Rifle hospital district, other tax entities offer sage-grouse comments | PostIndependent.com

Rifle hospital district, other tax entities offer sage-grouse comments

Several entities in western Garfield County that rely on tax dollars from the oil and gas industry are weighing in on the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s proposal to protect greater sage-grouse habitat in the region, saying the potential economic impacts are being overlooked.

“This obviously is a major source of our income and any curtailing of oil and gas production in Garfield County will have devastating effects to our district and bring economic destruction to our community and our ability to provide affordable health care,” according to James Coombs, executive director of the Grand River Hospital District in Rifle.

Coombs’ comments are contained in a Nov. 20 letter to Northwest Colorado BLM Director Jim Cagney regarding the Northwest Colorado Greater Sage-Grouse Draft Environmental Impact Statement.

Since 2003, Coombs noted that revenues from oil and gas activity have helped the hospital district build a new hospital facility, medical offices, conference center and occupational health and safety center in Rifle, and the new medical office building in Battlement Mesa.

“Any future growth of our medical campus and services available for our community in western Garfield County will greatly depend upon the continued production of oil and gas in our county,” Coombs continued in his letter.

“If our budget is diminished as a result of the greater sage-grouse conservation measures, not only will the grouse be harmed, but the people in our district will be irreversibly harmed as well,” he said. “No consideration of this impact was discussed in the DEIS.”

Other local entities providing comments on the sage-grouse proposal in advance of the Dec. 2 comment deadline include the city of Rifle, the town of Parachute, Colorado River Fire Rescue, the DeBeque Fire Protection District and Garfield County School District 16 in Parachute.

The letters were included in a packet of information reviewed by the Garfield County Board of County Commissioners Tuesday, as the commissioners prepare their own detailed comments on the sage-grouse plan. The county’s comments will be given final consideration at the regular Dec. 2 commissioners meeting.

Economic impacts

Each of the local taxing entities contend the downturn in natural gas drilling in recent years has had a negative economic impact. Any further restrictions on the industry, such as those proposed in the BLM’s sage-grouse plan, could be devastating, they say.

“Most of our funding comes from local property tax, which includes business property tax derived from oil and gas production within our district and an offset from the state of Colorado,” District 16 Superintendent Ken Haptonstall wrote in a Nov. 22 letter to BLM officials.

“Over the past four years, we have lost a total of 390 students representing over 30 percent of our population, primarily due to the loss of production in the oil and gas industry,” Haptonstall writes. “We have also cut over 35 percent of our staff because of the loss of students.”

Added Rifle Mayor Randy Winkler in that city’s formal Nov. 20 comment letter, “We have hundreds of citizens employed in the energy industry that live and work in our city.

“This not only impacts our tax revenues, but the multiplier effect of their families and spouses who work and shop in our city bring much more in sales tax revenues that would be lost to our city should our concerns not be considered in your planning process,” Winkler wrote.

Garfield County commissioners on Tuesday also approved a joint statement with several other western Colorado government and business associations to be sent to John Mehlhoff, the acting state BLM director.

“We believe that there have been significant efforts undertaken in northwest Colorado to conserve greater sage-grouse and we support the agencies’ efforts to craft additional management procedures to conserve and protect the species and its habitat in order to demonstrate to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service that a listing under the Endangered Species Act is unnecessary,” the joint letter states.

However, the proposed management procedures in the BLM’s preferred alternative “far exceed what is needed” to make that demonstration, the statement concludes.

Garfield County contends that the plan is based on flawed science related to the bird’s habitat range in the area north of Parachute and DeBeque and extending into Rio Blanco and Moffat counties.

Garfield County plans to offer a more detailed analysis of the proposal and why it believes the plan is flawed in its own comments, which were prepared with the help of scientific and property rights consultants costing the county more than $200,000.

Other signatories on the joint letter approved by the commissioners on Tuesday include the Rio Blanco County commissioners, the American Petroleum Institute, Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, Colorado Farm Bureau, Colorado Mining Association, Colorado Public Lands Council, White River Conservation District, Colorado Woolgrower’s Association, Independent Petroleum Association of America, the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association and other industry groups.

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