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.