In fall 2010, the BLM asked state offices to nominate areas for lease planning. The public also gave input. The state offices arrived at substantially different conclusions on what warrants the extra layer of protection. Wyoming BLM, for example, initiated master lease planning for Beaver Rim and five other areas of 21 nominated, even though the only candidate that met all the criteria was Jack Morrow Hills, which the agency passed over because it concluded that the area already had an up-to-date, adequate protection plan. The agency invoked its discretion in part because Wyoming's long history of energy development has left little of its federal land unleased.
Perry says the reform's flexibility also allows officials to consider whether advances in drilling technology could change low-energy-potential sites into high-potential ones. If that happened to Beaver Rim, its master lease plan could come in handy. None of the MLP area's nearly 144,000 acres would be closed to leasing, but all would be more strictly protected. For example, no structures would be allowed on the surface of about 30,000 acres near the rim's edge, which has the most sensitive views, cultural sites, geology, soils and a majority of raptor sites and unique vegetation. Leasing would start outside core sage grouse habitat, and setbacks greater than the standard 500 feet would limit sediment and dust from clouding waterways and wetlands. Additional consultation with tribes would keep oil and gas a quarter mile from sacred sites.
Of course, that's only true if the plan's adopted. It has a good chance, since it's incorporated in the preferred alternative of the four within the Lander office's draft resource management plan, which won an excellence award from The Wilderness Society for its balance between protection and development. A final decision is expected this fall.
In Colorado, officials have interpreted the open-ended MLP criteria in such a way that what seemed to many a likely candidate ended up getting passed over for a freestanding plan last fall -- creating yet more confusion over what should and shouldn't qualify.
North Park is a 35-by-45-mile mountain-hemmed glacial basin in north-central Colorado. The North Platte River, which hosts renowned trout fisheries, begins there. The area also holds plenty of sage grouse, elk, pronghorn antelope and mule deer habitat. Oil companies are beginning to explore the Niobrara Formation, which runs along the basin's eastern edge. Drilling equipment and bright gas flares already contrast starkly with the otherwise unmarred landscape. "I have a hard time finding places that fit the spirit of the regulation (more) than North Park," Copeland says.
But because 52 percent of North Park's federal minerals are leased -- and because much of what's left underlies national forest rather than BLM land -- the agency decided that the area was not "substantially unleased." "What we've seen so far from BLM is a fairly narrow interpretation and application of the MLP criteria," says Ti Hays, a conservation land-use attorney formally with The Wilderness Society's Central Rockies Regional Office in Denver. "MLPs are supposed to address development as well as leasing; the BLM is missing an opportunity to guide development in heavily leased areas through the MLP process." In another twist, a recent request for MLP analysis in central Colorado's South Park was denied in early February because the area has seen little oil and gas activity.
Depending on how its resource management plan turns out, however, it may not matter for North Park. The Colorado BLM says it is conducting an "MLP-like analysis" for the site -- integrating elements of the MLP approach into the larger document. "We have a lot of protections in our alternatives that would produce the same results as a master leasing plan," says Dave Stout, manager of the Kremmling Field Office, which oversees North Park. The state's BLM has also applied this approach to four other areas. Environmental groups say the efforts fall short. They define how many acres will be protected, but not which specific areas will be affected, says National Wildlife Federation public-lands organizer Bill Dvorak, something an MLP would achieve. "They're not MLPs."
Complicating all this is the fact that many BLM offices were already up to their necks in revising their resource management plans, a process that takes years of intense public process. The further along a revision, the harder it is to integrate a complicated new element. And some field offices may lack the necessary resources. "Our staff is stretched pretty thin right now, and this is a tremendous additional workload," said Brent Northrup, Utah's Canyon Country District nonrenewable resources advisor. A single master lease plan under way near Moab, Utah, is expected to cost roughly $1 million with a contractor and take three years. The state BLM office, which approved MLPs for six of the 13 sites nominated, received $750,000 to cover all such efforts in 2011. Colorado and Wyoming received $300,000 each. Montana, which received $150,000, plans to conduct an MLP analysis on one of 11 sites nominated.
That Moab master lease plan -- the largest in progress at more than 783,000 acres -- may ultimately be the best test case, not least because it covers the same area that inspired the reform. It envelops Arches National Park and borders the scenic and popular Green River and Canyonlands National Park to the west. A draft is expected by July 2013. Given the sensitive resources involved, it will likely focus more closely on how oil and gas development will proceed rather than simply on which areas should or shouldn't be leased, Perry says. And since the Utah BLM is not currently bogged down in revising its RMPs, all of its MLPs will be standalones, likely offering a clearer picture of whether the reform can meet the high expectations of both the BLM and environmentalists. The proof "is in the pudding," says Larry Claypool, Wyoming BLM deputy state director of Minerals and Lands.
No matter what happens, though, it appears that the Petroleum Association's Naatz could be right in his assessment that at least one major goal -- avoiding lawsuits -- is still out of reach. Last March, before Utah's master lease planning efforts were announced, a coalition of Utah counties sued the Interior Department over the plans, pegging them as the result of "secret negotiations" conducted as part of the settlement of a different lawsuit.