Fight brews over lease bordering wildlands

Portions of a proposed oil and gas lease in Mesa and Garfield counties should go forward even though they share boundaries with a wilderness study area, the Mesa County Commission said.

The commission on Tuesday approved a letter to the Bureau of Land Management urging the federal agency to proceed with the sale without deferring more than 1,560 acres because of their proximity to the wilderness study area.

Mesa County has “consistently stated our opposition to the creation of de facto wilderness areas” by managing them as areas with “wilderness characteristics,” the commission said in the letter.

The BLM is proposing an auction for 28 parcels involving about 27,280 acres of federal minerals. The auction would affect 22,308 acres in Mesa County and 4,975 in Garfield County. About 800 acres of private land overlay federal mineral holdings.

Demaree Canyon encompasses about 21,000 acres in the Bookcliffs in Garfield County west of Colorado Highway 139. It was recommended as a wilderness study area in 1993.

Wilderness study areas have long been a burr in the hide of Western conservatives who have described them as end runs around Congress, which alone has the power to designate wilderness.

The lands adjacent to Demaree Canyon Wilderness Study Area were proposed for deferral because the agency has yet to inventory them, said Nada Culver, senior counsel and director of the BLM Action Center for the Wilderness Society.

“These wilderness-quality lands are a small portion of the acreage up for lease in this sale and, of course, industry has plenty of lands under lease already in Colorado — 3 million acres — and only half of those are actually being used right now,” Culver said in an email. “We appreciate the Colorado BLM acting on updated information, complying with governing laws and overall doing the right thing — as we think Mesa County should, too.”

The commission, however, chided the BLM for setting aside lands with “wilderness characteristics” as requiring management as wilderness, contending that its authority to do so no longer exists.

Deferring promising federal land from leasing could have a devastating effect on Grand Junction and Mesa County, which serve as the regional center for the energy economy, the letter said.

Commissioner Scott McInnis, a former congressman, likened the use of wilderness to stymie development to a rocket with a warhead.

“That missile lands right here in western Colorado,” McInnis said.

The letter also asks the agency not to include any stipulations intended to aid the recovery of the greater sage grouse on the leases while a lawsuit over them is continuing and while efforts are continuing to adjust maps of greater sage grouse territory.

The deadline for comment on the agency’s determination of adequacy under the National Environmental Policy Act is June 9.


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