The Crestone Eagle, May 2008:

BLM Rio Grande NF oil & gas lease sale protested
146,500 acres in SLV up for bid & development

by Ceal Smith

County and Town officials across the San Luis Valley joined ranchers, farmers, water providers, landowners, sportsmen and conservationists in protesting the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) plan to auction off more than 146,500 acres of the Rio Grande National Forest for oil and gas development on May 8.

Both the Saguache and Rio Grande Boards of County Commissioners filed protests signaling their alarm at the amount of local land to be auctioned, which would open two critical watersheds and prime wildlife habitat to exploratory gas and oil drilling and development.

In a separate letter directed to BLM State Director Sally Wisely, the Saguache Board of County Commissioners offered to engage in “collaborative, regional strategic planning consultations with Forest Service/BLM on (alternative) energy development on private and public lands in Saguache County” stating that the “County wishes to take a proactive role in advancing the renewable technologies opportunities for the SLV.”

The Citizens for San Luis Valley Water Protection Coalition and San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council filed two joint protests with Western Resources Advocates and the Western Environmental Law Center. Both protests requested withdrawal of all 86 parcels on the basis that BLM would be in violation of the Federal roadless rule, National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act and the National Cultural Resources Protection Act. They also cited concern that development on these parcels would threaten critical water resources in the SLV.

The Western Environmental Law Center protest challenged the BLM to consider the cumulative effects of drilling on climate change and to adopt climate safeguards as conditions for drilling. Reflecting the region-wide threat posed by climate change and the pervasive drilling boom happening throughout the Rocky Mountain West, this protest is similar to climate-change based protests recently submitted in Montana and New Mexico.

“What is Colorado without clean air, clean water, vibrant forests and deep mountain snow?” asked Chris Canaly of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council. “Climate change threatens everything that makes Colorado special. We need to take action today for the future of our state.”

The lease sale includes three parcels that together comprise 1,875 acres of BLM and private lands on Rito Alto and San Isabel Creeks near Crestone. Two of the three parcels are within 2 miles of the town. The Town of Crestone, Crestone Baca Land Trust and a number of individuals filed protests requesting withdrawal of these 3 parcels from the lease sale.

The close proximity of these parcels to the Town of Crestone would “grossly affect the serenity and beauty of our historic mining town, which is a retreat for spiritual seekers, mountain climbers, and descendents of the original mining families,” according to the protest filed by Crestone’s new mayor Ralph Abrams. Other concerns include impacts on Mill Creek Colorado Natural Area, Rito Alto Creek and Dimick Gulch Potential Conservation Areas and the failure of BLM to consider new information and circumstances including impacts on the Canada lynx and Gunnison’s prairie dog recently listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The sheer magnitude of the 146,000-acre leasing proposal and local communities’ lack of experience with oil and gas operations prompted formal protests from ranchers, water conservancy districts and landowners valley-wide. Two national conservation groups—the Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and Trout Unlimited—objected to the sale, which includes tens of thousands of acres of roadless lands with deer, elk and bighorn sheep range, lynx habitat and Rio Grande cutthroat trout in a region characterized by steep slopes prone to erosion and landslides. The Colorado Division of Wildlife also filed a comment letter signaling its concerns.

“By using 1996 data to justify this lease sale, the Forest Service is violating the law and selling out the citizens of the San Luis Valley to benefit the most profitable industry in the world,” said Greg Gosar, an organic farmer in Monte Vista for 35 years. “The government has a legal obligation to adequately analyze the impact of their plans on the people who live here and justify this to the American public who own these lands, and they’ve failed miserably.”

Once a parcel is leased, the US Forest Service, which manages the forest but not the minerals beneath (these are managed by the BLM), legally cannot prohibit future development; it can only try to minimize the damage. Therefore, the leasing stage is extremely critical as it represents an irretrievable and irreversible commitment of resources.

In addition to those mentioned above, protests were filed by Rocky Mountain Clean Air Action, the National Wildlife Federation, the Colorado Wildlife Federation, Center for Native Ecosystems, the Rio Grande County Oil and Gas Accountability Alliance, San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District, the Rio Grande and Baca Grande property owners associations.

U.S. Rep. John Salazar, who has requested deferrals in the past because of the agency’s noticing practices, has yet to decide if he will request any deferral or withdrawal of the parcels. Eric Wortman, a spokesman for the Congressman, said he expected that Salazar would make a decision within a week or so.