by Jennie Lay
For three northwestern Colorado county commissioners, June 29 seemed like just another routine meeting with the feds. The Bureau of Land Management wanted to chat with the Moffat County officials about a management plan revision that has dragged on for nearly a decade. The draft version had proposed oil and gas development throughout the county's high desert landscape, and the commissioners and many locals assumed that the final plan would follow suit, providing Moffat County with a much-needed source of revenue and jobs.
But the BLM staffers had shocking news: A big slice of the county's public land would be closed to oil and gas development. The 77,000-acre Vermillion Basin, an expanse of crimson bluffs, fossil beds and spectacular petroglyphs hidden in meandering red-clay canyons, would remain wild and undeveloped. The basin, two hours northwest of Craig, contains stands of pinon and juniper, towering big basin sage and saltbush. It's home to sage grouse, golden eagles and peregrine falcons -- and an estimated 200 billion cubic feet of natural gas.
Before the commissioners could react, their phones started ringing off the hook -- the press with questions, energy lobbyists in commiseration. Nobody in northwest Colorado had seen it coming. Not the commissioners, not the industry, not even the conservation groups. Certainly not Wes McStay, a mild-mannered rancher who runs cattle northwest of Craig.
"It's a good decision," says McStay, who joined the BLM's planning process in 2002 in response to what he called the county commissioners' "go-go drill-everything mentality." Vermillion, he explains, "is so rugged and remote with the canyons and the petroglyphs. It just gets you. It gets your spirit."
The agency made its surprise announcement almost a month before the final plan for the entire Little Snake resource area will appear in the Federal Register. The draft version went into state and federal review under the Bush administration, while the final plan is emerging under Obama. And perhaps nothing is more indicative of these two administrations' differing energy policies than the fate of Vermillion.
The 2007 draft of the Little Snake resource management plan contained a "preferred alternative" that would have kept the vast majority of its 2.4 million acres of federal mineral estate open for energy development. Roughly 1 million acres in the Little Snake field office have already been leased, although less than 15 percent of those lands have been drilled so far. The draft plan considered the "no drill" option for Vermillion Basin, but its preferred alternative offered a compromise modeled after the hotly contested Roan Plateau to the south: 1 percent surface occupancy, meaning that each 770 acres disturbed by drilling would have to be fully reclaimed before the next 770 acres could be developed.
Although the final proposal prohibits leasing in Vermillion, most of the resource area's lands and minerals will remain open to energy development. The final plan will also include new sage grouse habitat protections, says BLM spokesman David Boyd, and provisions for non-producing oil and gas leases to expire after 10 years. Vermillion Basin has been so controversial, Boyd says, that his field office wanted to get the word out early and make its intent clear. There's "no big shell game going on," he says; it was a matter of following policies that are set in Washington, D.C., and trying to protect large unleased blocks of land. "It just made sense."
Vermillion's protection isn't yet a West-wide trend, but Charles Wilkinson, a University of Colorado public-lands law professor, says he's encouraged. Wilkinson notes Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's recent criticism of the Bush administration's energy policy, which Salazar described as making public lands a "candy shop" for the industry. "I do think the BLM's decision to close the basin to oil and gas drilling represents a general shift towards a more balanced approach to public lands management under this administration," University of Colorado law professor Sarah Krakoff agreed in an e-mail.
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."