DAILY SENTINEL 11-18-16 BLM to limit drilling on Roan Plateau

Nov 18, 2016

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Michael Brune, executive director of the national Sierra Club, surveys the Roan Plateau during a 2013 flight. The Sierra Club was a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging oil and gas leasing on the plateau. The Bureau of Land Management has released a draft environmental impact statement with a preferred alternative in keeping with a settlement to that lawsuit.

The Bureau of Land Management has released a draft amendment to its Roan Plateau management plan with a preferred alternative incorporating the terms of a settlement that canceled 17 oil and gas leases there.

The alternative is one of four analyzed by the agency in its draft resource management plan amendment and supplemental environmental impact statement for the planning area west of Rifle, which includes more than 73,000 acres of federal land.

Other alternatives include a so-called “Community Alternative” that would incorporate more stringent environmental protections. That alternative “also considers options for managing conflicts between recreational target shooting and other recreational activities below the rim in the Hubbard Mesa area” at the base of the plateau, the BLM said in a news release.

The BLM and energy companies a year ago reached a widely hailed settlement in a lawsuit brought by conservation groups. Under the deal, the agency later canceled 17 of 19 leases issued on the plateau top in a 2008 lease sale. The 17 leases were co-owned by Bill Barrett Corp. and Vantage Energy.

Twelve leases along the plateau base that were sold in 2008 to other companies remained in place under the settlement. Under the deal, the BLM agreed to consider the settlement as an alternative in the revised management plan it had begun preparing to remedy oversights identified by a federal judge in a 2012 ruling.

The new planning effort responds to the issues raised in that ruling and through subsequent comments from the public, local governments and others including BLM staff. These issues include greater sage-grouse management, eligibility of waterways for Wild and Scenic River designation, and management of lands with wilderness characteristics.

“For many years the Roan Plateau was a symbol of conflict in the American West,” BLM Director Neil Kornze said in a prepared statement. “We are fortunate that a visionary group of local, state and industry leaders, as well as sportsmen and conservationists, came together to create a new path for the future of the Roan Plateau. This draft document moves that vision forward and protects some of the state’s most important fish and wildlife habitat while also allowing for oil and gas development in places where it makes sense.”

The Roan Plateau is considered one of the state’s most ecologically diverse landscapes, a place of cliffs, waterfalls and box canyons, rare populations of genetically pure Colorado River cutthroat trout, and important big-game habitat.

The BLM’s preferred draft alternative would close to leasing, for the life of the management plan, the area covered by the 17 canceled leases. Under the settlement terms, the plaintiffs can sue again if the BLM chooses under the revised plan not to close the acreage covered by the canceled leases and abide by other settlement terms.

Analysis of the “Community Alternative” was required by the court decision. The alternative would require the gas on the plateau top to be accessed from private land or areas below the plateau through directional drilling.

Sportsmen’s groups including Trout Unlimited and the National Wildlife Federation said in a news release that they are reviewing the draft document but welcome the BLM’s designation of the settlement as its preferred option for balancing energy development with conservation.

“This keeps us moving toward a balanced, fair solution to protecting the Roan Plateau,” said David Nickum, executive director of Colorado Trout Unlimited. “We’re hopeful that the final management plan will preserve last year’s settlement, which protects the Roan’s best hunting and fishing habitat while allowing careful, responsible development of its energy reserves. Done right, we can meet both goals.”

Trout Unlimited and the National Wildlife Federation were among the plaintiffs in the lawsuit over the Roan. TU’s Grand Valley Anglers chapter, based in Grand Junction, has invested thousands of dollars and hundreds of volunteer hours into fish habitat and stream restoration projects on the Roan.

Michael Freeman, an attorney with Earthjustice who represented the plaintiffs in the suit, said in a release, “The Roan Plateau is home to some of Colorado’s remaining pristine wildlands, rare plants and abundant wildlife. This draft plan builds on last year’s settlement agreement and is a big step toward lasting protection for the Roan.”

The settlement also required the BLM to conserve important big game habitat at the base of the plateau.

“The base of the Roan includes important winter range for the region’s mule deer herd — we remain concerned about the impact of oil and gas development on these areas,” said Kate Zimmerman, public lands policy director for the National Wildlife Federation. “NWF welcomes the release of the (draft EIS) and hopes the final outcome is better conservation of these vital big game habitats and the migration corridors connecting these habitats with wildlands on the top of the plateau.”

The BLM had to repay about $47.6 million that was paid to acquire and make annual rental payments on the canceled leases. The state of Colorado had received about half of those lease revenues and had to repay it to the federal government. Under a bill passed by the state legislature earlier this year, Colorado’s portion of the refund came out of its general fund, so as not to harm local governments with which the state had shared its portion of the original lease sale proceeds.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., said in a prepared statement, “The release of this draft is another step toward implementing the historic Roan Plateau settlement. After more than a decade-long impasse, the local communities, leaseholders, sportsmen, conservationists, and the state of Colorado came together to craft an agreement that worked for all sides. We urge BLM to keep the promise of this settlement for all parties. This is another example of Coloradans coming together to find common ground and craft collaborative common sense solutions to balance natural resource conservation and development.”

The BLM plans to later announce the dates for two open houses on the draft study. They’re tentatively planned for January.

It also plans to hold a meeting specific to recreation uses on Hubbard Mesa, also most likely in January.

The Community Alternative includes a proposal to prohibit shooting on 610 acres there. The preferred alternative would make no changes to recreation on the mesa, but the BLM is seeking further input on the matter.

The BLM will be accepting public comments on its draft Roan Plateau plan through Feb. 18. They may be submitted at http://www.blm.gov/co/st/en/BLM_Programs/land_use_planning/rmp/roan_plateau.html, emailed to roanplateau@blm.gov, faxed to 970-876-9090 or mailed to BLM Colorado River Valley Field Office, Attn: Roan Plateau SEIS, 2300 River Frontage Road, Silt, CO 81652.

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