Land of division

What to do with Vermillion Basin subject of debate

For nearly three years the Resource Management Plan used by the Bureau of Land Management to regulate the use of federal lands in Northwest Colorado has been receiving input for revision.

Groups have invested hours coming up with four alternatives in a draft of the plan, with the public input period ending May 16.

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When discussing certain areas -- especially the Vermillion Basin -- the differences between interested groups remain as far apart as the uses for the land itself.

The plan

The Little Snake Field Office of the BLM oversees 1.3 million acres of public lands, including a large portion of Northwest Colorado.

The BLM is charged with preserving public lands for future generations, while also required by its guidelines to make federal lands available for mineral extraction with minimal restrictions in place.

BLM field manager John Husband said the Resource Management Plan and the options under consideration try to accommodate all parties involved in the process.

"We're looking at orderly development, while protecting the natural values that are out there," he said.

Vermillion Basin

Of special interest to oil and gas companies and environmentalist alike, is the Vermillion Basin area in northwest Moffat County.

The 77,000-acre basin under the BLM's preferred alternative in the RMP will allow no more than 1 percent of the total acres leased to be disturbed at any one time.

Disturbed areas can be reclaimed to established standards, and no longer counted toward the 1 percent limit.

"Oil and gas companies must be much more careful of what they want to disturb," Husband said. "Bigger (leased) units give them more flexibility in the unit, but once they reach the upper limit, they must reclaim the land before expanding."

Oil and gas development

Former Moffat County Commissioner Marianna Raftopoulos is a representative of eight oil and gas companies in the area.

She said exploration in the Vermillion Basin is very regulated.

"It is very restrictive out in Vermillion. What is in the RMP and the preferred alternative is that the BLM now has acres set aside for oil and gas development," she said. "Two thirds of Vermillion is high and medium in gas potential. With just 1 percent of disturbance (allowed), it's very controlled."

Raftopoulos said Colorado requires companies to have 10,000 acres leased, while adhering to the 1 percent disturbance guidelines set up by the BLM in Vermillion Basin.

Environmental outlook

To Luke Schafer, northwest organizer with the Colorado Environmental Coalition, any intrusion by oil and gas companies into Vermillion Basin is a mistake.

"Vermillion is one of the most fragile landscapes I have ever seen in my life," he said. "The question is, 'Should we go into this window of the past that has been unchanged since mankind began, to search for energy?'"

Schafer said protecting Vermillion Basin won't hurt the local economy, and may even cause a boom by drawing tourists to the area.

"We have the chance to save an island in a sea of natural gas development," he said. "Look at the drilling around Moffat County. There are 20,000 wells planned for Piceance Basin, and we are surrounded by wells to the north in Wyoming and to the west in the Uintah Basin."

Vermillion's future

Vermillion Basin has been discussed for consideration as a wilderness area, an argument that doesn't sit well with Raftopoulos.

"If you close it to oil and gas, you're closing it to all of its uses," she said. "My concern is for ranching, (off highway vehicles) and every other type of usage. And when they say you're not closing it to that use, they're wrong."

Schafer sees no rush in deciding the fate of oil and gas drilling in Vermillion Basin.

""We should at least protect it for this RMP," he said. "In 20 or 30 years if we need it, it will still be there."

Public input is accepted by the BLM until May 16 at the Little Snake Field Office, 455 Emerson St. or online at www.co.blm.gov/lsra/rmp.

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