Demaree Canyon, a steep-walled sagebrush and piûon-pine expanse in the Bookcliffs area outside Grand Junction, Colo., could become part of the national wilderness system. Or the wilderness study area might be transformed this summer into a series of natural-gas drilling pads.
The small canyon's fate could set a precedent
for how much development can be allowed on Colorado BLM land that
is both beautiful and valuable.
In the late
1970s, the Bureau of Land Management was directed to inventory
suitable wilderness lands by the 1976 Federal Land Policy and
Management Act. The goal was to eventually get Congress to pass a
BLM wilderness bill permanently protecting the most suitable lands.
This has yet to happen.
Until that day,
development is illegal in the 48 wilderness study areas identified
by the agency - at least most development. National Fuels of Grand
Junction held a gas lease in the canyon for six years before FLPMA
became law. Now the company wants to exercise its lease to drill
two gas wells.
BLM officials say they have no
choice but to approve a grandfathered permit to drill wells. But
environmentalists, believing the agency has more flexibility, have
appealed the agency's decision to the Interior Board of Land
The fight over Demaree Canyon is a
microcosm of the battle over Colorado's last roadless BLM lands:
With Congress showing no interest in passing a BLM wilderness bill,
environmentalists have engaged in a tooth-and-nail battle with the
agency to keep development out of these canyons and desert lands.
BLM and Colorado environmentalists have widely
different views on how much land should be designated wilderness.
The Colorado Environmental Coalition and 47 other groups put
together a study in 1994 recommending just over 1 million acres,
including Demaree Canyon. BLM recommended 388,000 acres in a review
conducted in the 1970s and 1980s. The agency did not include
Demaree Canyon or nearby Little Bookcliffs, both of which contain
significant oil and gas reserves and have pre-FLPMA
A total of six of the state's 48
wilderness study areas have pre-FLPMA leases. In the 1980s
environmentalists successfully appealed a decision to drill in one
of those areas in southwestern Colorado, says Norm Mullen, the west
slope representative of the Colorado Environmental Coalition. In
that case, the administrative panel of judges ruled that the BLM
could reject the permit because the company wanted to build a road
across a portion of the wilderness area it did not lease.
In the case of Demaree Canyon, however, the
access issue is not a problem. Still, Debra Asimus, a Sierra Club
Legal Defense Fund attorney representing the coalition, believes
the BLM could have rejected National Fuel's application because the
company has already used a portion of the lease area outside the
wilderness study area to drill a gas well. Opponents say the BLM
gave only cursory review of the legal and environmental
implications of the project.
The BLM itself is
not of one mind on Demaree Canyon. Wade Johnson, a BLM wilderness
specialist, says his agency could justifiably reject the permit
because of the potential damage that building roads in the steep
canyon could inflict.
"I personally don't think
it's a good thing," agrees Dave Trappett, BLM's oil and gas
specialist in Grand Junction. But he says the agency is hamstrung
by the lessee's legal rights. BLM's state director, Don Glaser,
says he studied the Demaree proposal carefully and is convinced BLM
was right in approving it. "I don't think we'll be overturned on
It may take the Interior Board of
Land Appeals more than a year to make a decision on Demaree Canyon.
In the interim, environmentalists say they have no shortage of work
protecting other potential wilderness areas.
November, state director Glaser approved six new leases in other
potential wilderness areas in the state. When environmentalists
pointed out that two were on wilderness study areas, the agency
rescinded them. But the four other leases were allowed to stand
even though they are on lands environmentalists would like to see
included in the state's BLM wilderness bill. Glaser had promised
the Colorado Environmental Coalition that he would not issue leases
in these areas until he studied them more
"Anyone who I have failed as I have in
this case has a right to be disappointed," admits
Mullen says he is still "extremely
disappointed" in Glaser's decision to proceed with the four leases.
"BLM is leasing the last untouched areas we have," he
Mullen says his effort to protect roadless
areas faces two problems. The first, he says is the BLM's
predisposition to lease every acre outside of wilderness study
areas for oil and gas development. The agency has put up for
leasing between 98 percent and 100 percent of its land base in the
state, he says.
The second is the public.
Colorado's canyons aren't as well known or appreciated as its
high-mountain wilderness areas. Mullen believes it will take a
number of years to build support that will move Congress to take
In the meantime, the stock of wilderness
from which Congress will ultimately choose will likely diminish.
"We don't have very much eligible wilderness at
lower elevations," says Asimus of the Legal Defense Fund. "It's
important to really think before we give up the resource."
For more information, contact the BLM office in
Grand Junction at 970/244-3000 or contact the Colorado
Environmental Coalition at 970/243-0002.
Dawn Capewell is a
freelance writer in Grand Junction,