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More than aspen leaves could change this fall

Depending on your point of view, this falls election outcome could be one of the best or or worst things to happen to the Roan Plateau.Some environmentalists think the amount of natural gas drilling that occurs on the plateau, northwest of Rifle, might be determined by who wins the presidential election George W. Bush or his Democratic opponent.The Bureau of Land Management is preparing a draft management plan for the plateau. Delays in the draft plans release make it increasingly likely that a final plan wont be adopted until after the election and perhaps after a new president has taken office.Certainly if there was a Democratic administration, that might have some beneficial effects, said Peggy Utesch, organizer for the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance.Steve Smith, a Glenwood Springs volunteer for the Citizens Campaign to Save Roan Plateau, worries about the consequences if Bush is re-elected.My fear would be that they would be even harsher on environmental protection in general, including the Roan Plateau, Smith said.(Smith is the husband of GSPI managing editor Heather McGregor.)Bush has made the plateau a focal point of his push to open up more public lands to energy development. He could press more aggressively for drilling on the plateau if he no longer needs to worry about being re-elected, said Smith.Vaughn Whatley, spokesman for the BLMs Colorado state office, said the agencys planning for the plateau isnt driven by the agenda of whoever occupies the White House. Rather, he said, the agency must follows the laws dictating how management plan environmental impact statements are conducted.We cant be concerned as to the possibilities of the election, he said. At this point, its not an issue.Representatives within the oil and gas industry say they hope the election doesnt influence the outcome of the plan, given the energy resource at stake.I would hope we wouldnt get in a situation where a change in the political situation drastically affects projects going on, said Walt Lowry, director of community and industry relations for EnCana Oil & Gas (USA) Inc., a major driller in Garfield County.

The BLMs draft environmental impact statement on the plan will lay out several alternatives for managing the plateau, and identify a preferred one.Environmentalists and area governments have called for no drilling on top of the plateau. But the BLM is widely expected to allow such drilling, and much of the debate is focusing on how much will take place.BLM officials hoped to have a final plan released by mid-summer, but that now appears out of the question, thanks to delays in release of the draft plan. A 90-day public comment period will follow release of the draft, and then comments must be analyzed and addressed before a final decision is made.Altogether, a final plan probably will not be released until about six months after the draft plans release, Whatley estimated.He said the BLM hopes to release the draft plan in the near future, but was unable to give a more specific time estimate. He said its hard to say whether a final plan will be out before the election.

Utesch said she doesnt know where Democratic candidates stand on energy issues, but said Democrats generally are more environment-friendly.Assuming the delays in the plans release continue, I think if a Democrat is elected in November, this whole thing will go back to the drawing board, she said.On the other hand, she thinks Republicans may be confident that Bush is so well-financed that re-election is almost a sure thing. Perhaps, she said, the reason for the delay in releasing the plan is to wait until the election is over, and then they can present a plan that offers no protection on the top of the plateau.The Roan Plateau plan is drawing national attention. The Bush administration may be unwilling to release the draft plan now because it could become an election liability during the campaign, Utesch said.The BLMs Whatley denied that the administration is intervening in regard to the timing of the release.That hasnt come into play at all, he said.The BLM would prefer to get the draft plan out soon to end speculation, Whatley said. He said delays have come from trying to address all concerns and offer as complete a document as possible.



The latest delays occurred after local BLM officials sent the plan to Washington for review.Smith said he wonders why Washington now seems so much more interested in kind of handling the timing of the Roan Plateau plan release.Like Utesch, he said theres no way of knowing whether politics is coming into play in the handling of the plan.I just wonder whats going on, kind of like everybody else, he said.This isnt the first time election politics have cast a shadow on a local public land management plan. When the White River National Forest revised its long-range plan, it originally planned to complete it by the end of 2000 before the term of office of President Clinton, a Democrat, was over. Delays pushed back the release until 2002, well into the Bush presidency.In the view of conservationists, the final plan was far less protective of the forest than the preliminary one. However, Smith said he doesnt recall evidence of the change in administration contributing to the change in the plan. Rather, he believes it was more a result of lobbying by U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Grand Junction.The BLMs Whatley said the Bush administration has made clear its desire for multiple uses on public lands, including oil and gas drilling where appropriate, with a streamlined process for achieving that.However, we arent receiving any undue influence or pressure, he said.

Greg Schnacke, executive vice president of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association, said he hasnt even thought about the elections possible effect on the plateau plan.In the end, Schnacke believes, consumer demand for natural gas at a time when the price of gas is high will have the most impact on drilling policy.Our hope is that the public is going to understand Western states have resources that need to be appropriately developed, he said.Susie Hereden, a spokesperson for Williams Production, a major gas producer in Garfield County, said of the delays in the draft plan, We want the review process to be thorough and complete and were willing to wait for that to happen.Lowry, of EnCana, said while the company is anxious like everyone else to see the draft plan, hes not worried about the setbacks.Im sure theyve got sound reasons for that, and well live with that, he said.Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. 516dwebb@postindependent.com


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