Federal land managers on Friday authorized up to 1,570 new natural gas wells over the next 20 years on a 3,000-foot-high plateau prized for its energy reserves and its wildlife.
The Bureau of Land Management decision covers about 115 square miles of federal land. Some wells have already been drilled on private land.
Drilling on top of the Roan Plateau has been hotly debated because of its abundant wildlife and areas of pristine backcountry.
Critics of the plan, including two congressmen, have called for a moratorium on drilling on the plateau over concerns about damage to the environment and to hunting and other activities.
The decision follows years of review and public hearings about energy development on the plateau, about 180 miles west of Denver.
Friday's decision does not include areas considered to have critical environmental concerns, about 30 percent of the federal land. Federal officials said they were delaying a decision on those areas because they weren't adequately described.
The plan attempts to minimize the impact of development on top of the plateau by organizing development so that no more than 1 percent of its 34,758 acres would be disturbed at any one time.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Association trade group says the plateau could provide enough natural gas for 4 million homes for the next 20 years.
It also generates an estimated $5 million a year for the local economy from hunting, fishing and wildlife watching, according to the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
Democratic Colorado Reps. John Salazar and Mark Udall last month asked Congress to delay funds for the Bureau of Land Management to oversee Roan Plateau development for a year and to prevent new projects in the meantime.
Udall said what the agency calls a compromise "was not fully vetted with the public" and doesn't reflect the strong opposition of many environmentalists, hunters and anglers to drilling.