Colorado Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued a beast of a plan to manage oil and gas development in southwest part of the state. Too bad there is no beauty to the beast.
As far back as 1999, Colorado BLM planners started the scoping process that finally culminated in the recently unveiled final (until fixed) Tres Rios Proposed Resource Management Plan (RMP). This is the office that proposes selling oil and gas leases near the boundary of Mesa Verde National Park. On Thursday, November 7th, the National Park Conservation Association, The Wilderness Society, a number of other co-sponsors submitted a formal protest to Colorado BLM’s proposed Tres Rios RMP. Park Rangers for Our Lands joined that protest over the potential impacts to air quality at several national parks in the Four Corners region.
Now fourteen years to complete a management plan is not quite on the same time scale as say building an ancient pyramid in Egypt. But then life in Egypt stayed relatively the same for a couple of thousand years. Colorado BLM planners probably wish they had that luxury. The world, however, is a lot different now than it was in 1999, and fourteen years seems more like two thousand. Improvements in oil and gas extraction technology, especially hydraulic fracturing or fracking, has made an almost revolutionary difference in our ability to pump oil and gas out of the ground. Seems like if you’re going to do a fairly large scale plan you have to do it fairly quickly before it goes out of date, and you need to do it well from the beginning.
Unfortunately, the proposed Tres Rios RMP has not been done well enough. The protest document submitted Thursday details where the plan fails. Of particular interest to Park Rangers for Our Lands is the failure of Colorado BLM planners in this RMP to recommend a master leasing plan for an area that could impact Mesa Verde National Park. Colorado BLM essentially made up the criteria in Colorado for determining the need for a master leasing plan. The curious part is that after they decided what the criteria was, they ignored it and wrongly concluded that a master leasing plan wasn’t warranted, even though it met their own criteria. They also ignored requests by former park rangers, local conservation groups, the La Plata County Commissioners to conduct a master leasing plan.
As a new report by the Western Values Project found, master leasing plans are an innovate tool that allow land managers to take a hard look at landscapes where energy development could impact and damage values and resources in nearby sensitive areas such as national parks. A master leasing plan in those areas would identify the conflicts, risks and mitigation actions needed to prevent damage to areas like Mesa Verde from oil and gas development.
The Tres Rios Resource Management Plan is a bad approach for our national parks. There is growing evidence and concern that the activity associated with all the new oil and gas wells around Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, is contributing to an increase in nitrogen compounds, volatile organic compounds and other chemicals. The impacts of these increased emissions can be seen in what you can’t see today like you could in the past. Scenic vistas in and near Theodore Roosevelt National Park now experience periods of haze greater than what’s been experienced in Pinedale, a small town in Wyoming that has experienced the degradation of its air quality from extensive oil and gas development nearby. Dark night skies around Theodore Roosevelt National Park are disappearing as well. There are also worries that an increase in deposition of nitrogen will lead to faster plant growth contributing to an increase in wild fire activity. And the pollutants being released through oil and gas production activities are green-house gasses, and have the potential to contribute to global warming and climate change.
There are other serious issues with this proposed RMP. Analysis of lands suitable for wilderness consideration was inadequate, extensive revisions and changes to previous plans was not open to public comment, a higher level of protection for critical wildlife habitat is missing, the transportation or road inventory is inaccurate, and actions or requirements that could mitigate or greatly lesson the negative impacts of oil and gas development are too often discretionary. In short, it looks like Colorado BLM knew where it wanted to go at least once industry became interested in the available oil and gas resources and then shoe-horned the data and analysis decisions to make it possible to get there. It appears Colorado BLM has done pretty much what it could do to make sure the oil and gas industry got access to all of the land it wanted with as little regulation and mitigation as needed. Once again it looks like the Bureau of Land Management considers oil and gas its primary resource concern, while other values like conservation, recreation, wilderness, clean air, clear dark skies, habitat protection, and our national parks become secondary concerns.
You’d think after fourteen years it would have been a better plan. Still, Colorado BLM can and should go back and the additional planning and analysis that would lead to a more balanced approach to oil and gas development. It isn’t too late to conduct a master leasing plan to protect Mesa Verde, surrounding parks, farm and ranchland, recreation and other values found within the landscape. There is nothing final about this proposed resource management plan. In fact, the La Plata County Commissioners have issued a protest for Colorado BLM’s failure to incorporate a master leasing plan, and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s administration is also calling for changes to the plan to protect wildlife. It will be revised again, probably sooner than later. Better to do it right from the start. That not being possible, it’s still better to do it right starting now.