The U.S. Forest Service is proposing revisions to its oil and gas regulations in a move it says will streamline them and reduce redundancy.
The initiative is part of a Trump administration effort to boost domestic energy production.
Conservationists say it will come at a cost to the environment and the public in places such as the North Fork Valley.
The agency published the proposed rule revision last week in the Federal Register, kicking off a two-month public comment period.
The Forest Service says the new rules will better align Forest Service regulations with those used by the Bureau of Land Management.
The BLM handles leasing and other management of federally owned minerals, including those underlying Forest Service forests and grasslands.
But the Forest Service under federal law has authority to decide whether to approve oil and gas surface uses on lands it manages, and the BLM can’t lease federal minerals beneath Forest Service lands if the Forest Service objects.
Among the regulatory revisions, the new rule would establish that the Forest Service has one decision point when it comes to identifying lands open to leasing and stipulations to protect surface resources on leased lands.
The Forest Service says the existing regulation directs that it do an administrative review when specific lands that already had been subject to an area- or forest-wide leasing analysis are scheduled for leasing by the Bureau of Land Management.
The Forest Service says the second review isn’t more detailed but just validates that the leasing of the lands has been addressed in an environmental document and is consistent with the local land management plan.
“The proposed rule would remove this largely duplicative administrative procedure,” the agency says in its Federal Register notice.
But it says the rule would “clearly state that the Forest Service may withdraw its consent to lease prior to the Bureau of Land Management conducting a lease sale.”
Conservation groups including WildEarth Guardians and the Western Slope Conservation Center, which is based in Paonia, says the new rule would skip important environmental reviews, remove the requirement that the Forest Service give public notice of a decision for a specific development plan, and remove explicit confirmation of Forest Service consent as a standard step in the leasing process.
“Our national forest lands protect the watershed of the North Fork Valley, and to increase leasing and drilling there is unthinkable to our local communities,” Scott Braden, interim executive director of the Western Slope Conservation Center, said in a news release.
He added that “as the effects of a warming climate ratchet down on us in this summer of wildfires, drought and extreme heat, the last thing we need to do is further damage our headwaters in exchange for more fossil fuels. This is yet another example of the (Trump administration’s) ‘energy dominance’ agenda harming the communities of North Fork.”
Last month, activist groups sued over the Bureau of Land Management’s recent adoption of a new resource management plan for the Uncompahgre Field Office, arguing in part that it has too few limitations on oil and gas leasing and development in the North Fork Valley.
Jeremy Nichols with WildEarth Guardians said in a news release that there is no need for the new Forest Service rule, “no imperative, and no urgency. It is simply a pure giveaway of public lands to the oil and gas industry.”
Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance oil and gas trade association, called the proposed rule “common-sense.”
“The Forest Service still retains the traditional role of the land use environmental analysis and planning, but the new rule would remove some of the extra bureaucratic processes,” she said in an email.
“BLM has always had the role of leasing and permitting, but with the rule, would be able to move forward once the Forest Service approves, without having to go back and reaffirm again and again. The public still has multiple points to engage in the process.”
She added that oil and natural gas development “is done in a way to protect the land and water, and is not an existential threat to the North Fork Valley.”