BLM to pause on new oil, gas leasing in North Fork Valley

Amended plans will use analysis of potential harm and alternatives

[  By Katherine Nettles  ]

Conservation groups and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) have reached an agreement this month that will prevent new oil and gas leasing across 2.2 million acres of southwestern Colorado, including the Upper North Fork of Gunnison County, while the BLM works on an amended plan for the area with more environmental analysis. The BLM will use the moratorium to complete supplemental information and consider at least one alternative for its Uncompahgre Resource Management Plan that does not include additional oil and gas leasing, and the agreement brings an end to a two-year lawsuit.

The agreement was signed on August 11. In 2020 an alliance called Citizens for a Healthy Community sued the BLM based on its Final Environmental Impact Statement from 2019 that approved the Uncompahgre Resource Management Plan. The plan would have allowed for “nearly a million acres of public lands and mineral estate in western Colorado,” according to the settlement agreement, which was issued through Colorado District Court. The area covered includes the northwestern San Juan Mountains, the towns of Ouray, Telluride, Montrose and Paonia, and the North Fork Valley. The area also includes native habitat to threatened and endangered species such as the Gunnison sage-grouse, razorback sucker and Colorado pikeminnow.

The plaintiffs in the case were the Center for Biological Diversity, Citizens for a Healthy Community, High Country Conservation Advocates, WildEarth Guardians, Sierra Club and Western Watersheds Project. The group cited violations of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Endangered Species Act among others, within the 2019 BLM plan. 

In a press release issued by the plaintiffs on August 12, they reviewed their challenge of “BLM’s refusal to analyze climate damage and harm to the threatened sage grouse from fossil fuel development and the agency’s failure to consider a management alternative that allows for no new fossil fuel leasing. 

“The contested plan would have allowed fracking on more than half of the public land and federal mineral estate included in the 3.1 million-acre planning area, would have opened 95% of the mineral estate underlying BLM surface lands to oil and gas development, and would have allowed coal extraction on another 371,000 acres,” according to the alliance.  

The BLM has in a separate legal settlement committed to completing a range-wide resource management plan amendment (RMPA) addressing the management of Gunnison sage-grouse habitat on BLM-administered lands in Colorado and Utah. The agency has also committed to completing a statewide RMPA addressing the oil and gas management and associated infrastructure in big-game migration corridors and other big game habitat areas on BLM-administered lands in Colorado within two years. This summer the BLM began those efforts for wildlife study.    

Meanwhile, the settlement agreement signed on August 11 states that as part of the RMP amendment process, BLM will reconsider the eligibility of lands open to oil and gas leasing, the designation and management of Areas of Critical Environmental Concern and management of lands with wilderness characteristics; the agency will prepare a new Environmental Impact Statement including at least one alternative that would either reduce the overall acreage of lands  open to new oil and gas leasing or provide protections to lands with wilderness characteristics. 

“Gunnison sage grouse depend on healthy public lands, and healthy public lands are incompatible with expanding fossil fuel development,” said Matt Reed, public lands director with Gunnison County-based High Country Conservation Advocates. “We’re grateful that the communities, wildlife and waters that are sustained by this landscape will benefit from this agreement.” 

BLM Colorado Southwest District acting district manager Elizabeth Dawson wrote, “The BLM is implementing the 2020 Resource Management Plan for the Uncompahgre Field Office – it updates and combines multiple RMPs that date back to the 1980s, providing significant improvements in managing the public’s land.  Implementing this plan will enable us to focus on protecting big game winter range and migration corridors, as well as Gunnison sage-grouse recovery plans, which are currently ongoing and high priorities for this administration and the State of Colorado.”

Reed summarized, “There are a couple of distinct things going on here. The regional plan to conserve Gunnison sage-grouse is a separate plan/process from the two-year revision of the Uncompahgre Field Office RMP (although both are part of our settlement). The sage-grouse planning process will amend all of the BLM’s resource management plans in Colorado and Utah that contain Gunnison sage-grouse habitat. This is a tremendous and critical opportunity to better protect this iconic species and its sagebrush habitat, especially here in Gunnison County and the Upper Gunnison River Basin. Regarding the revision of the BLM UFO RMP that is the primary focus of the settlement, HCCA hopes to see a revised plan that significantly reduces the amount of land available for oil and gas leasing, which is part of our broader advocacy of keeping public lands fossil fuels in the ground. I certainly expect much stronger provisions than those that were included in the plan that was released in 2020.”

 Other plaintiffs involved in the North Fork Valley noted the importance of avoiding oil and gas development. “The communities of the North Fork Valley have worked hard to declare their independence from the boom-bust cycle of a fossil fuel-dependent economy, with the result that the Valley is now known for its family farms, wineries, recreational opportunities and wildlife,” said Melissa Hornbein, senior attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. “ We are happy the government has recognized the need to maintain the status quo while meaningfully considering these impacts. That was the point of this case.”

“The North Fork Valley has been fighting for over a decade to prevent leasing of public lands to oil and gas development around our homes, farms and in our watersheds,” said Natasha Léger, executive director of Citizens for a Healthy Community. “This moratorium on leasing has been hard fought and would not have been possible without the unwavering persistence of citizen and environmental groups holding government officials accountable.”

The press release noted that the settlement comes as Congress is advancing the Inflation Reduction Act, which would require the Interior Department to offer 2 million acres onshore and 60 million acres offshore for new oil and gas leases each year. 

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