Two years in the making, the Bureau of Land Management (the Bureau) on Friday began its public scoping period for an amendment to a Trump-era resource management plan (RMP) for a 1.64-million-acre Uncompahgre Field Office “planning area” in southwest Colorado as required by three 2022 legal agreements (ours here). In the process for amending the 20-year plan, the Bureau will consider whether and where to allow oil and gas development, how to minimize harm from drilling to Gunnison sage grouse and big game, and management of lands with wilderness characteristics. The scoping period runs through February 20.
“The North Fork Valley has fought 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. The Bureau of Land Management must do everything in its power to mitigate these stresses.”
While the former planning area of 2.2 million acres included federal minerals below U.S. Forest Service lands, the planning area for the amendment is significantly smaller and appears to exclude those federal minerals. This exclusion appears to be an effort to omit mineral estate underlying U.S. Forest Service lands, which comprise most of the high-development potential lands for oil and gas within the Resource Management Plan’s planning area. See a map comparing the larger planning area (inside green border) to the decision area (yellow) here. While the Bureau’s Colorado Field Office has taken the position that it lacks authority to close minerals underlying Forest Service lands to drilling, that interpretation is inconsistent with clearly established law.
“The Bureau of Land Management has both authority and a legal responsibility to make a decision for all Bureau mineral estate within the exterior boundaries of the planning area in order to comply with its obligations under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act to prevent unnecessary or undue degradation of public lands, taking into consideration the climate crisis,” said Melissa Hornbein, senior attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. “It should do so by meaningfully analyzing an alternative that closes federal mineral estate under both Bureau-managed surface, as well as U.S. Forest Service surface.”
Our 2022 legal agreement closed the planning area to new oil and gas leasing during the RMP amendment process. Additionally, the agency agreed to consider an alternative or alternatives that reduce future oil and gas leasing relative to even the most restrictive alternatives previously considered by the agency. Members of groups that previously litigated the Trump-era plan will continue to push the Bureau to consider a “no-new-leasing” and phase-down of fossil fuels alternative, and to hold the agency accountable to its undoubted authority to close the Bureau’s mineral estate underlying U.S. Forest Service lands as well as under the Bureau’s surface estate.
“This is a great opportunity for the Bureau of Land Management to listen to local communities and rectify misguided past decisions made by the last administration that prioritized oil and gas over all other uses,” said Peter Hart, legal director at Wilderness Workshop. “We’ll be pushing the agency to protect sensitive lands in the Uncompahgre Field Office planning area while scaling down fossil fuel development on these public lands.”
“It’s past time for the Bureau of Land Management to tackle the climate emergency by ending all new leasing and phasing out oil and gas extraction in the southern Rockies,” said Alli Henderson, southern Rockies director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Imperiled Colorado wildlife, from greenback cutthroat to Gunnison sage grouse, need our public land stewards to protect these wild places and not worsen climate change. This fragile ecosystem’s survival depends on the Bureau getting this right and phasing out fossil fuel extraction once and for all.”
“The Bureau of Land Management must seriously consider closing these lands to new leasing to protect sensitive resources and local communities, rather than protecting oil and gas industry profits,” said Samantha Ruscavage-Barz, legal director at WildEarth Guardians. “We will continue pushing the agency to do the right thing for public lands and the climate.”
“The Bureau of Land Management must stay committed to a paradigm shift where public lands are valued for their cultural, recreational and environmental resources, not their climate-wrecking fuels,” said Kim Pope, senior field organizer at Sierra Club. “It can make Colorado a prime example for other western states on how these needed changes will work.”
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 Delaney Rudy, Colorado director of the 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 our public lands.”
“Gunnison sage grouse depend on healthy public lands, and expanding fossil fuel development would be deleterious to the health of their public lands habitat,” said Sue Navy with Gunnison County-based High Country Conservation Advocates. “We hope the Bureau of Land Management will listen to the communities affected by this agreement and protect the wildlife and waters that are sustained by this landscape.”
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. This revision presents an opportunity for the Biden administration to support corrective action to help undo damage done by the Trump administration.