Forest supervisor: Oil, gas decision his, not D.C.‘s

Scott Fitzwilliams



Scott Fitzwilliams, supervisor of White River National Forest, late last year proposed making 194,123 acres available in the forest for future oil and gas leasing, down from 411,475 acres now.



The White River National Forest supervisor is reiterating his insistence that his recent decision on what acreage should be available for future oil and gas leasing was his alone, and not the result of political pressure from above.

Scott Fitzwilliams’ comments come after oil and gas industry advocates alleged in a letter filed during an objection period that the decision resulted from numerous interactions between local interests wanting to limit drilling in the forest, and high-level political officials.

“This high pressure lobbying campaign achieved the result sought — a decision to focus the WRNF Oil and Gas Plan on conservation and recreation — an odd result for an oil and gas plan,” the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, Western Energy Alliance and Public Lands Advocacy said in a joint letter. “The planning effort only appears to be a public process. The real direction of this Plan was decided in Washington, D.C., between highly placed elected and appointed officials, many with connections to Colorado, and certain members of the ‘public.’”

Not so, Fitzwilliams said.

“I will go to my grave making clear that I told my boss and I briefed Washington on what I wanted to do. It wasn’t the other way around. In other words, no one told me, ‘You’re going to go this way. I told them,’” Fitzwilliams said.

The industry advocates’ position is rankling some who have been involved in the issue of drilling on the forest, including Jock Jacober, a board member with the Thompson Divide Coalition, which is trying to prevent drilling on more than 200,000 acres southwest of Glenwood Springs.

“The right to petition our government is a fundamental tenet of our republic. For industry lobbying groups to insinuate otherwise is wrong and it’s sad. It’s even worse when you consider that the oil and gas industry spent half a billion dollars on federal lobbying in the last four years alone,” Jacober said.

Fitzwilliams late last year proposed making 194,123 acres available in the forest for future oil and gas leasing, down from 411,475 acres now. He says about 70 percent of forest acreage with high oil and gas potential would remain open to leasing. However, he wants to close about 61,000 acres of high-potential acres primarily in the Thompson Divide area to future leasing. Much of that acreage is leased now, and the decision would apply to future leasing should those leases end.

The status of 65 leases on the White River National Forest, including 25 leases covering more than 33,000 acres on the Thompson Divide, is currently up in the air because the Bureau of Land Management decided it needed to conduct an environmental review on them. Canceling some or all of the leases is one possibility.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., has proposed legislation to withdraw unleased public minerals in the Thompson Divide from future oil and gas development, and retire existing leases if they are willingly donated or sold by their owners.

Industry advocates see lots of linkage between all the administrative and legislative activity that’s going on in connection with White River National Forest acreage, particularly in the case of Thompson Divide acreage. David Ludlam, executive director of West Slope COGA, said the BLM has said it will make its lease review decision based on the forest plan.

RECORDS DOCUMENT DECISION MAKING

The joint letter cites previously available information and documents obtained from Freedom of Information Act requests to raise a litany of interactions of concern to the industry groups. It says that:

■ Bennet met with a senior Department of Agriculture official “with authority over the Forest Service to ask him to make sure the WRNF considers the impact of this pending legislation” while preparing its oil and gas plan.

■  When two companies with Thompson Divide leases sought to group those leases into federal units, an action that could extend the leases’ life with minimal development, it “resulted in numerous behind-closed-door meetings with elected officials and the highest levels of political appointees at the Departments of Interior and Agriculture.” Pitkin County, the Thompson Divide Coalition and the Wilderness Workshop conservation group met numerous times with Bennet and former U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo.; and Bennet and Udall engaged with Forest Service political appointees including Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, urging the two in a letter to make no decisions on the leases “until the communities affected by this proposal have been given adequate time to complete their final discussions on the long-term management of the area.”

■  Harris Sherman, at the time the undersecretary for natural resources and environment in the Department of Agriculture, met from June 2011 through 2013 with representatives of Pitkin County, the Thompson Divide Coalition and the BLM’s Washington office at least six times on the development of the oil and gas plan and interim decisions regarding the 65 forest leases. (Sherman is former head of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.)

■  Robert Bonnie, senior adviser to Vilsack and the current holder of Sherman’s former undersecretary job, likewise was “deeply involved in discussions between BLM Washington Office personnel, Pitkin County, TDC and Colorado’s congressional delegation on the topic of the Thompson Divide.”

The joint objection letter says that in a 2013 meeting between Forest Service officials in Colorado and the BLM, the BLM’s Colorado state director at the time, Helen Hankins, said the oil and gas plan and the remedial environmental review on the 65 leases have attracted “a high level of interest” from the White House, Interior Department and industry groups.

Glenwood Springs Mayor Leo McKinney said in response to the political-influence concerns raised by the pro-industry groups, “Small business owners, cattlemen, and local governments are an important voice in this ongoing process. For (West Slope) COGA to say that we don’t deserve a seat at the table is a clear sign that they’ve lost touch with our rural communities.

“The recent leasing decision recognized the near-unanimous local support for protecting the Thompson Divide from more leasing — not because of political interference, but because our community showed up time and time again to voice their concerns.”

Ludlam said the objection letter shows involvement from Washington “every step of the way” on both the forest plan and BLM lease review.

“The White House reviewed the White River forest plan (environmental impact statement). That’s how far up the food chain it got.”

He acknowledged that political influence in such issues “is to be expected. That’s just part of democracy. That’s just part of how it works.”

But he believes the way political influence was exerted resulted in an unlawful outcome, which groups like his plan to challenge if necessary in court. The industry advocacy groups say the Forest Service failed to comply with its multiple-use mandate in limiting oil and gas leasing to such a small area, and failed to properly consider the potential for future development and the ability to mitigate impacts. They also object to what might happen to existing leases companies have purchased and invested in.

“For them to be reversed because of parochial politics is where we’re trying to make our stand,” Ludlam said.

Fitzwilliams declined to respond to some of the specific concerns raised by industry, saying that’s something best left for the agency to address during the objection process. Objections will be reviewed by the Forest Service’s Region 2 office.

 

‘BALANCED’ DECISION

Zane Kessler, the Thompson Divide Coalition’s executive director, said Fitzwilliams made a balanced decision that kept the vast majority of acreage with high oil and gas potential available for leasing while conserving other areas for snowmobiling, ranching, hunting and recreation.

“We’ll continue to meet with any decision-maker that will hear our plea — not only because people’s livelihoods are at stake, but because we’d be foolish to think that the industry isn’t scheduling meetings with some of the same exact folks,” he said.

Fitzwilliams first said publicly in December that he made his decision independently, while speaking at a community meeting in Glenwood Springs in December to discuss the decision and plan.

“It’s a decision that I’ve been able to make 100 percent here,” he said then, adding that the Forest Service prides itself on decentralization.

He said this week that regional and Washington-level Forest Service officials asked for updates and briefings, which is simply good and standard business practice for all involved, but otherwise “left me completely alone on this decision.”

“… Never once did they say you should do it this way, you should do it that way.”

He said this week that he vividly recalls sitting down with his boss, Regional Forester Dan Jiron, and saying where things stood.

“He said, ‘It’s a local decision. You have the ability and the scope to make the decision how you think is best. We’ll let you know if you’re off-base or anything.’”

Said Ludlam, “It just happens to be that the forest plan outcome is in perfect alignment with the political desires of the Thompson Divide Coalition and Pitkin County. Is that a perfect coincidence? Ummm — maybe.”

In initially announcing his decision, Fitzwilliams said he was heavily swayed by public concerns voiced about possible oil and gas development in areas like Thompson Divide, and the “sense of place” they spoke of in referring to that area.


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