County upset by mineral leasing decision

At a glance

• The Bureau of Land Management Little Snake Field Office in Craig will not issue new mineral leases in Moffat and Routt counties that are on medium- or high-priority sagebrush habitat.

• New leases will not be issued until the agency approves a new Resource Management Plan, scheduled for February 2009.

• Moffat County officials said the BLM's decision will negatively harm the local economy by preventing and discouraging new development.

• BLM officials said the agency cannot issue new leases that may contradict its purpose to balance wildlife and habitat with industry development on federal lands.

The Moffat County Commission sent a letter to the state Bureau of Land Management director this week in an effort to end a practice it considers harmful to the local economy.

The local BLM Little Snake Field Office - which is based in Craig and oversees land in Moffat, Routt and Rio Blanco counties - has made a policy to defer all mineral leases on medium- and high-priority sagebrush habitats until the new office's Resource Management Plan is finalized.

Deferment means that no companies will receive mineral leases on those lands until the Management Plan is approved, which currently is scheduled for February 2010.

County officials said this move will be detrimental to Moffat County.

"Look at the economy," said Jeff Comstock, Natural Resources Department director. "Not only are people not developing now, but when word gets out that the BLM is deferring all its leases, no one's going to come forward to lease here."

The Moffat County Commission signed a letter Monday asking for a renewed discussion with Sally Wisely, BLM Colorado state director, who would have the authority to overturn the deferment intiative.

Wisely could not be reached for comment as of press time.

However, an e-mail from Jeremy Casterson, BLM Little Snake Office planning and environmental coordinator, stated it was Wisely's decision to defer leases. The local office's role was to make a recommendation.

As of now, the Little Snake Office plans to defer every lease in medium- and high-priority sagebrush habitat until the Management Plan is finalized, Casterson said, however long that may take.

The actual decision could be delayed because of protests, he said, and there is a worry that the agency's Washington, D.C., office may not be ready to review the document in a timely manner because of the government's transition to a new administration.

The expected February 2009 signing "is the best-case scenario," Casterson said. "We are not going to pretend that it couldn't get longer than that."

County officials also contend that deferring leases on all medium- and high-priority sagebrush habitat effectively would shut down natural resource development on all federally-owned minerals in Moffat County because those lands are so pervasive here.

Sagebrush habitat classifications were defined by the Colorado Division of Wildlife and adopted by the local BLM during the Management Plan's draft phase, Casterson said.

Medium-priority sagebrush habitat is defined as all critical wildlife habitat areas, such as winter ranges for big game animals and sage-grouse, as well as sage-grouse mating grounds. High-priority habitats are those areas with heavy wildlife population densities, which the DOW said were most critical in maintaining habitat functionality.

Although the BLM does not know the exact acreage of those lands in Moffat County, or what percentage of Moffat County those lands make up, Casterson said they are a "significant" portion of the county.

"Moffat County is a stronghold for sagebrush habitat," he said. "It's not all of Moffat County, but it is a large portion of it, and I can understand why the county is frustrated."

He added that deferring leases until the Management Plan is finalized is the only way the BLM can ensure it does its due diligence to protect local wildlife and local habitats and follow its own internal procedures.

If the agency went ahead and leased that land, it would have to do so under the older Management Plan, which doesn't include protections now being considered for the new plan, Casterson said.

Those include limiting development within six-tenths of a mile from sage-grouse mating ground and limiting all surface disturbance within said sagebrush habitats.

The BLM likewise cannot issue new leases under different stipulations than the current Management Plan just to move development forward.

Comstock and Commissioner Tom Gray countered the BLM is breaking that same stated rule by deferring leases.

If the BLM can't put new stipulations on new leases, Gray said, then it effectively can't deny a lease because it might not meet the new stipulations.

"Deferring a lease is still a decision," Comstock said.

However, the BLM is allowed to make "reasonable and appropriate" deferrals during the draft of a new Management Plan, according to agency policies.

County officials also put forward they have verbal commitments from energy companies that they are willing to sign leases with any and all stipulations that might be in the BLM's new Management Plan.

"This, in itself, we believe negates the need for deferring leases in Moffat County," reads the county's letter to Wisely.

However, the BLM cannot issue leases with stipulations not found in an existing plan, Casterson reiterated.

"Every stipulation that goes on a (mineral) lease must be backed up in the land use plan," he said. "That's why we have to wait until the land-use plan catches up."

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