There was no consensus to allow drilling in Vermillion Basin

By Reed Morris and Wes McStay

We applaud the Bureau of Land Management’s decision to protect the magnificent Vermillion Basin from energy development as part of the Little Snake Resource Area management plan. Vermillion Basin is one of Colorado’s most unique and threatened landscapes. Lying at the heart of a region that supports some of North America’s largest elk and mule deer herds, the multi-hued badlands and shady canyons of Vermillion Basin are rich in the natural, cultural and wilderness values that make Colorado’s Western Slope famous.

The BLM’s decision to protect Vermillion Basin’s important values, while also opening more than 2 million acres in the region to oil and gas leasing and other development, is something that many of us who live in northwest Colorado have been requesting for over a decade. The process for arriving at this decision should be highlighted as an example of how important land-planning decisions should occur.

Unfortunately, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, Club 20 and Moffat County officials immediately condemned the BLM’s decision and the process, and it is disappointing to see Congressman John Salazar follow their lead.

Their arguments against the BLM’s decision — particularly their grumbling about a “top-down” process that ignored a local consensus — are misguided and ignore the local and state voices that have been calling for Vermillion Basin’s protection for years.

As direct participants in the BLM’s six-year planning process for the Little Snake Resource Area that includes Vermillion Basin, we can attest that the public process was thorough.

Part of this process involved a local collaborative effort in Moffat County called the Northwest Colorado Stewardship, which held regular meetings with the BLM and diverse interests from all walks of life. We met monthly, sometimes weekly, for three years and endeavored to collaborate and reach consensus on the 2.4 million acres of federal lands and minerals in the area.

Participants from the agriculture, industry, sportsmen and conservation communities, as well as local governments, participated in good faith. Some believed that every acre of the resource area should be open to energy development. Others thought that a balance could be achieved by opening the least sensitive areas to drilling while protecting proposed wilderness such as Vermillion Basin. In the end, there was no consensus, and there was little compromise.

With consensus out of reach, the BLM’s planning process moved forward. Moffat County, along with the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, enjoyed special status outside the collaborative process as formally recognized “cooperating agencies.”  (There were other cooperating agencies as well, notably the city of Steamboat Springs, which has been on record in support of protecting Vermillion Basin.) Using this special status, the two cooperating agencies developed and proposed a plan to open Vermillion Basin to development. The proposal — to open 100 percent of Vermillion Basin, by drilling 1 percent at a time — was modeled after the much-debated proposal to drill the top of the Roan Plateau. The participants in Northwest Colorado Stewardship were presented with this proposal, but because of its controversial nature, it was never even brought to a vote.

Ultimately the BLM included this Moffat County/DNR proposal as an alternative to be analyzed in the draft environmental impact statement, along with other alternatives that included protecting Vermillion Basin from development. Friends of Northwest Colorado, a citizens’ group in Moffat County, also submitted a vision for the area that called for protection of all wildlands. In sum, a full range of management alternatives were proposed, and the agency analyzed and disclosed consequences of these alternatives and gave the public an opportunity to comment on them.

Nearly 70,000 public comments were received, considered, and responded to by the BLM before it reached its decision. The vast majority of these comments favored protection of Vermillion Basin. In response to the draft, Gov. Bill Ritter and the Department of Natural Resources called on BLM to protect Vermillion Basin. The governor has been adamant ever since that Vermillion Basin’s spectacular and fragile landscape must be preserved for future generations.

Despite this thorough process, the broad range of voices that were included, and the significant support voiced for protecting Vermillion Basin, now the county and a few industry-centered groups are crying foul. What’s amazing is the BLM’s final plan still calls for opening 90 percent of the Little Snake Resource Area to oil and gas development — hardly something for the industry to cry about.

Nonetheless, Moffat County continues to lobby to override the decision to protect Vermillion Basin, and at least by implication argues that opening Vermillion Basin to energy development was an idea supported by Northwest Colorado Stewardship. That claim is patently false, yet it was echoed in a Daily Sentinel column co-authored by representatives of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association and Club 20 and in stories on Club 20’s actions.

The surprise by Moffat County that BLM has decided to keep Vermillion Basin closed to development reflects a certain sense of entitlement to which it and the industry have grown all too accustomed — that the BLM should decide first and disclose environmental impacts later when it comes to public lands management. As local citizens, we are glad that BLM heard our voices and the resounding input from the public — both here in northwest Colorado and across the country — that Vermillion Basin is simply too wild to drill.

Reed Morris is an attorney from Steamboat Springs. Wes McStay is a rancher in Moffat County. 


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