The western fringes of the White River National Forest hold special memories for Tyler Baskfield, the Colorado sportsman coordinator for Trout Unlimited.
In 1992, after moving from Minnesota to attend college at CU-Boulder, he went on his first-ever elk hunt in the remote Thompson/Divide Creek region southwest of Glenwood Springs.
“It was stunning, being a kid from the Midwest,” Baskfield recalls. “I knew deer hunting, which back home meant walking a few hundred yards into the woods and sitting in a tree until a deer came by. To all of a sudden be in these great mountains and to be so small, what a feeling.”
Today, he’s an advocate for sportsmen of all sorts working specifically for Trout Unlimited on issues of importance to the outdoors and protecting fish habitat.
Baskfield, like other conservationists, praised the recent decision by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to cancel 25 previously issued oil and gas leases in the Thompson Divide due in part to the wild, largely undisturbed nature of the area.
But the final BLM decision, which is subject to a 30-day public comment period concluding Sept. 4, falls short in protecting fish and other wildlife habitat in the equally pristine areas west of the divide in the East Willow, Mamm Peak and Battlement Mesa areas, he said.
“What they did with the Thompson Divide is great, but we see this bigger issue as just as important when it comes to staying consistent with what the Forest Service has said,” Baskfield said.
Baskfield joined a media fly-over of the areas west of the divide Thursday morning sponsored by the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop and EcoFlight pilot Bruce Gordon of Aspen.
The section of the forest straddling the Garfield and Mesa county lines is where the BLM proposes to keep active 40 of the 65 leases that underwent a retroactive review because of deficiencies in the initial permit review process.
Thirteen of those 40 leases would have new stipulations contained in the 2015 amended White River National Forest oil and gas leasing plan related to protecting inventoried roadless areas and limiting surface facilities.
But, in a reversal from the BLM’s earlier proposed action outlined last fall, the remaining 27 leases that are considered to be producing via what’s called “unitization” would continue with very minimal changes from the terms of the 1993 forest leasing plan under which they were issued.
Baskfield agrees with Peter Hart, conservation analyst and attorney for the Wilderness Workshop, that, short of canceling all 65 leases and starting over, those newer protections should apply to any leases that are kept active.
Consistent with the Wilderness Workshop’s call to give protections equal to what would be given any new forest leases is a Wilderness Society study published earlier this year showing the importance of undisturbed habitat connectivity for wildlife, especially as migration patterns change along with a changing climate.
The study identifies western Colorado as having some of the wildest corridors linking already protected areas anywhere in the country but notes that development pressures threaten that quality.
“Our hope is to move from an aspirational vision of connected protected lands to actual conservation priorities that allow animals and plants to find the best natural linkages between national parks and wilderness areas,” Travis Belote, research ecologist with the Wilderness Society and lead author of the study, said in a May news release announcing its findings.
It’s all the more reason to prevent the creation of new roads and other land disturbances from criss-crossing the western Colorado landscape, Hart said.
“All of these undeveloped leases need to be treated consistently across the landscape,” Hart said during the Thursday tour. “When you keep slicing and dicing the land with roads and well pads, you just further isolate these pockets of wildlife habitat. We have to maintain that connectivity.”
Though less known than the Thompson Divide because of the political attention that area has received in recent years, the roughly 46-square-mile East Willow, Mamm and Battlement areas are no less important, he said.
“The majority of the 27 leases have experienced no drilling, but BLM has taken the position that they should be treated differently because the leases have been unitized,” Hart said.
Only five of the leases have actual wells, some of which aren’t producing, he said. But unitization is a mechanism used by the BLM allowing multiple developed and undeveloped leases to be grouped and managed as one.
Baskfield noted that the watersheds in question, including upper East Willow, Middle and West Mamm, and Battlement creeks, also contain native cutthroat trout populations, and the existing roadless qualities make it critical fish habitat.
“From our perspective, it’s not only hunting that’s a big issue for that area, it’s a major Colorado cutthroat population,” Baskfield said. “It’s also a signal species for how healthy the forest is — the riparian areas and water quality.
“We see this as a pre-emptive strike to protect those populations,” he said. “But, without the BLM issuing these stipulations, that habitat is definitely in jeopardy.”
Trout Unlimited and other groups, in their forthcoming comments to the BLM before the final environmental impact statement is recorded this fall, are strongly urging changes pertaining to leases outside of the Thompson Divide.
STRIKING A BALANCE
In announcing the much-anticipated decision on July 29, the BLM said it was seeking to strike a balance in land management between conservation concerns and the rights of energy companies that hold the leases and have been waiting for the agency to clarify its rules before they are developed.
“It respects last year’s decision by the U.S. Forest Service to maintain the character of the White River National Forest while also facilitating oil and gas development,” BLM state Director Ruth Welch said in a prepared statement when the final EIS was released.
The new forest oil and gas leasing plan removed most of the Thompson Divide area from new leasing for the next two decades.
The BLM decided two years ago to do a retroactive review of the 65 previously issued leases because of a failure to adopt the Forest Service’s 1993 environmental review or to do its own review before the leases were issued between 1995 and 2012.
Industry groups, meanwhile, have indicated that, besides issuing their own comments objecting to aspects of the BLM decision, they will likely challenge any lease cancellations or new stipulations in court.
“While additional administrative appeals are important and necessary, we continue viewing the legal and justice system as the best hope for ultimately restoring confidence in the integrity of BLM and their willingness to honor their commitments,” David Ludlam, executive director for the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said at the time the decision was released.
Fueling his group’s opposition and that of some of the individual affected lease holders is a new U.S. Geological Survey study that showed a much higher estimate than previously thought of natural gas within western Colorado’s Piceance Basin. That information should be included in the BLM’s analysis before any final decisions are made, Ludlam and other argue.
Hart counters that energy companies have plenty of federal lands within the Piceance Basin under lease already, and certain areas such as the swath of land where the 65 leases were issued without proper analysis in the first place should be off limits, or at least have reasonable protections.
“When is enough enough?” Hart asked, pointing to the industry’s own estimates that it has tens of thousands of acres under lease already that aren’t being used.
“This is some of the last best country that’s not protected, and we feel that it’s our duty to protect it,” he said.
And, there’s plenty of evidence as witnessed during the fly-over Thursday that natural gas resources are already being accessed from private inholdings within the forest.
“That right there is an indication that the protections we are asking for are not out of line,” Hart said.