Vermillion Basin considered for wilderness designation |

Vermillion Basin considered for wilderness designation

Gary Harmon, Grand Junction Sentinel

Moffat County's Vermillion Basin is among sites being considered for wilderness or other designation, according to a document leaked from the Bureau of Land Management. Moffat County Commissioner Tom Gray said he was unaware of Vermillion Basin being under consideration, and was surprised to hear the news.

The Vermillion Basin in Moffat County and the high peaks between Silverton and Lake City are listed as potential areas for wilderness or other designation, according to a document leaked from the Bureau of Land Management.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar asked agencies in his department to consider what areas might be worthy of "special management or congressional designation," the Interior Department reported in a statement.

Salazar "believes new designations and conservation initiatives work best when they build on local efforts to better manage places that are important to nearby communities," the statement reported.

Critics, however, said they fear the Obama administration is preparing to use the Antiquities Act of 1906 as a federal land grab, likening it to President Bill Clinton's designation in 1996 of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Mo­­n­ument in southern Utah.

In addition to the Colorado locations, the list included the 70-mile-by-45-mile San Rafael Swell in eastern Utah and Cedar Mesa in San Juan County, Utah.

News of the leaked memos was the first that state officials had heard of the possibility of federal designations, Department of Natural Resources spokesman Theo Stein said.

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"I expect the governor will be asking the secretary about this on Sunday" when Gov. Bill Ritter and Salazar are to meet in Washington, D.C., at the National Governors Association winter meeting, Stein said.

Ritter staunchly has opposed drilling for natural gas in the Vermillion Basin, battling local officials who have been working on plans to allow drilling.

Moffat County commissioner Tom Gray said he also was unaware the basin was being considered for some kind of federal designation.

"I'm surprised it's being pushed without our knowledge," Gray said. "I shouldn't be, but I am."

Moffat County has worked for several years with cooperating state and federal agencies on its plan that would allow 1 percent of the basin at any one time to be disturbed by drilling, said Jeff Comstock, the county's natural resources director.

The BLM list describes the basin as a "rugged and wild landscape containing sweeping sagebrush basins, ancient, petroglyph-filled canyons and whitewater rivers" that also serves as a critical migration area for elk, mule deer and pronghorn and as habitat for sage grouse. "This unique, high-desert basin is currently under threat of oil and gas development, which will forever alter the region."

The Alpine Triangle could be ripe for federal designation for the "dramatic, high-elevation alpine tundra ecosystem unusual for BLM land," the leaked document said. It also includes about 25,000 acres of patented mining claims that could be used to support backcountry cabins and second-home development "which would threaten the landscape."

The BLM estimates acquiring the 25,000 acres would cost about $37.5 million.

"Careful analysis would be required because some of the claims are known to be contaminated, which would affect BLM's ability to acquire the properties," the memo said.

The experience of establishing the Dominguez-Escalante Wilderness Area in western Colorado should be instructive, Club 20 Executive Director Reeves Brown said.

That wilderness, which was established last year, was a "model of cooperation for permanent land protection," Brown said.

Emery County, Utah, Com­missioner Gary Kofford said local officials already are working with interest groups and others about how to manage the San Rafael Swell. That's in response to a bill to establish the Red Rocks Wilderness Area in Utah, which would include the swell.

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