WRNF supervisor says she can’t prevent gas exploration | PostIndependent.com

WRNF supervisor says she can’t prevent gas exploration

The supervisor of the White River National Forest said Wednesday she is powerless to prevent natural gas exploration on about 173,000 acres of roadless land.”The decision has already been made about what lands are available for lease,” Maribeth Gustafson told a state task force reviewing whether roadless lands in Colorado’s national forests should be developed or preserved.The U.S. Forest Service came under fire this week from conservation groups because it will offer about 8,800 acres of roadless forest land in Colorado in a quarterly gas lease sale in August. Conservation groups said that figure included about 2,500 acres in the WRNF. Companies that place winning bids for the leases can explore and potentially develop those lands.Gustafson told the task force and about 200 audience members that a 1993 study determined what areas in the 2.3-million-acre WRNF should be available for leasing for oil and gas extraction. When a gas company nominates a parcel for lease, the Forest Service checks to make sure the 1993 study identified that land as suitable. If so, it proceeds to the next scheduled sale, Gustafson said, and doesn’t even go before her for review or a yes or no decision.About 640,000 acres in the WRNF have the roadless designation. Of those, nearly 173,000 acres, or 27 percent, “are available for leasing” Gustafson said. Five percent of roadless lands in the White River are already under lease. Gas companies are concentrating in the forest south of Silt and Rifle.Conservation groups want the Forest Service to halt any further sale of gas leases in roadless areas until the state task force makes its recommendations later this summer on how to treat those lands.Charlie Hopton, a member of the board of directors of the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, said the agency’s lease of lands in roadless areas is a “slap in the face” to the task force. He said someone within the Forest Service should be accountable for allowing the sale of gas leases while the roadless issue is being debated.”Maribeth said she had no control of it. Somebody did,” Hopton said. He urged the task force to “protest” further sale of any leases in roadless areas before the task force’s work is finished.Forest Service officials assured the task force members that the sale of gas leases doesn’t necessarily mean lands will lose their roadless qualities. In some cases, the agency places a “no surface occupation” stipulation on the roadless lands, Gustafson said. That means gas companies cannot build roads or scrape the ground to create platforms for gas wells. Instead, they must use high-technology techniques like directional drilling, which involves drilling wells from less sensitive lands.Jeff Mead, an outfitter in the Mamm Peak Roadless Area south of Rifle, said there isn’t always a stipulation prohibiting gas companies from developing in roadless areas. He said a 1.6-mile, 30-foot-wide road was carved into “roadless” lands where he has a permit to operate. It’s affecting his business and spurring some of his longtime clients to seek other ground to hunt.Colorado’s Roadless Areas Review Task Force will submit its recommendation to Gov. Bill Owens later this year.

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