12.19.12

You Could Find Yourself…

… in the midst of revising a Resource Management Plan and contending with the sale of oil and gas leases.

This is the situation in Colorado for Friends Grassroots Network member NFRIA-WSERC Conservation Center (The Conservation Center). [update note: since this post was written, the group has changed it’s name to Western Slope Conservation Center] Last year, the group helped organize people in the region to provide more than 3,000 comments on a first draft of a Resource Management Plan (RMP). This is the legal planning document that will say how the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will make decisions and manage public lands in their area for multiple uses.

The Conservation Center has built a local coalition to work with the BLM Uncompahgre Field Office to craft something better with the next revision: a “community alternative” to the plan that will protect economic livelihoods, the valley’s rich habitat and scenic beauty, a quality of life that has drawn so many people to the region in the first place, and protect balanced mining and oil and gas development.

“We’ve got an advisory board put together that wants to be pro-active and engaged in the BLM’s planning process for how they will manage the public lands around us. We have farmers, representatives from wineries, a real estate company, ranchers, our board members, the Delta County Conservation District and others working together,” said the Center’s Executive Director Sarah Sauter. The stage was set for a productive and no doubt feisty public debate over how to best revise the RMP for the North Fork Valley—an RMP that hasn’t been updated since 1989.

Then, just a few weeks ago, the BLM announced they are going to hold a sale of oil and gas development leases – 20 parcels covering 20,555 acres of land in the North Fork Valley to be auctioned on Valentine’s Day, 2013. This lease sale is a continuation of one announced to the public nearly one year ago, and one that BLM employees chose to postpone due to public opposition. BLM employees removed a few parcels from the new sale — for example, one that was next to Hotchkiss High School and Crawford Elementary and a parcel closest to the town of Paonia’s water supply—but the bulk of the sale is back on.

The Conservation Center has responded swiftly to the announcement by asking their members and partners to make one public request of the BLM: postpone the sale of these leases until the BLM and local stakeholders revise the RMP. (You can take action here)

Why is this so important? It’s important because the current RMP is 23 years old. It’s a plan that influences everything from building river put-ins to allowing companies to extract oil and gas by fracking, to improving hunting in the nearby Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area to building new roads for motorized vehicles. It was written before companies and elected officials had to contend with the complexities of fracking technology—a technology that is dangerous to local water quality and supply. Before the Valley saw a rise in population, organic farming and wineries. Before Delta County accounted for, as Peter Heller wrote in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, 77 percent of all the Colorado acreage for apples and became “home to the largest concentration of organic farms in Colorado.” Before the changing weather patterns caused by climate change began to affect all of us. In short, the existing Resource Management Plan that is guiding local BLM employees as they make decisions about what lands to lease for oil and gas is old and out-of-date.

This is a monumental issue for residents and landowners, and for public lands in the region, including those in the BLM’s National Conservation Lands.

Four of these lease sites are less than a half-mile from the small town of Paonia. Eight are close to—and therefore could potentially pollute—irrigation ditches used to water orchards, farms and livestock. Lease parcel #6607 is near a drinking water spring, and multiple sites are near drinking water wells. One parcel lies next to the boundary of the Dominguez-Escalante National Monument, part of the country’s newest collection of protected public lands and a real gem in Colorado. The negative impacts to both the human and natural environment once these lease sites are developed, such as habitat fragmentation, air and water pollution, and loss of scenic beauty, will be broad ranging and largely permanent.

The BLM recently adopted and published a forward-thinking document titled “The National Landscape Conservation System 15-Year Strategy, 2010-2015.” It states a mission for the National Conservation Lands, places such as Dominguez-Escalante, and offers a vision for the BLM “to be a world leader in conservation by protecting landscapes, applying evolving knowledge, and bringing people together to share stewardship of the land. The management strategy has four themes and outlined goals. Theme 2, which is “Collaboratively Managing the NLCS as Part of the Larger Landscape,” and it goals particularly resonate in this situation.

Goal 2A in this theme is to “Emphasize an ecosystem approach to manage the NLCS in the context of the surrounding landscape,” and to “Use large-scale assessments, such as BLM’s Rapid Ecoregional Assessments (REAs), to identify areas where NLCS units are important for resource protection and conservation within a broader landscape context; such as providing for large-scale wildlife corridors and water dependent resources.”

If this is one purpose of the National Conservation Lands—to exist because they are “important for resource protection and conservation within a broader landscape context”—does it not follow that Resource Management Plans for a surrounding region should strive to uphold this purpose?

Revising this RMP for the North Fork Valley region of Colorado will be a long and loudly debated process, and that is exactly what needs to happen. The community’s request to postpone the sale of these leases until impacts to the larger landscape have been evaluated and a new RMP has been written is reasonable and smart. Developing oil and natural gas is a legitimate way to use some public land in the West. Oil and gas development is not a legitimate way to use public lands when the agency responsible for these lands has not, since 1989, comprehensively evaluated, planned nor incorporated public input on how to manage them for the benefit of all.

Learn more about the lease sale, see maps and take a Google earth tour of the area, and find out how to support the Conservation Center and other local efforts here.  To stay apprised of the issue, you can sign up to receive e-alerts from the Conservation Center.