The Bureau of Land Management has taken a step closer to deciding the fate of energy development in Vermillion Basin.
The BLM announced Tuesday its proposed resource management plan for the Little Snake Field Office would close the 77,000-acre basin, located in western Moffat County, to energy development.
If approved, the plan would continue to restrict oil and gas industry leasing in the basin for the next 20 years, said Dave Blackstun, acting BLM Little Snake Field Office manager. Leasing has not been allowed in the area for the past 15 years, he said.
The resource management plan will be made available in late July for a 30-day protest period, according to a BLM press release.
The plan is a wide-ranging outline of how the BLM’s Little Snake Field Office will manage its 1.3 million acres of public lands and an additional 1.1 million acres of subsurface mineral estate in Moffat, Routt and Rio Blanco counties.
The plan as a whole addresses several management strategies on issues such as energy development, minerals, transportation, travel and wildlife habitats. Special management areas such as lands with special recreation, areas of critical environmental concern, and wild and scenic rivers are also addressed in the plan.
BLM spokesman David Boyd said the resource plan is re-examined about every 20 years or as needed. It can also be amended after approval,
In addition to the 30-day protest period, the plan will also undergo a 60-day governor’s consistency review before the BLM will issue a final decision.
The BLM released a draft of the resource management plan for public review in 2007, which included several alternatives for development of Vermillion Basin, according to the release.
At that time, the preferred alternative plan was to open the entire basin to oil and gas leasing with a “highly restrictive approach to development,” the release said.
Moffat County Commissioner Tom Gray said the preferred alternative plan reached in the previous draft was to allow 1 percent surface disturbance at a time within the basin for oil and gas development.
Gray said the 1-percent plan had consensus among several other cooperating agencies, and said he was “not happy” about the decision to close the basin to energy development.
“This is purely and wholly politically motivated from the top,” he said. “This comes back as, ‘We don’t care what local entities drew consensus on back in ’08 and worked for three years to get.
“This is purely, ‘We don’t want to do it and we’re holding to our environmental extremist (views).’”
Blackstun said the cooperating agencies that participated in development of the resource plan included Moffat County, the Colorado Division of Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Juniper Water Conservancy District and the City of Steamboat Springs.
Vermillion Basin is “prized for its remoteness and wilderness characteristics,” according to the BLM release.
Soren Jespersen, Northwest Colorado wildlands coordinator for The Wilderness Society, said Vermillion Basin is “too wild to drill,” in a press release Tuesday.
“Vermillion Basin’s immense beauty provides outstanding opportunities for solitude, recreation and tranquility, and it is rightly protected from drilling,” he said in the release.
The basin contains less than 5 percent of the technically recoverable natural gas and about 1 percent of the oil within the Little Snake Field Office’s management area, according to The Wilderness Society’s studies.
According to the BLM’s release, more than 1 million acres of land are currently leased for oil and gas development in the Little Snake Field Office’s area of management, but less than 15 percent of those leases have been developed.
“The oil and gas industry has leased more lands throughout the West than they know what to do with,” Jespersen said in the release. “We thank BLM for recognizing that.”
Commissioner Audrey Danner said the decision made her “very disappointed for our community.”
“Obviously oil and gas are a key part of our economy,” Danner said. “I understand the importance of the Vermillion Basin. I have been to the Vermillion Basin. It is a beautiful spot.
“That’s why I thought this carefully crafted, 1-percent drilling in very specific areas would have been appropriate to meet our energy needs and continue our economy here in Moffat County.”
Sasha Nelson, northwest organizer of the Colorado Environmental Coalition, said lands such as Vermillion Basin are “an important part of our history and culture.”
“Protecting them is an important first step towards ensuring that this piece of our natural heritage will be preserved for our children and grandchildren,” Nelson said.
Both Danner and Gray said they were unsure if Moffat County would protest the BLM’s decision on the basin.
Blackstun said a final decision on the plan could be made six to nine months after the protest period closes.
Boyd said the BLM takes protests to its resource management plan “very seriously.”
“They are often very complex legal letters that we are getting,” he said. “So that’s why it takes a long time from when the protest period closes to when we go to the record of decision, because we are looking at those so carefully.”