A wild area gets a reprieve

  • Suzanne Jones

 

Lovers of wild open spaces in northwest Colorado recently received some long-awaited great news. The Bureau of Land Management's Little Snake Field Office announced that it would close 77,000 acres of the magnificent Vermillion Basin to oil and gas development.

The agency's decision came as a result of a well-publicized public process. Nonetheless, Moffat County commissioners and the oil and gas industry cried foul.  For these folks, it seems, public involvement is only valuable when it leads to the results they want.

For nearly a decade, the Bush administration led by Vice President Dick Cheney elevated oil and gas development on our public lands far above over all other uses. The administration pursued "expedited energy plans" to open up huge swaths to development across the West, and the voices of conservation-minded ranchers, hunters, anglers, municipalities and conservationists were ignored.

This pursuit of oil and gas drilling on virtually every acre of our public lands became a Bush administration hallmark.  In the case of the Little Snake region, it led to a draft management plan that would have opened up 93 percent of the entire resource area to oil and gas development, including 100 percent of the Vermillion Basin, an area proposed for wilderness designation through congressional legislation. A balanced approach was sorely needed, and a move in that direction was made by the BLM under the Obama administration in its final Little Snake management plan. Released this August, it protects Vermillion Basin from oil and gas development.

The final plan was not a surprising, top-down decision, but a reasoned response to many voices that had been ignored over the past eight years. They included Colorado's Gov. Bill Ritter, the state's Department of Natural Resources, many conservationists both regional and national, and a local group of diverse citizens called Friends of Northwest Colorado.

I participated for two and a half years in collaborative stakeholder meetings as part of the Northwest Colorado Stewardship process on the Little Snake plan, so I can attest that we never reached a consensus on opening Vermillion Basin to drilling, despite claims to the contrary by Moffat County and the oil and gas industry. Furthermore, the final Little Snake plan was signed by Helen Hankins, the BLM Colorado state director, and not some bureaucrat in Washington, D.C.

But let's be clear: The final management plan still opens a whopping 90 percent of the Little Snake Resource Area to oil and gas. You'd think that would make the oil and gas industry happy.  Rather than spouting misleading speculation about the jobs and revenues that are foregone by not drilling for the tiny amount of oil and gas that some estimates claim might be under Vermillion Basin, the critics of this settlement should explain why 85 percent of the 1 million acres already leased in the Little Snake Resource Area has never been drilled.

The critics might also acknowledge that some $105 million per year and a slew of jobs are provided by hunting, fishing and wildlife-viewing in this three-county region. These are traditional activities that depend on wild country and healthy herds. Vermillion Basin is a wild and beautiful place, and its wilderness qualities make it valuable to the local community -- far more valuable than its small amount of potential oil and gas reserves.

For those who haven't had the pleasure of seeing it, Vermillion Basin is a rugged, wide-open country of rolling, multi-hued badlands and winding canyons featuring awe-inspiring petroglyphs. The basin forms the wild heart of a region renowned for trophy elk hunting, the largest greater sage grouse populations in the state, and wild-flowing rivers.  Any drilling in this proposed wilderness area would destroy its wild character and render it ineligible for wilderness designation by Congress.

So I say, "Thank you," to the BLM and the Obama administration, for finally listening to the many people in rural Colorado who said they wanted to keep BLM lands open to multiple use, not just relegating them to development, new roads and truck traffic by one industry. All Coloradans, as well as citizens from across the country, stand to benefit from the decision to conserve one of the West's treasured landscapes from unnecessary development. As the locals say, this place is "one in a Vermillion."

Suzanne Jones is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a syndication service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is the Colorado regional director for The Wilderness Society in Denver.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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