GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado - A coalition of conservation groups has asked federal land managers to adopt a "no additional leasing" alternative for oil and gas development in the White River National Forest.
The groups also called on the U.S. Forest Service to do a better job analyzing the potential impacts from oil and gas leasing on nearby communities and on the forest itself.
The 76-page letter containing the comments was submitted on Nov. 30, the deadline for public comments.
Until the Nov. 30 deadline, forest officials have been taking public comments on a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) that outlines four alternative oil and gas development scenarios for the 2.3-million-acre White River National Forest.
The alternatives range from sticking with the agency's existing oil and gas leasing regulations (Alternative A, with 417,000 acres available to leasing) to halting all future leasing on the forest lands (Alternative B, leaving roughly 1,000 acres of already-leased forest land open to drilling).
The forest service named a third possible option (Alternative C, with 260,000 acres open to future leasing) as its "proposed action," although no decision will be made until all comments have been analyzed.
The proposed Alternative C would reduce the amount of forest land open to future leasing, as compared to what was opened up under the agency's 1993 Environmental Impact Statement, but does not eliminate new additional leasing entirely.
The letter, submitted by the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, argues that "given the extraordinary non-oil and gas related values of the WRNF and the expansiveness and intensity of ongoing and projected oil and gas development on public and private lands surrounding the WRNF and throughout western Colorado, the most prudent course of action is to authorize no additional leasing on the WRNF."
The workshop comments, written mainly by conservation attorney Peter Hart, have been endorsed by the Sierra Club, Colorado Environmental Coalition, Natural Resources Defense Council, and other groups.
The groups maintain that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management expects as many as 25,000 new oil and gas wells to be drilled in this region over the coming 15-20 years.
"That is half again as many federal oil and gas wells as currently exist in the entire state," according to the conservationists' letter, "and that projection does not account for other adjacent BLM [lands] or potential development on private lands."
A halt of leasing is needed, the letter continues, "to ensure the diversity and long term health of local public lands, local economies, and local people."
The letter is critical of parts of the DEIS, for being "arbitrary" in its application of environmental assessments of leasing under different alternatives.
Hart explained that the DEIS, under Alt. B (no more leasing) assumes that all existing leases would be developed even if no more leases were issued.
But under Alt. C, he said, there is no such assumption, meaning forest officials are not applying the same underlying analyses to the different leasing alternatives.
Hart said this shows a lack of consistency concerning the assessment of environmental impacts.
"In my opinion, that's arbitrary," he said of the different assumptions, "especially given that there are lots of development proposals already on the table" for the Thompson Divide leases.
The letter urges the WRNF to either adopt the no-leasing alternative or, if that is not done, at least remove the Thompson Divide area from any future leasing programs.
David Francomb, an analyst with the USFS, declined to make any remarks about the Wilderness Workshop letter, noting only, "We welcome all comments, especially a substantial comment like the Wilderness Workshop comments."