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Western communities grapple with drilling

Many rural areas in the West are weighing how to deal with Bush administration auctions for drilling rights on federal lands.
A warning sign stands on land near the edge of the Thompson Creek Roadless Area outside Carbondale, Colo. Nearby Bureau of Land Management parcels could be auctioned off for drilling, a move objected to by some local officials and residents.David Zalubowski / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The sage-covered hills near Mount Sopris are home to deer, elk, bears and cattle — and soon could be in the hands of an energy company.

The Bureau of Land Management auctioned 70 parcels for oil and gas leasing last week, including national forest in western Colorado that is used by ranchers, cross-country skiers, hikers and hunters.

The lease sale covering nearly 72,000 acres generated $6.6 million for the government. But it has also led to clashes between conservation groups and companies trying to tap the region’s abundant resources as the Bush administration places increased emphasis on domestic fuel production.

Fights over the BLM’s quarterly auctions are heating up throughout the Rockies. The BLM already has approved a plan for hundreds of gas wells in southwest Wyoming’s Red Desert, which environmentalists want to protect for its scenic rock formations and major wildlife corridors.

In Utah, energy companies asked for a record 398,000 acres of BLM land for development. The BLM agreed to offer 281,530 acres next month.

Industry, activists weigh in
Industry officials accuse environmental groups of trying to seal off resources the nation desperately needs.

“There’s an organized, systematic effort to lock off areas of the West to gas development,” said Greg Schnacke, executive vice president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association trade group.

Wilderness advocates, however, say companies are seeking more public land even though thousands of acres already under lease remain undeveloped.

The Wilderness Society, using 2002 BLM statistics, said 68 percent of the 34.5 million acres leased in the region weren’t producing anything. The region covers Montana, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

“I don’t think it’s worth ruining the last, best places in order to squeeze the last few drops of gas out of the ground,” said Sloan Shoemaker, director of the Wilderness Workshop in Aspen.

Krista Mutch, spokeswoman for Western Gas Resources Inc. in Denver, said the lag between leasing and drilling is due to required environmental reviews.

“It’s not fair to say industry is ill-using its access to public lands. We’re actively pursuing production,” Mutch said.

Approval of leases doesn’t mean drilling rigs will be hauled in immediately. Protests were filed on all but 13 of the leases sold in Colorado this week, triggering automatic reviews that puts work on hold.

The BLM also dropped four sites from consideration to take into account environmental and other concerns.

Wilderness advocates fear companies will keep snapping up leases while the Bush administration is in power. The Rockies, with their vast reserves of natural gas and sweeping tracts of public land, are considered key.

“I support natural gas drilling. I just don’t think it should be in 100 percent of BLM land,” said Rep. Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat who has tried for years to have 1.6 million acres in Colorado declared as wilderness.

Where is it appropriate?
BLM officials say management plans have determined the areas up for lease are suitable for oil and gas development. They also say production can occur in an environmentally responsible way.

“Many of the parcels also come with strict stipulations to protect other resources,” said Ron Wenker, Colorado BLM director.

DeGette and others, however, don’t believe development is appropriate everywhere.

“We have areas where things are so special about them, whether it’s scenic or wildlife or access to public lands — they’re roadless and haven’t been impacted yet,” said Dorothea Farris, a commissioner in Pitkin County, home to Aspen.

The county has joined environmentalists, ranchers and area residents in protesting leases on national forest near Mount Sopris. Four of the leases are near a 4,800-acre conservation easement the county acquired for $4.5 million. The land is popular with recreationists, and ranchers still use it for cattle grazing.

Mark Nieslanik, a third-generation rancher near Carbondale, said he doesn’t oppose oil and gas drilling but worries increased traffic and other disturbances will cut down on the range for cattle.

“We want to stay in agriculture here in the valley. It seems to be harder to do that,” Nieslanik said.