By Dennis Webb
Saturday, April 25, 2015
Stretching across some eight miles and 27,500 acres west of De Beque, South Shale Ridge attracts the eye with its steep badlands painted in a veritable rainbow of hues.
“Purplish-brown, grayish-yellow, and pinkish-colored layers exposed by erosional forces characterize much of this area,” said a Bureau of Land Management report that found the ridge had wilderness character.
The erosion has left behind rock pinnacles known as “Goblins,” gray and white hoodoos easily accessible to public viewing. The Colorado hookless cactus and DeBeque phacelia, plants both federally listed as threatened species, grow there. The ridge provides critical winter mule deer habitat and is home to an elk calving area, while attracting bald eagles, wild turkeys and other wildlife.
But this place that offers respite for both wildlife and humans also can make tensions and blood pressures rise when it comes to the debate over how the BLM should manage it. South Shale Ridge has become emblematic of a dispute over how the agency handles issues surrounding lands with wilderness characteristics and oil and gas development in its proposed resource management plan, for lands and minerals under the jurisdiction of the Grand Junction Field Office. The Wilderness Society says that when it comes to those issues, the plan compares unfavorably to a proposed oil and gas amendment to the resource management plan of the BLM’s White River Field Office based in Meeker.
Juli Slivka, a planning specialist for the Wilderness Society, said she finds it interesting that the White River plan specifically addresses oil and gas development, unlike the Grand Junction one, “and still they’ve done a better job of protecting wilderness-quality lands.”
It’s not quite that simple, the BLM responds.
“It’s difficult to make apples-to-apples comparisons across resource management areas,” said Steven Hall, a spokesman with the BLM’s Colorado headquarters.
Maybe so, but that hasn’t kept the Wilderness Society from trying to do so, perhaps tempted by the fact that the two plans recently were released just a few weeks apart.
To be clear, there are some things the conservation group likes about both plans — primarily, the agency’s decision to include in each of them a master leasing plan. These are landscape-level oil and gas planning approaches aimed at better mitigating impacts, and are something conservation groups have been urging the agency to make more use of in Colorado since the BLM first made the planning tool available to field offices in 2010. The Wilderness Society and Center for Native Ecosystems first proposed the Shale Ridges and Canyons plan. The Dinosaur Trail plan emerged following concerns about proposed leasing near Dinosaur National Monument.
“It’s really exciting for us,” to see the BLM starting to make use of master leasing plans in Colorado, Slivka said.
“We think it’s a great way for the BLM to balance oil and gas development with protecting other resources.”
But the group’s assessment of the Grand Junction Field Office proposal quickly turns sour from there. It believes the protections the BLM proposes within the Shale Ridges and Canyons Master Leasing Plan come up short in comparison to the Dinosaur Trail MLP proposed by the White River Field Office.
“In many ways it’s a paper tiger. It’s a line on the map,” Soren Jespersen, a regional representative for the Wilderness Society, said of the Shale Ridges and Canyons proposal.
Some of that criticism stems from the group’s disappointment over how the BLM handles the question of lands with wilderness characteristics both within the acreage covered in the Shale Ridges and Canyons plan area, and in the acreage overseen by the Grand Junction Field Office as a whole.
The agency is proposing protecting the wilderness character of 44,000 acres of lands with wilderness characteristics in the Grand Junction plan. The White River Field Office has proposed taking steps to protect more than 130,000 acres of such lands.
The 44,000 acres include three units — Bangs Canyon, Unaweep, and Maverick Canyon — in southern Mesa County. None of the acres is within the confines of the Shale Ridges and Canyons Master Leasing Plan, which takes in a sprawling spread of acreage stretching from the De Beque area to the Utah border, mostly north of the Colorado River. It contains more than 700,000 acres of federally owned minerals and covers more than 900,000 acres overall.
The master leasing plan includes six areas, including South Shale Ridge, that the BLM has identified as lands with wilderness characteristics. But the agency has the discretion to decide whether to make a priority of protecting those characteristics, or managing the lands with an emphasis on other resources.
In its planning documents, it says nine areas that it identified as being lands with wilderness characteristics within the field office as a whole, but decided not to manage for those characteristics, “fall within the portion of the (office) with known potential for natural gas development, and are largely leased for oil and gas development; or provide motorized and mechanized use opportunities.”
Managing them for wilderness characteristics would be compromised by valid existing rights, and/or motorized and mechanized uses, “and these areas would be managed for other resources and resource uses” under its proposed resource management plan.
More than 450,000 acres in the Shale Ridges and Canyons Master Leasing Plan already are leased. South Shale Ridge is among the leased areas. More than 80 percent of the 100,000 acres-plus covered altogether by lands with wilderness characteristics in the Master Leasing Plan are leased.
The Dinosaur Trail plan is a different story. More than two-thirds of the area covered by the Dinosaur Trail plan is not yet leased. That plan covers about 423,000 acres, including about 358,000 acres of federal minerals.
The Wilderness Society praises the BLM’s proposal to take measures to protect the wilderness characteristics of several areas both within the Dinosaur Trail plan area and elsewhere within the field office. Flying this week with a reporter and photographer in a plane piloted by Bruce Gordon, executive director of Aspen-based EcoFlight, Jespersen pointed to the contrast between a landscape south of Rangely heavily dotted by well pads, and the pristine-looking Big Ridge area just east of it, and east of Colorado Highway 139. Thanks to a mix of no-surface-occupancy and controlled-surface-use restrictions the BLM proposes applying in the Big Ridge area, Jespersen hopes Big Ridge can retain much of its natural character.
Altogether, the White River Field Office proposes protecting wilderness characteristics as the top priority on about 70,000 acres of lands with wilderness characteristics, and managing nearly 70,000 more in a way in which other uses are emphasized but measures are taken to reduce impacts to wilderness characteristics.
The BLM contends that significant protections would be provided in other ways to a lot of acreage not being specifically managed to protect wilderness characteristics under the Grand Junction plan. The agency is proposing managing 123,400 acres in the new Grand Junction management plan, including South Shale Ridge, as areas of critical environmental concern, and nearly 150,000 acres as wildlife emphasis areas.
The agency says that of the 127,200 acres of lands with wilderness characteristics it won’t be managing for those characteristics, no-surface-occupancy restrictions would apply to 93,000 acres.
In its proposed master leasing plan area, the Grand Junction Field Office proposes no-surface-occupancy stipulations for new leases in recreation management areas that cover lands including much of the lowland desert within the area. The goal is to reduce conflicts between oil and gas development and recreationists.
David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, previously has said his industry will be evaluating how things like surface restrictions and special land designations would add to companies’ costs and ability to remain competitive, and affect their ability to access resources.