Conservation groups and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management have finalized a legal agreement that will prevent new oil and gas leasing across 2.2 million acres of southwestern Colorado until the agency supplements its environmental analysis and releases an amended plan for lands in the area.
“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, a senior attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. “For the Bureau to willfully risk these values by adopting a 20-year plan covering millions of acres without adequately analyzing its climate impacts, and without acknowledging the disproportionate warming that has already occurred in the Valley was reckless. 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 agreement requires the Bureau to analyze potential harms to the climate from fossil fuel extraction in the Uncompahgre Field Office planning area and to evaluate at least one alternative that reduces oil and gas leasing. This revision process for the Uncompahgre resource management plan is expected to take two years.
Before revising the plan, the agency also must complete a separate regional plan to conserve critically imperiled Gunnison sage grouse, an effort the Bureau started last month, and another plan to promote conservation of big game corridors and important big game habitat on more than 20 million acres of public lands in Colorado, also announced in July.
“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. “We have seen some of the most extreme warming in the country, and our rare and irreplaceable ecosystem is under increasing climate and ecological stress. 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.”
“Any fossil fuel expansion is flatly incompatible with avoiding climate catastrophes and preserving a livable world,” said Taylor McKinnon at the Center for Biological Diversity. “For the sake of the Colorado River, the Gunnison sage grouse and the North Fork Valley’s organic farms and communities, the Biden administration must end new leasing here, once and for all.”
The agreement resolves a lawsuit filed in 2020 by the conservation groups challenging the Bureau’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.
“This is great news for western Colorado’s public lands, communities, wildlife and clean air and water,” said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program director. “This agreement opens the door for a true transition away from costly and destructive fossil fuels in the North Fork Valley and beyond.”
The Uncompahgre resource management plan is a 20-year blueprint for management of the subject lands. 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 at a time when the urgency of the climate crisis demands that federal fossil fuels be left in the ground.
“Our public lands are some of our most treasured places, holding important cultural history and providing a home to wildlife and places to recreate with our families,” said Dan Ritzman, director of Sierra Club’s Lands, Water, Wildlife campaign. “They should be part of the solution to the climate crisis, not leased to fossil fuel companies that are killing our communities and burning our planet.”
Temperatures in the region have risen more than 2 degrees Celsius (nearly 4 degrees Fahrenheit), drying Colorado River flows that support endangered fish, agriculture and 40 million downstream water users.
The region spans the northwestern San Juan Mountains, several rivers, the towns of Ouray, Telluride, Montrose and Paonia, and the North Fork Valley, whose organic food growers and communities have opposed oil and gas development. It also includes numerous threatened and endangered species, including the razorback sucker, Colorado pikeminnow and Gunnison sage grouse.
“Lands managed under the Uncompahgre plan are essential conservation priorities if the vanishing Gunnison sage grouse is to have any hope of long-term survival,” said Michael Saul, Colorado director with Western Watersheds Project. “Now more than ever, the Bureau of Land Management needs to prioritize the preservation of intact, functional Gunnison sage grouse habitat above private commercial uses of shared public lands.”
“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.”
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.
Several analyses show climate pollution from the world’s already producing fossil fuel developments, if fully developed, will push warming past 1.5 degrees Celsius. Avoiding such warming requires ending new investment in fossil fuel projects and phasing out production to keep as much as 40% of already-developed fields in the ground.
Thousands of organizations and communities from across the U.S. have called on President Biden to halt federal fossil fuel expansion, phase out production consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and develop new rules under long-ignored legal authorities to serve those goals.
The Center for Biological Diversity, Citizens for a Healthy Community, High Country Conservation Advocates, WildEarth Guardians, Sierra Club and Western Watersheds Project are represented in the litigation by attorneys from Western Environmental Law Center, the Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club.
Melissa Hornbein, Western Environmental Law Center, 406-471-3173,
Natasha Léger, Citizens for a Healthy Community, 970-399-9700,
Taylor McKinnon, Center for Biological Diversity, 801-300-2414,
Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians, 303-437-7663,
Michael Saul, Western Watersheds Project, 303-915-8308,
Matt Reed, High Country Conservation Advocates, 866-349-7104,