BIG RIDGE, COLORADO — Not far from the northwest Colorado oil and gas outpost of Rangely, benches of shattered sandstone rise to a seven-mile-long, piñon-and juniper-mottled landmark called Big Ridge. A herd of wild horses ranges across the land here, and the draws that run down from the 7,500-foot-high ridge shelter Fremont Indian pictographs, petroglyphs and archaeological sites that date from around 600 to 1300 A.D. On a bitterly cold December day, the flat winter haze has given way to a deep cerulean blue. Time seems to be marked only by the lazy pass of an eagle overhead.
In its own modest way, Big Ridge stands where two worlds collide. It is one small chunk of the Piceance Basin, a gigantic oil and gas field that has lured energy companies for decades. But it is also still a relatively untouched island, and conservationists have tried to protect it as wilderness.
In 1997, Amoco drilled a well here, but came up dry. The company plugged the well and moved on, leaving behind a half-mile of road and a barren well pad. At about the same time, the Colorado Environmental Coalition (which would later team with several other groups to form the Colorado Wilderness Network) discovered that Big Ridge still qualified as wilderness, as defined in the 1964 Wilderness Act: "an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence … with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable."
In July 2001, the Wilderness Network nominated the area to the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for protection as wilderness. That nomination was a gamble: Just eight months earlier, another oil-and-gas company had leased several parcels of the area. And oil and gas leases generally trump a wilderness designation, even if they haven’t been developed yet.
"Even though the area was leased, the larger landscape was getting hammered," says CEC’s Kurt Kunkle, who helped identify the area as potential wilderness. "Protecting a little part of that seemed important, so we were willing to take the risks."
At first, the gamble seemed to pay off. Under a Clinton-era directive, the BLM agreed to include Big Ridge in its roster of places that might be eligible for wilderness protection, and to take a "second look" at any proposal — such as oil and gas drilling — that might disqualify it from protection. As a result, in 2002, when El Paso Corporation applied to the BLM for permission to drill an exploratory well on its lease in the proposed wilderness, the BLM thought twice about allowing it. The agency gave El Paso permission, but only after it determined that the well would affect just .01 percent of the proposed wilderness. The company promptly drilled another "duster," a dry hole.
It looked, for a moment, as if Big Ridge might escape with only a few scars. Then, last April, wilderness activists across the nation were rocked to their core. Interior Secretary Gale Norton and then-Utah Governor Mike Leavitt settled a wilderness lawsuit that blew the doors wide open for drilling in Big Ridge and many of the hundreds of other areas in the West proposed for wilderness protection (HCN, 4/28/03: Wilderness takes a massive hit).
Just over a month later, El Paso applied for — and quickly won — permits to drill five more wells in the proposed Big Ridge wilderness. Last November, the company tried a second well about 200 feet from Amoco’s dry hole. That, too, proved dry. Late in the month, El Paso plugged the well and abandoned it; the company has momentarily pulled out and is deciding whether to drill the other four wells.
A few days after El Paso moved out, I arrive with Jennifer Seidenberg and Reed Morris from the Colorado Environmental Coalition. We park our cars at the bottom of the hill and hike the half-mile up to the abandoned drill pad. The sign from the earlier Amoco lease has been knocked to the ground, and silence reigns over the site. In the middle of the 1.3-acre pad bulldozed out of the side of a ridge, the well — a capped pipe — sticks out of what looks like a bomb crater of oozing muck.
On the edge of the pad, a rented trailer sits empty, its TV satellite dish pointed at the sky. The door is unlocked. Inside, mud is caked on the thin carpet, and the just-departed drillers have left a note on the counter: "Sorry to leave a mess."
The making — and the undoing — of the citizens’ wilderness movement
Welcome to the world of citizen-led wilderness protection. Behind the big official wilderness areas — celebrated places like the John Muir Wilderness in California and the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho — a gritty, on-the-ground fight is on to protect the West’s last remaining wild places. These are areas that citizens’ groups believe should be protected from harm until Congress can decide whether to formally recognize them as wilderness areas.
Many of the proposals have been around for years. But they may not survive much longer, because the Bush administration has made energy development the first priority on public lands. Big Ridge is an emblem of what could happen to the several hundred proposed wilderness areas throughout the West. This fall, the BLM began offering a new wave of oil and gas leases that could set the stage for intensive development on lands that, only eight months ago, the agency considered candidates for wilderness.
Understanding the recent controversy requires going back to 1964, when Congress passed the Wilderness Act, laying the foundation for subsequent bills that protected over 400 wilderness areas on the national forests. In 1976, Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), which expanded the Wilderness Act to cover lands run by the Bureau of Land Management. It gave the BLM 15 years — until 1991 — to recommend wilderness areas to Congress. As a result, the 1990s saw several large BLM wilderness bills, including the 1990 Arizona Desert Wilderness Act and the 1994 California Desert Protection Act.
FLPMA did something else that was significant: It opened the door for continuing, citizen-initiated efforts to protect more BLM wilderness (HCN, 3/23/03: The Wild Card). The law required the BLM to continuously inventory "resource and other values" on public lands, and to protect those values. That allowed citizens’ groups to find lands that met the BLM’s own criteria for wilderness — areas larger than 5,000 acres that were roadless and free from human disturbance — and to ask the agency to protect those lands until Congress could decide.
These are not "wilderness study areas," which, for the most part, the BLM itself identified and must manage as wilderness until Congress has the opportunity to grant — or deny — them formal protection. Instead, they’re more like proposed wilderness study areas: wilderness-quality lands that the agency missed during its own inventories.
During the Clinton administration, the BLM agreed to take another look before permitting potentially damaging activities on these lands. According to Dave Alberswerth, who served as a special assistant to the Interior Department’s head of land and mineral management during the Clinton administration, and now works for The Wilderness Society, "The idea was to try to protect — within the secretary of the Interior’s discretion — the wilderness, roadless, undeveloped character of lands proposed for wilderness designation. For a while, it became known as the ‘take-care’ policy."
The BLM wasn’t required to protect these areas as wilderness, but it could impose stipulations on development projects, to minimize their impacts on wilderness character, or recommend postponing such projects. And in practice, the BLM frequently denied mineral leases on these lands.
Clinton’s secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt, gave citizens’ wilderness proposals their most explicit recognition in Utah. In its initial inventory in the 1980s, the Utah BLM identified only 3.2 million acres — which remain protected as wilderness study areas, because Congress has yet to pass a BLM wilderness bill for the state. Not satisfied with this, activists did their own inventory, spurring the agency to designate an additional 2.6 million acres as "wilderness inventory areas," bringing interim protection to a total of about 5.7 million acres.
Wilderness advocates scored a similar victory in Colorado, where in 1997, the BLM agreed to take a "second look" at a total of 600,000 acres proposed for wilderness protection by the Colorado Environmental Coalition.
In both Colorado and Utah, the BLM began to consider giving citizen-proposed wilderness more formal protection. In January 2001, Babbitt issued the BLM Wilderness Handbook, which laid out a standardized, nationwide procedure for determining which lands were eligible for "upgrading" from citizen-proposed inventory areas to official wilderness study areas.
But the Handbook was issued without an opportunity for public comment, in a wave of controversial last-minute directives just 10 days before President Clinton left office. The Utah government, and the oil and gas companies, saw the Handbook as a circumvention of public process.
"There is a big difference between BLM giving essentially policy effect to environmental groups drawing their private line on the map, and the public process of oil and gas leasing," says John Andrews, associate director and general counsel of Utah’s School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, who fought the rule.
And the Handbook played straight into an intensifying debate over FLPMA. Wilderness foes contend that the BLM had a one-shot opportunity to recommend potential wilderness to Congress — and that the opportunity ended with FLPMA’s 1991 deadline. By their reckoning, the citizens’ wilderness proposals were moot; they’d come in too late.
Again, the locus of that fight has been Utah. In 1996, the state sued the U.S. Department of the Interior, arguing that the BLM didn’t have the authority to add areas it missed the first time around. But two years later, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals rebuffed the state when it ruled that the "plain language" of FLPMA required the BLM to continue to inventory potential wilderness.
The ruling only fueled frustration among oil and gas companies. "People had a horrible time getting (drilling permits) through. It was this endless cycle of review," says Connie Brooks, a Denver lawyer who represented Utah in the wilderness case. The citizen-proposed wilderness in Utah, she says, "was the land in between. It was basically off-limits for oil and gas leasing. (BLM) would actually use pages from Wilderness on the Edge" — a compendium of citizen-proposed wilderness put together by the Utah Wilderness Coalition — "and they’d redraw the boundaries (of leases offered for sale). We had them cold on it."
According to the Utah BLM, between November 1999 and April 2003, energy companies sought leases on 214,170 acres of wilderness inventory areas and citizen-proposed wilderness. The BLM turned down all of them.
But last March, Gov. Leavitt resurrected Utah’s legal challenge — and got a very different reaction from the Bush-appointed leaders in the Interior Department. Late in the day on Friday, April 11 — just two weeks after Utah refiled the lawsuit — Secretary Norton signed the settlement agreement that stripped interim protection from Utah’s 2.6 million acres of wilderness inventory areas and invalidated Babbitt’s Wilderness Handbook.
"We looked at the concerns Utah was raising, and took a close look at the law," says Lynn Scarlett, the Interior Department’s assistant secretary of Policy, Management, and Budget. "People might have hoped it said something different, but our read is that Congress said, ‘There’s the process, and it’s 15 years, and that’s the end of that.’ "
On Sept. 29, BLM Director Kathleen Clarke officially rescinded the interim-protection policy nationwide, removing protection from millions of acres and dealing a serious blow to two decades of citizens’ effort to save the West’s last wild places.
All of the citizens’ wilderness proposals that fell under the old policy "had a chance to be protected as wilderness," says Ted Zukoski, a lawyer for Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm. "Now, BLM is saying, ‘We can’t and we won’t plan to protect that character in terms of creating (wilderness study areas).’ BLM is making those decisions now that will make it impossible for those areas to be protected in the future. That’s what we’re losing."
Now, as at Big Ridge, the oil and gas industry is beginning to move drill rigs onto lands it already has leased. And it’s looking to lease more: One series of proposed wilderness lands has already hit the auction block, and a second is coming in a matter of days.
Legal settlement blows away a homespun wilderness proposal
Thirty miles west of Big Ridge, just south of Vernal, Utah, lies another area that’s long been torn between wilderness and energy development. Here, the White River cuts through the Uinta Formation on its way to the Green River, creating towering turrets and battlements. On the benchlands above the river, golden eagles roost atop old sheepherders’ cairns on sandstone outcrops.
Back in 1871, explorer Frederick Dellenbaugh, who was part of John Wesley Powell’s expedition, wrote of the area: "Beautiful is the wilderness at all times, at all times lovely, but under the spell of twilight it seems to enfold one in a tender embrace, pushing back the sordid, the commonplace, and obliterating those magnified nothings that form the weary burden of civilised man."
Starting in the 1950s, the Vernal area was largely overrun by oil and gas development. But the area around the White River came to stand at the center of a truly homegrown wilderness proposal. In 1985, a doctor named Will Durant and an oil and gas driller named Doug Hatch ran the river with Clay Johnson, a local machinist — who found the spot Dellenbaugh described, with the help of a postage-stamp sized sketch in the fold of another explorer’s journal.
The following winter, says Durant, "We sat down at Doug Hatch’s kitchen table, and pulled out the topo maps and started drawing lines. We shrunk it as much as we could to avoid anything that would interfere with the proposal."
On paper, they came up with about 9,000 acres, which they then checked on the ground to be sure that no roads or wells would disqualify them from protection. "We’d go out and get lost and wander around, and then we’d try to figure out where we went. We were pretty satisfied that everything was copacetic," Durant says.
As it turned out, their proposal wasn’t perfect: An oil company held a lease within the area. But they were able to stave off development of the lease in an exhausting fight that went all the way to an Interior appeals board in Washington, D.C. Later, Durant’s Uintah Mountain Club teamed up with the Salt Lake City-based Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which expanded the club’s proposal to about 19,000 acres, and incorporated it into what is now a 9.1-million acre statewide wilderness proposal. In 1999, the BLM designated 15,800 acres of land around the White River as a wilderness inventory area.
In the 3.3 million acres of land that the BLM’s Vernal field office administers, a 15,800-acre wilderness inventory area was a small but important contrast to the rest of the well-dotted landscape. Many in the agency realized its significance. While the BLM couldn’t deny a company’s "valid existing right" to drill, which comes with a lease, it could refrain from issuing new leases, and it could quietly allow existing ones to expire. And that’s what it did.
"I think the BLM realized how important it was to us," says Durant, "and I think there were some people in the BLM who wanted to see more balance."
But the expanded 15,800-acre area brought more trouble, because some of the newly incorporated land was already leased for oil and gas development. And in 1997, the consortium that owned those leases, the Resource Development Group, started pushing to drill.
The Uintah Mountain Club may have felt it had BLM support in the earlier fight, but all that changed following the Norton-Leavitt settlement. Last summer, three months after the settlement, the BLM released a draft environmental impact statement that would allow 423 wells south of Vernal, including 15 wells in the White River wilderness inventory area, and 35 more in the citizen-proposed areas nearby. A final environmental impact statement should be completed before this summer, and drilling could start any time after that.
"Up until recently," says one agency insider, "it looked like, of any place in the state, (White River) was going to be wilderness."
Now, that looks unlikely.
Oil and gas companies rush onto wild lands
Last October, Pete Kolbenschlag of the Colorado Environmental Coalition (CEC) wrangled a spot in an oil-and-gas leasing course put on by the Rocky Mountain Mineral Law Foundation. Kolbenschlag found himself filling out a worksheet on how to bid for an oil and gas lease in an area proposed by his group for wilderness protection.
The exercise, written by Craig Carver, a Denver lawyer who represented Marathon Oil in a mid-’90s wilderness battle against CEC, reads: "The current Secretary of the Interior has determined to turn over management of the surface and subsurface resources of the CEC lands to those friends of the Vice-President who served on his energy advisory board. You can’t find out who those folks are, but they tell us to lease the CEC tracts come hell or high water."
As industry dives in, BLM offices have clear direction from Washington, D.C., to make oil and gas their first priority. Four months after taking office, President Bush issued two back-to-back executive orders, directing government agencies to expedite energy projects, and ordering agency managers to produce extensive documentation any time they deny a project. At the same time, Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force called for expediting development in the Rocky Mountain states. This summer, the Bush administration established the Rocky Mountain Energy Council to fast-track oil and gas projects.
Not all of this started with Bush. In November 2000, President Clinton signed the Energy Policy and Conservation Act Amendments (EPCA), which required the Departments of Interior, Agriculture and Energy to study oil and gas reserves on federal lands, and "restrictions or impediments" to their development. That report was released last January, and the April wilderness settlement knocked a lot of "impediments" out of the way. In August, BLM Director Kathleen Clarke issued a memo to agency managers, requiring them to re-evaluate restrictions "in areas where access to public lands and energy minerals is severely restricted."
Washington is also taking a much more hands-on approach. "People at the very local level are getting phone calls from these political people within the (Interior) department, saying what to do," says Martha Hahn, the former BLM state director in Idaho. "(As) a state director, you constantly try to buffer everything that’s being shot at you and your employees (from Washington, D.C.) and keep your employees on task. The political types in the department are going around that buffer. It’s driving the state directors crazy."
Hahn was pushed out of her position with the BLM in 2002 under pressure from Sen. Larry Craig (HCN, 3/18/02: BLM director forced to resign). She later lost a job at the Argonne National Laboratory, after she was quoted in a Vanity Fair article critical of J. Steven Griles, the former oil-and-gas industry lawyer who is now second-in-command of the Interior Department.
The political types have made it clear that dissent will not be tolerated. In an appearance before the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission in Reno, Nev., last October, BLM Director Clarke said land managers in her agency had "lost some discipline, lost some accountability, did a lot of freelancing." According to The Associated Press, Clarke vowed to send a "team to look at some of our more problematic field offices."
It’s almost impossible to get BLM staffers to talk about life inside the agency these days. Two current BLM state directors contacted for this story declined interviews, and only a handful of BLM employees would comment on the record.
"The pressure, in terms of them not saying anything, is so huge it’s obvious," says Hahn. "People are just terrified right now." But the shift within the agencies is clear: In the wake of the April wilderness settlement, the BLM has been moving to get citizens’ wilderness lands back into the leasing line-up — first and foremost in Utah. A July 2003 briefing for BLM Director Clarke noted that Washington sees Utah as "leading the way" in leasing such areas. The memo proposed establishing a "SWAT team" to conduct the environmental analysis for leasing "backlogged" wilderness inventory and citizen-proposed wilderness areas.
This November, the first of the Utah wilderness inventory areas hit the auction block in the BLM’s quarterly oil and gas lease sale. Several found no buyers. But several parcels in a former wilderness inventory area in Desolation Canyon on the Green River — best-known as a boaters’ paradise, but also on the edge of a large oil and gas field — were actually purchased. (The BLM did defer five parcels for further analysis of their "wilderness characteristics.")
"A lot of the areas that are moving forward with potential leasing activity are adjacent to long-standing oil and gas activity," says Interior’s Lynn Scarlett. "In many instances, the leases are smack-dab next to (existing) oil and gas activity."
A much bigger round of parcels will be leased from late January to mid-February, including parts of citizen-proposed wilderness in four states (see list at left).
In Vernal, the first rumblings of change came last year, with a massive seismic exploration project that, in part, targeted two wilderness inventory areas and four citizen-proposed wildernesses. "I think (that) was just an eye-opener for what was getting ready to happen," says Mary Hammer, a former Vernal BLM wildlife biologist. "As soon as that (Norton-Leavitt) settlement was reached, it was like, ‘Bingo! We’re gonna go in.’ "
One BLM employee says that in areas like Vernal, "Up until recently, industry was pretty cooperative. Even if they had a lease in one of these areas, they wouldn’t exercise it. But right now, because they’re being politically pushed, they’re coming in right and left."
John Andrews, of Utah’s School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, downplays the leases. "Don’t buy into the concept that, if lands are leased, ruin and destruction are actually happening. From leasing to any sort of significant development involves a lot of what-ifs, and the percentage of leases that ultimately have much activity on them is very, very limited."
Nonetheless, these new energy leases are the biggest threat to the future of wilderness. "Undoing" leases is next to impossible, buying them out is extremely expensive, and they give companies a right to drill. They lay a nearly bomb-proof foundation for future development.
And if there’s a sense of urgency in the rush to drill, it may be because the Norton-Leavitt settlement has not gone unchallenged. A coalition of environmental groups, represented by Earthjustice and including The Wilderness Society, SUWA, the Colorado Environmental Coalition, and several other state wilderness groups, has asked the federal courts to overturn the settlement. The challenge is now before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver — the same court that shot down the state’s anti-wilderness lawsuit in 1998.
The industry is pushing hard to buy leases before that challenge gets heard by a judge, says CEC’s Kolbenschlag. "They want their drilling permits approved, they want to get those leases in — they want to have all that stuff ready to go, because they know they can get it in now."
The battle rages on in the courts
To some extent, the legal challenge to the Leavitt-Norton settlement may be tempering the rush into wild areas.
"I think it’s a very great disincentive," says Craig Carver, the Denver lawyer who wrote the exercise teaching companies to lease proposed wilderness areas. "Industry doesn’t like controversy; it’s not a good place to invest money."
Now, conservation groups are engaged in the legal equivalent of hand-to-hand combat, challenging every lease and drilling permit application. The Colorado Environmental Coalition has appealed El Paso’s wells on Big Ridge to the Interior Department’s Board of Land Appeals. The Resource Development Group’s proposal to drill in the White River area will almost certainly be challenged. And the November lease sales in Utah are under litigation by SUWA.
Earthjustice and The Wilderness Society have also sued to gain access to the records of the negotiations between the Department of the Interior and Utah that resulted in the Norton-Leavitt wilderness settlement. But challenging even one specific project requires tremendous resources. And for some spots, such as Colorado’s Big Ridge, it may already be too late.
Back at Big Ridge, Seidenberg, Morris and I walk up to the first well El Paso drilled and abandoned. We’re in no hurry: Occasionally, we step off the road to weave through old-growth piñon, the ground beneath the trees dappled with snow and rich moss. When we finally reach the well, we find that the pad is in the first stages of a long recovery. Shredded piñon and junipers have been raked across the ground, but the scar is unmistakable.
As the sun begins to dip and the cold sets in, we linger a while. We take in Big Ridge itself, rising to the east. And we talk about that question of balance that follows the wilderness movement, always.
In the Rocky Mountain states, about 2.5 percent of the land is protected as wilderness. Roughly 64 percent of the public land is open to leasing. "Look at what we’re trying to save vs. what oil and gas companies have access to," says Morris. "Oil and gas wants all of it. We want to protect 5 percent."
Big Ridge is by no means the last chance for the gas companies — there’s plenty more land, even around here, for them to take a stab at. But here in the Piceance Basin, Big Ridge may be the last chance for wilderness. And for now, it looks as if that chance has been lost.
Interior’s Lynn Scarlett points out that, in oil and gas leasing and development, "there’s a lot of points of public engagement as you march along in the process" — points where concerned citizens can intervene to shape the fate of wild places. But while the public still has a voice with the BLM on how those areas will be developed, protecting them as wilderness is no longer an option.
In the painfully delicate balancing act called multiple use, wilderness — and its citizen supporters — have been cut out of the picture. "Why is it that you can keep leasing forever?" Seidenberg asks as we begin to trudge back through the snow and mud. "You can keep finding oil. But you can’t find any more wilderness."
Matt Jenkins is associate editor for High Country News.
The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:
These stories were made possible with support from the following individuals: Grant Heilman, Farwell Smith, Nelle Tobias and Andy Wiessner.
Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance 801-486-3161, www.suwa.org
Colorado Wilderness Network 970-385-8509, www.cowildernessnetwork.org
The Wilderness Society 800-843-9453, www.wilderness.org
Campaign for America’s Wilderness 202-544-3691, www.leaveitwild.org
Earthjustice 510-550-6700, www.earthjustice.org
U.S. Department of the Interior 202-208-3100, www.doi.gov
Bureau of Land Management 202-452-5125, www.blm.gov
Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States 303-623-0987, www.ipams.org
The Oil and Gas Accountability Project posts a list and maps of BLM parcels being offered for sale (including details about which of them overlap with citizen-proposed wilderness) at www.ogap.org, under "lease sale maps."