Roadless areas go on the auction block |

Roadless areas go on the auction block

Joel Stonington
Mark Fox/The Aspen TimesThe view of Clear Fork Roadless Area below Hunstman Ridge could change as leases for gas wells are being sold.

ASPEN ” To the observer rising in a tiny plane from Rifle airport, natural gas drilling platforms and drill rigs are immediately apparent. In many cases, the spacing between drill platforms is five acres, with webs of roads connecting them.

With the price of natural gas going through the roof, the crunch to drill is expanding out from areas with huge numbers of active oil and gas wells and into undeveloped roadless areas in Colorado’s national forests.

About 2,500 acres of designated roadless land in the White River National Forest ” and 20,000 acres of roadless areas in Colorado ” goes on the auction block Thursday for leasing to oil and gas companies. The sale takes place even while a state task force is finishing its recommendations on preservation and development of roadless areas around the state.

When Bush removed the roadless protection ” which had made mining, drilling and logging off limits in areas that had yet to be developed ” he directed governors of affected states to recommend how the roadless lands should be used.

While the state task finishes its work, the Forest Service is proceeding with the gas leases in a White River roadless area despite the fact that Colorado as a state has yet to say what it wants done with its roadless areas.

The affected portions of the White River National Forest are mostly between Parachute and the section of Highway 133 that stretches from Carbondale to Paonia.

Conservation groups are calling the sale an illegal end-run designed to sell out roadless areas without proper public process. The Forest Service claims nothing can be done to stop the sales while the task force is in process.

“As there’s no other roadless direction we’re supposed to rely on our forest plan,” said Sally Spaulding, White River National Forest spokeswoman. “Our forest plan allows for drilling in the areas included in the lease sale, so we have little or no authority to remove those parcels from the sale.”

Of 640,000 acres in the White River National Forest that have the roadless designation, 27 percent, “are available for leasing,” forest supervisor Maribeth Gustafson said.

Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of the Wilderness Workshop, said the forest service didn’t anticipate such a demand for drilling.

“In 1993 the price of gas was a sixth or seventh of what it is today,” Shoemaker said. “But the boom is on ” the demand is there. They got caught with their pants down. Yet they’re blithely proceeding with authorizing this level of development.”

The Wilderness Workshop, other conservation groups and, most recently, U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar are protesting the leases. They are calling for the Forest Service to hold off on leasing roadless areas until a decision comes.

The task force will forward a recommendation to Gov. Bill Owens on Sept. 13. The governor will review the recommendation, then forward a final opinion to the U.S. secretary of agriculture later this year.

“It’s disingenuous to ask the governor and citizens for comment while at the same time contractually obligating agencies to develop these areas,” Shoemaker said. “[The Forest Service] never analyzed and disclosed to the public the scope of the impacts that this boom will have on our economy, community, and culture.”

If the sales go forward and the leases are issued, then gas companies will be able to develop large swathes of the Mamm Peak Roadless Area, directly south of Parachute and Rifle. Other roadless areas that will catch the brunt of gas exploration and development are Battlements, Reno Mountain, Clear Fork, Huntsman Ridge and Tomahawk.

The leases do have the a stipulation attached that there can be no surface disturbance in roadless areas. Conservation groups worry that the stipulation is too easy to get around and that environmental studies are not as thorough as they should be.

“Companies can ask that [the stipulation] be waived,” Spaulding said. “It’s up to the forest supervisor to make that decision.”

Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado

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