Education officials issue letter on Vermillion Basin |

Education officials issue letter on Vermillion Basin

Joe Moylan

The Bureau of Land Management's Little Snake Field Office banned oil and natural gas activity in the Vermillion Basin last month. However, the basin contains Colorado School Trust lands, and the Colorado State Board of Education is questioning BLM's authority to deny future mineral development of those lands.

The Colorado State Board of Education issued Nov. 9 a letter to the Bureau of Land Management about Vermillion Basin being closed to mineral development.

Marcia Neal, Republican vice-chairwoman of the education board, penned the letter, which was addressed to BLM Director Robert Abbey in Washington D.C.

In the letter, the school board raises concerns about significant Colorado School Trust lands that are contained within Vermillion Basin, a 77,067-acre tract of land in northwest Moffat County, that were closed to mineral exploration and development by the Little Snake Field Office last month.

BLM announced the oil and natural gas ban in Vermillion as part of a highly debated Record of Decision for the Little Snake Resource Management Plan in Northwest Colorado.

"They closed it to development without even a nod to the fact that there are state school trust lands (in Vermillion Basin)," Neal said. "Those lands are to be managed by the state to produce revenue for Colorado public schools."

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The letter also accuses the BLM of capturing "the equity of the trust" through its decision.

"School trust lands were granted to the State of Colorado by the United States Congress, pursuant to the Colorado Enabling Act of 1875 for the financial support of Colorado's public schools," the letter states. "The State of Colorado is likewise obligated to act as a trustee in managing school trust lands, and the federal government is obligated to take no action that would thwart the purpose for which the trusts were created, i.e. that of supporting schools."

The letter continues by questioning the BLM's motives and asking why the state's fiduciary responsibility to generate revenue for public schools was not considered in the BLM's Record of Decision.

"Mention is made of protecting the sage grouse," the letter states. "Are we to understand that this protection outweighs the protection of funds for our children's schools?"

Local BLM officials said Thursday they had not seen a copy of the letter.

"We haven't heard anything from Bob Abbey's office so we don't really have an official position (on the letter)," said Wendy Reynolds, field manager of the Little Snake Field Office. "(The letter) kind of comes as a surprise to us because the state land board has their opportunity to drill or lease whatever."

Matt Anderson, associate field manager of the Little Snake Field Office, added that the Resource Management Plan says nothing about stripping state or private owners of their surface and mineral rights.

"The RMP has no bearing on state land or state minerals or private land and private minerals, but Vermillion Basin also has been identified as a right of way exclusion area," Anderson said. "We certainly have no effect on what they do with that piece of state land, but access would be the big issue."

Neal said the board is aware of the state's ability to develop minerals if any resources are there, but said the question of access was the motivation for the letter.

"Technically (the BLM) can't take the lands over," Neal said. "They still belong to the school trust lands, but by shutting off access, they may as well have taken the lands over.

"They've taken away the value of it, and we would very much like to see them reconsider their decision."

David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil & Gas Association, said continued access to state land in Vermillion Basin would be a win for Colorado's public schools.

"It's hard to imagine the state land board sending a stronger message to the BLM," Ludlam said. "They're not going to stand for having one of the state's critical school funding revenue streams landlocked by what was very much a political decision from this administration."

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