the two government agencies is little consolation to the group, though it may be a victory for the Park Service, Bauerle said.

"You'll still see the same kind of thing from the overlook, probably hearing (drilling) and seeing the lights at night," he said, providing the leases are ratified.

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

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