The Crestone Eagle, June 2008:

Forest Service defers 145,000 acres from gas & oil lease sale
3 Crestone parcels still under protest

by Ceal Smith

In March, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced plans to offer 144,249-acres of public lands in the San Luis Valley at its quarterly oil and gas lease sale on May 8. The proposal included 142,373 acres of Rio Grande National Forest lands in Rio Grande and Saguache counties and 1,876 acres of private and BLM lands near the town of Crestone. Until recently, the San Luis Valley has not been a target for the gas and oil industry. The proposed BLM lease sale follows ongoing efforts by the Canadian wildcat company, Lexam Explorations, to exploit the Baca National Wildlife Refuge for gas and oil.

In the weeks following the BLM announcement, ninety-seven formal protests were filed on the lease sale. According to state office employees, BLM has never seen such a dramatic public response to a gas and oil lease sale. Rio Grande and Saguache County Board of Commissioners filed protests, as did the towns of Del Norte and Crestone. Citizens from around the San Luis Valley sent letters that reflected a deeply felt connection to the land and concerns that oil and gas development would permanently alter the quality of life and the environment in the San Luis Valley.

Citizens throughout the Valley were concerned about degradation of water and air quality, wildlands and wildlife and conflicts with the traditional farming, ranching and recreation-based economy. San Luis Valley native and ranchers Greg and Suzanne Gosar spoke for many when they wrote, “we believe that any activities connected with oil and gas extraction in the area will deprive our family of our constitutional right to pursue happiness and to enjoy the use of our private property, which has taken the work of three generations to acquire. These activities could very well endanger our health, our well-being, and our livelihood.”

In response, the Salazar brothers (Senator Ken and Representative John) submitted a letter to State Director Sally Wisely urging the BLM to “grant the requests of Rio Grande and Saguache Counties and the Towns of Del Norte and Crestone to defer all parcels offered in those counties on the May 8th lease sale on grounds particular to their communities.”

Later the same day, the BLM announced in their press release that it would defer offering 144,000 acres of the Rio Grande National Forest at the May 8th sale. According to State Director Wisely, “Based on information we received from the public, local governments and our own internal review, [BLM] will defer offering these Forest Service parcels until additional analysis can be completed.”

Intense efforts were made to convince BLM to defer the three remaining parcels near the town of Crestone. The Saguache Board of County Commissioners sent a follow-up letter to their protest and Commissioner Sam Pace prepared to make an emergency trip to appeal directly to BLM State Director Sally Wisely in Denver. Ms. Wisely refused to grant him a meeting.

Two of the three Crestone parcels (1,556 of 1,876-acres) were purchased by Lamancha Enterprises, LLC. Crestone resident Parvin Johnson is the CEO and President of this company. Private funds and contributions from the community were used to purchase the leases. The remaining 320-acre Rito Alto parcel was purchased by the Denver-based Land Energy, Inc. Before surrendering lease rights, the BLM must first resolve the protests and could still withdraw the lease on these parcels.

Three regional environmental law groups filed protests on the San Luis Valley parcels. Western Resources Advocates filed a protest on behalf of the Center for Native Ecosystems, San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council and Citizens for San Luis Valley Water Protection Coalition on the basis that USFS and BLM would be in violation of the 2001 Roadless Conservation Rule, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act and the National Historic Preservation Act if they lease these lands without conducting additional analysis.

The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) filed a ground-breaking protest based on BLM’s failure to address global warming and climate change. This is the first time climate change has been included in a BLM lease protest in Colorado. The protest was filed on behalf of eight regional environmental groups including Citizens for San Luis Valley Water Protection Coalition and the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council. While the Rito Alto parcel was not included in the WELC protest, the Center for Native Ecosystems included it in an additional protest based on endangered species concerns. All three of these protests have the potential to lead to litigation.

The BLM and U.S. Forest Service are currently undergoing a review to determine what additional analysis is needed to address the concerns of the protests. At a recent meeting in Saguache, Forest Service/BLM Supervisor Dan Dallas agreed that affected counties, towns, organizations and citizens would be consulted in this process. Debbie Lewis, attorney for Western Resources Advocates commented, “we will continue to press the Forest Service and BLM to act on their legal obligations under environmental protection laws including NEPA to update their 1996 Forest Management Plan that analyzed impacts of only 23 oil and gas wells anticipated at that time. The proposed leases open the door for drilling in the San Luis Valley on a much more massive scale. Likewise, the impacts to residents of the Valley threaten to be equally as massive.”