Vermillion Basin 'too wild to drill?'

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Along with the increased exploration for gas and oil deposits in the Rocky Mountains comes the effort by environmental organizations to save and preserve lands for future generations.

"Too Wild to Drill" is the name given to a recently released report by The Wilderness Society that lists 17 public lands that should not be developed due to their special environmental and recreational value.

Five of the areas are in Colorado and are considered to be at risk for gas and oil exploration drilling because of the proximity of current energy operations.

One of the areas listed in the "Too Wild to Drill" report is in Northwest Colorado.

The Vermillion Basin, in northwest Moffat County, is known for its vistas of red rock and numerous American Indian petroglyphs. The gas exploration and production boom in southern Wyoming is already threatening the basin, according to the report.

"Vermillion Basin is a unique place that should be protected as wilderness," said Reed Morris, public lands protection organizer for the Colorado Environmental Coalition. "It would be incredibly short-sighted to open an area like this to oil and gas development and the associated pipelines, drill pads and roads."

During a national teleconference held by the Wilderness Society on Wednesday, Sloan Shoemaker with the Wilderness Workshop ridiculed the federal government's stand on energy development.

"The national energy policy is like Thelma and Louise, driving pedal to the metal off a cliff," he said.

Oversight of the federal lands that make up Vermillion Basin falls under the control of the Bureau of Land Management. The Resource Management Plan for that area has been under development for more than a year and will determine land use possibly for the next 20 years.

The first draft of the Environmental Impact Statement for the RMP, which will help determine the fate of energy exploration in Vermillion Basin, is scheduled for release in January.

"We are in the process of looking for alternatives in the management of the area," said John Husband, field manager for the bureau's Little Snake Field Office. "Alternatives cover everything from not available for oil and gas leasing, to available for leasing and explortion."

Choices between the extremes include exploration with certain limitations put in place to mitigate development of the area.

An organization known as North West Colorado Steward--ship, has been meeting during the past two years with more than 100 people attending the meetings. The organization brought together people with a broad range of backgrounds to work on the next RMP for the Little Snake region of the BLM.

Environmental groups are concerned about the numbers contained in the "Too Wild to Drill" report, which was released Wednesday.

The report states that during the next 20 years, 23,000 new oil and gas wells will be drilled in Colorado.

Before any public land is leased by the BLM, an impact statement is required.

After release of the EIS draft, a 90-day public comment period will follow to give individuals and organizations a chance to express their opinions.

This period is when Luke Schafer, northwest organizer for the Colorado Wilderness Network, hopes that people will reject energy exploration in the area.

"This area is far too special. It's totally unique regionally," he said. "We've got to hold onto historic lands -- keep it for our kids and grandchildren to see the same landscape as I do."

Schafer hopes that community members will participate in the public comment periods from January to March. The BLM will be scheduling public meetings and advertising them in the newspaper, he said.

Efforts are under way by the Colorado Wilderness Network to designate Vermillion Basin as an Outstanding Natural Area. The designation was established by the BLM to protect unique scenic, scientific, educational and recreational values for the enjoyment of current and future generations.

Also in the works is the Colorado Citizens Wilderness Proposal, a plan to protect 1.6 million acres of Colorado's canyon country.

Other areas in Colorado that are listed in the Wilderness Society report include Clear Fork Divide, Grand Mesa Slopes, HD Mountains Roadless Area and the Roan Plateau.

The Resource Management Plan is scheduled for release in summer 2008.

Dan Olsen can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 207, or dolsen@craigdailypress.com.

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