Vermillion closed to drilling

The Bureau of Land Management on Monday issued its Little Snake Resource Management Plan, which includes closing the Vermillion Basin northwest of Craig to oil and gas development. During the Bush administration, the agency had favored restrictive drilling that minimized disturbance of the land. Conservation groups said 90 percent of land and minerals covered by the resource management plan is still open for drilling.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is proceeding with a land management plan that closes the roughly 120- square-mile Vermillion Basin northwest of Craig to oil and gas development.

The agency affirmed its intentions for the Vermillion Basin as part of a final decision it issued Monday on its Little Snake Resource Management Plan in northwestern Colorado.

The planned closure was first revealed last year, marking a reversal of a BLM proposal under the Bush administration and drawing opposition from the industry and some local officials.

Conservation groups on Monday praised the decision to keep drilling out of the Vermillion Basin, but contended the plan otherwise remains too industry-friendly, with 90 percent of the land and minerals covered by the plan still open to drilling.

“The last administration set the bar so low that, although this final plan is a vast improvement, it still does not do enough to protect the amazingly unique natural resources of northwest Colorado,” Soren Jespersen, Northwest Colorado wildlands coordinator with The Wilderness Society in Craig, said in a news release.

The management plan covers about 1.3 million acres of BLM land and another 1.1 million acres of subsurface mineral estate that the Little Snake Field Office administers in Moffat, Routt and Rio Blanco counties.

The Vermillion Basin consists of sandstone canyons, multi-colored hills, creeks, and archaeological and fossil treasures. It’s one of the larger contiguous blocks of public land not already leased for oil and gas development in northwest Colorado.

Under the Bush-era draft proposal, the BLM initially favored opening the basin to drilling under a restrictive approach minimizing surface disturbance to 1 percent of the basin at any time. That’s an approach the BLM also took in leasing the Roan Plateau near Rifle. Oil and gas development on the Roan subsequently has been put on hold because of an ongoing lawsuit by conservation groups.

When the BLM later proposed barring drilling in the Vermillion Basin under the Obama administration, it put Interior Secretary Ken Salazar at odds with his brother, John Salazar, then Colorado’s 3rd District congressman, who favored letting drilling occur there.

Moffat County Commissioner Tom Gray voiced disappointment in the final decision.

“This seems counter to what’s in the best interest of the country,” Gray said, citing the need to make the nation less dependent on foreign energy sources.

Gray said oil and gas development needs to occur “where you find it,” and that includes the Vermillion Basin.

“If there are areas that have potential, and this was a high-potential gas area, those are the areas that you need to drill,” he said.

In a news release, Little Snake Field Manager Wendy Reynolds said the plan “balances protection of sensitive resources with resource use.”

Conservationists credited the plan for striving to protect what they said are many wilderness-quality lands including Vermillion Basin, Cold Springs Mountain and Diamond Breaks, and for finding 22 miles of the Yampa River suitable for inclusion in the Wild & Scenic Rivers system. But they said area wildlife will face increased threats from drilling under the plan.

The area is home to some of America’s largest deer and elk herds and to large populations of the imperiled greater sage grouse. The BLM plan outlines a number of measures for protecting the birds where oil and gas development occurs.

Gray said local comments were ignored with regard to the Vermillion Basin and the Yampa River. Property owners and water rights holders raised concerns about possible adverse impacts of a Wild & Scenic suitability finding for the Yampa.

“So much for local input,” Gray said.

Any Wild & Scenic designation for river stretches found to be suitable is up to Congress.


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