There are other signs that the BLM may be changing the way it does business. In May, Salazar finalized onshore oil- and gas-leasing reforms to improve protections for land, water and wildlife. He also directed field offices to consider whether the value of wildlife, habitat, recreation and wilderness might be on par with or even more important than mineral extraction in some places, particularly untrammeled areas like Vermillion.
In February 2009, Salazar blocked leases on 77 Bush-era parcels near Utah's Arches and Canyonlands national parks and Nine Mile Canyon, emphasizing the need to protect signature landscapes and cultural resources. It wasn't surprising that he pulled those high-profile parcels, but Vermillion is out of the way and relatively unknown -- although it is one of 14 Western landscapes named in an Interior Department "brainstorming" memo leaked last February as possible candidates for national monument designation.
At a special Moffat County session a week after the announcement, an energy representative offered the commissioners his public condolences. Others spoke harshly about being burned after spending years in public comment meetings. There were exasperated cries of "dirty politics," and someone called for a Fox News expose.
Given the cash at stake, Moffat County's ire is not unexpected. Vermillion's gas, although amounting to only about three days' supply at current U.S. consumption rates, is worth nearly $240 million in local taxes, state and federal bonus payments, royalties and severance taxes.
But there was never a clear community consensus about Vermillion's fate. After spending nearly three years providing input to the BLM, Northwest Colorado Stewardship (NWCOS), a diverse local group of more than 100 agency staffers, cattlemen, conservationists and ORV users, dissolved in 2006; it had failed to reach agreement on a few contentious issues, including Vermillion.
The 1 percent surface disturbance plan was suggested by a small gathering of local government officials, behind closed doors. "Oil and gas floats a lot of the tax base of this community," says rancher T. Wright Dickinson, vice chair of the Colorado BLM's Northwest Resource Advisory Council. He sees the 1 percent plan as orderly and preservation-minded, as does Moffat County Commissioner Tom Mathers, who contends, "The only part of Vermillion that would have been drilled was the (northern) 30 percent anyways."
Over the last year and a half, the Obama administration has made a variety of commitments to protect sensitive landscapes, cut greenhouse gas emissions and develop renewable energy sources. With that, Wilkinson can imagine a "more sensible onshore policy emerging" from the administration, but he adds, "I don't know if they've reached their moment of decision yet." He equates the issue to the problems the Forest Service faced over four decades, trying to improve forest management while keeping the timber cut high. It wasn't until timber harvesting came down that environmental conditions on the ground genuinely improved. "We've got to bring the barrels down, too," Wilkinson says.
But energy extraction is unlikely to slow anytime soon, and Vermillion Basin's protection isn't permanent. Like all BLM resource management plans, the Little Snake plan, once approved, is only valid for the next 20 years or so, and it can be amended, as such plans often are. A 30-day public comment period will begin once it appears in the Federal Register, probably in late July.
Moffat County is already protesting. And the county is not alone: During a mid-July fund-raising visit to neighboring Routt County, Colorado Rep. John Salazar, D-Manassa, the Interior secretary's older brother, said he was convinced that there should be drilling in Vermillion to spur job creation and energy development: "I'm going to write my brother a letter."