Rita Donham came to Craig with a warning.
"I guarantee, the land will change when the energy industry moves in," she said during the Colorado Environmental Coalition's "Murky views, acrid air" presentation on Bureau of Land Management practices in Wyoming, held Nov. 19.
Donham advised the crowd of about 25 to become actively involved in the BLM's Resource Management Plan, now being developed by the Little Snake Field Office in Craig. The plan will direct energy development in most of Moffat and Routt counties and some of Rio Blanco County for about the next 15 years.
"The land and the air and the water, it's going to go downhill, and it's going to go downhill as far you're going to let it," Donham said.
Environmental Coalition officials said they think the BLM Little Snake Office will strive to put out a plan that's best for their area and likely a better one than the BLM Pinedale Office created.
However, they want residents to be aware of what can happen.
"What we've tried to do from the beginning is be two steps ahead," said Luke Schafer, Environmental Coalition northwest campaign organizer. "Here, we've had a very unique process. (BLM officials) have loved input with open arms. That is what I think is going to help prevent Craig from becoming another Pinedale."
However, Sublette County, which includes Pinedale, has about 1,100 gas wells at the moment, and the BLM's preferred alternative for the Little Snake area projects about 3,000 wells in Northwest Colorado in 20 years, Schafer said.
Pinedale's experience is enough to be cautious, he added.
Stories on the ground
Donham misses the Pinedale she moved to in the early 1990s, a place that hadn't changed for 30 years.
Once natural gas companies started developing the land, however, it wasn't long before residents couldn't recognize the place they lived, she said.
But the energy industry changed more than Pinedale, Donham added; it also changed the local BLM office.
An area tabbed as protected waterfowl habitat for years prior now was open for development, whereas before it was considered so sensitive that ranchers were allowed only to graze cattle there for one month per year.
"They were going against all previous data to turn it into an industrial zone when it was already a very valuable habitat zone," Donham said.
Pinedale City Councilor David Smith, 40, said the BLM mismanaged the land so badly that Pinedale's air quality is comparable to an urban city.
"I started marathon training recently," he said. "The bottom line is, there are a lot of days I can't jog around the streets of my own town because the air is too dirty."
According to statistics presented by the Environmental Coalition, Sublette County has similar air pollution levels to Grand Junction and Denver.
"You can't see across our valley anymore," Smith said.
He cautioned those present at the meeting to take the information seriously.
"I heard the same speech you're hearing now five years ago," Smith said. "I thought it was nuts; now, I see it happening. I'm as redneck as any of you, but I also want animals to shoot at and clean water to fish in. Don't trust that the BLM is going to do the right thing."
Although most of the land in Moffat County available for development already is leased, the BLM's preferred plan would allow development in Vermillion Basin, on about 260,000 acres previously off limits. However, development would be limited to 1 percent of the surface area.
The management plan will not contain specific requirements for air and water quality, said Jeremy Casterson, BLM Little Snake Office planning and environmental coordinator.
The BLM can make rules only for definite developments; Moffat County is an exploratory area, with no definite forecast for where development will occur.
However, when companies apply for drill permits, Casterson said, the BLM will be able to apply individual project requirements.
The Resource Management Plan is past the point of public comments, but there is an additional air quality analysis available for comment until Jan. 5. The air analysis is available on the Little Snake Field Office Web site, and comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org, or mailed to Attention: Jeremy Casterson, 455 Emerson St., Craig, CO, 81625.
The Little Snake Office plans to release its final management plan in May, at which point there will be a 30-day protest period. A final decision on the plan likely would come in early 2010.
Collin Smith can be reached at 875-1794 or email@example.com