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Boulder resident India Wood hikes toward Castle Peak Saturday, July 18, 2020, near Wolcott. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Two million acres of Colorado’s most scenic Western Slope lands would see stronger protections and less oil and gas leasing under a draft Bureau of Land Management proposal, in what would amount to a large-scale greening of the powerful federal agency.

The wildlands-friendly BLM draft, forced by environmental lawsuits and now lauded by the same groups, immediately drew the ire of extraction advocates.

The BLM’s preferred alternative in a draft supplemental environmental impact statement now up for public comment makes it easier to carve out wilderness and harder to drill on public lands in two districts stretching through Eagle, Pitkin and Mesa counties, and along much of the Colorado River. The impact statement is required for a BLM resource management plan that serves as the operating manual for years of federal actions. Once locked in place, advocacy groups can sue if the plan’s tenets are not fulfilled. 

Wildlands advocates went to court to seek tougher screening of land uses for potential greenhouse gas and climate change impacts. In a rare development over sprawling public lands battles in the modern era, the revised management plan gave green groups much of what they wanted. 

“This is really setting the stage for how you’re going to manage these 2 million acres for the next two decades,” said Peter Hart, legal director for Wilderness Workshop, one of the groups who sued over the BLM’s proposed 2015 resource management plan for the Grand Junction and Colorado River Valley districts on the Western Slope. 

At the heart of the BLM’s revised environmental impact statement is a new bureau-preferred alternative for the 1.5 million acres of BLM land, and nearly 2 million acres of federal and private land where BLM controls mineral rights. (Some of those lands overlap.) 

The BLM’s holdings include treasured Colorado landmarks like the Book Cliffs, pristine stretches of the Dolores River, the Roaring Fork’s Red Hill mountain bike trails, and the Castle Peak Wilderness Study Area. The new preferred alternative would close 568,000 acres in the Colorado River Valley district, and 998,000 in the Grand Junction district, to “future fluid mineral leasing.” 

That would leave 143,000 acres for oil and gas leasing in the Colorado River Valley district and 239,000 acres in the Grand Junction division. While many advocates would like those numbers to be zero, they are quick to praise a major shift in outlook at the BLM that defaults sooner to wild land instead of extraction. 

“This is a little bit more what balanced land management might actually look like,” said Scott Braden, Colorado Wildlands Project director. 

A pictograph at Shaman Cave inside Dolores River Canyon, Apr. 22, 2023, near Bedrock. There are evidence of people using the river at least 11,000 years ago through rock art and other remains found inside the canyon, according to the Bureau of Land Management. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

The fossil fuel lobby’s argument for drilling 

The BLM’s original 2015 update to its resource management plan for the Colorado River Valley and the Grand Junction districts leaned toward a more traditional extraction approach, deeming much more public land as ripe for oil and gas development than for other uses. 

But that year, the Wilderness Workshop’s lawsuit claimed BLM failed to analyze the climate impacts of its decision, or to consider alternatives that would place recreational uses and grazing in the Colorado River Valley on par with demands for oil and gas leasing. The nonprofit and its partners won the battle in federal court, and the BLM was ordered to re-analyze oil and gas development to include the increased greenhouse gas emissions the drilling could produce.

The same scenario played out in 2019, and now the BLM is asking the public to weigh in on its most recent analysis. 

Oil and gas trade groups agree with the environmentalists that the new BLM alternative plan leans greener. And they are not happy.

In June of 2021 Biden tried to temporarily suspend oil and gas leasing in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But the oil and gas industry sued, and a federal court issued a preliminary injunction blocking the moratorium. Now “environmental groups want to shame the Biden administration into no more leases,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance,

“Environmentalists don’t care about eliminating greenhouse gases, they care about stopping oil and gas,” she added. “And they know on federal lands, where there is so much process and protection, that they have more levers for mitigation. But when we stop getting our oil and gas from here, all that does is shift the greenhouse gas emissions to other parts of the country, or to different countries like Venezuela or Saudi Arabia.”

So when the public is considering how to comment on the BLM’s more climate-friendly plan, Sgamma said it should remember that shutting down leases doesn’t equal reduced carbon emissions, “because things like solar or geothermal energy just can’t support the grid right now, and Americans aren’t going to stop using oil and gas.”  

Mountain bikers are neutral on drilling  

The mountain bike industry takes a neutral stance when it comes to oil and gas leasing on lands surrounding Grand Junction and Fruita as well as on the Uncompahgre Plateau near Montrose, said John Howe, president of the Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Association, which advocates for trails in both regions.

“Oil and gas development are just as important to the BLM’s multiple-use mandate as recreation,” he added. 

Popular trails the organization rides — including Lunch Loops and the Kokopelli area near Fruita, and Buzzard Gulch and The Whole Uncolada near Montrose — haven’t felt the impacts of development, he said.

It’s a different story on some gravel biking routes near the Colorado-Utah border, which travel roads on land leased by oil and gas, Howe said. “But if those companies weren’t there, the roads wouldn’t be either.” And that would mean one less destination for gravel bikers in that region. 

Howe added that the mountain bike lobby in Colorado is “really in its formative stages,” organized more around advocacy for trails, “and not really wading into broader environmental issues.” 

Neutrality is not an option, however, for Barbara Vasquez, a citizen scientist and activist who works on public lands issues as well as oil and gas impacts on the environment and local communities. 

Vasquez works with Great Old Broads for Wilderness, a Durango-based advocacy group that fights for protection of wilderness and wild lands through 40 chapters in 17 states across the U.S. Vasquez sat on the BLM’s resource advisory council for Northwest Colorado from 2011 to 2017, working with disparate stakeholders on issues including fossil fuel development. 

As it currently stands, the agency’s preferred alternative E could eliminate parcels for leasing that are on no, low and medium potential mineral resource lands, Vasquez said. That’s not bad in itself, but it could make areas with existing oil and gas infrastructure sacrifice zones, regardless of natural resources on the surface and elements of tribal concern. 

“Alternative F adds into that decision process more elements of conservation, including wildlife habitat, riparian corridors and other water resources,” Vasquez added. “So that is why alternative F is so much more complete a toolkit for the BLM to make their decision about whether to lease or not to lease a particular parcel. It empowers the BLM to do what it is charged with in its multi-use mandate.”

People walk on public lands, Sept. 14, 2022, at the Upper Colorado River District outside Gypsum. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Reflecting realities of modern land use

Advocacy groups would see a victory in the rewrite of the two key districts’ resource plan as a sort of final capitulation of old BLM priorities like roadbuilding and extraction, in favor of local and global realities. 

On global climate change issues, environmental advocates have had frequent success taking federal agencies to court for not accounting for greenhouse gas impacts of agency land decisions. Any new oil and gas extracted from the Western Slope BLM lands, beyond the thousands of wells already drilled and many more authorized under leases, would further heat the planet and worsen Colorado’s temperature increases, they claim. 

Federal lands across the country that have not been leased for minerals hold fossil fuels that could produce up to 450 billion tons of carbon pollution, Wilderness Workshop said. Current leases on federal lands produced nearly a quarter of the total U.S. carbon dioxide output in a 10-year study by the U.S. Geological Survey, the workshop claims.

And purely from a land use perspective, Western Slope priorities have shifted, Braden said. 

“I’m based in Grand Junction, and oil and gas was king here 20 years ago, but our economy has diversified substantially since then,” he said. One study shows oil and gas now account for less than 3% of jobs in Mesa County, Braden said. 

A separate study by Colorado Mesa University, Braden said, showed outdoor recreation and related tourism account for between 8% and 11% of county jobs. Agriculture and food service, which also benefit from protected lands and ecology, Braden said, bring that total to about 15%. 

“Our economy is changing. And so people’s expectation of how public lands should be managed is changing,” he said. 

Employee Cody Wells works with a large double bullwheel at the Leitner-Poma manufacturing facility in Grand Junction in 2019. The large wheel is used for cable transportation systems like ski lifts. Managing BLM and other public lands requires balancing calls for resource extraction with growing public recreation and conservation demands. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Other Western advocacy groups will offer the same encouragement to the BLM during the comment period.

A new report by the Colorado Fiscal Institute supports the arguments that allowing more old-school BLM oil and gas leasing could have negative impacts for the recreation economy in the state. 

The report shows in 2021 oil and gas provided 19,871 jobs, $2.7 billion in annual wages, and $14.1 billion in economic impact, compared to outdoor recreation, which provided 125,244 jobs, $6.1 billion in wages and $11.6 billion in economic impact. 

Snow-related sports in Colorado, like skiing, generated about $1.3 billion in economic activity in 2021, or about a quarter of snowsports $5.2 billion in economic output in the entire country. 

Colorado’s recreation and oil and gas industries both rank in the top 10 in the country for job share and economic dependency, but, the report states, unlike drilling, snowsports don’t “require the cleanup and plugging of abandoned wells,” nor do they pile on negatives like air pollution or low property values near extraction industries.

The report concludes, among other things, that in choosing to downsize oil and gas development in tourist areas of Colorado, the BLM will fall in line with recent climate goals set by Congress and the Colorado general assembly to address “the harmful impacts that the oil and gas industry have on our health, economy and climate” and, possibly, help protect one of Colorado’s most important economic drivers. 

Oil and gas interests not walking away 

While the BLM’s preferred alternative for Western Slope lands do not entirely rule out new oil and gas leasing, petroleum trade groups talk about the new resource plan draft as if it already does. 

The BLM’s chosen version would “remove more than 1.6 million acres of public lands in Colorado from future oil and gas leasing, while also designating tens of thousands of acres of new protected areas in the western part of the state,” the conservative Congressional Western Caucus said on seeing the draft. 

“Time and again, the Biden Administration acts at the will of radical environmental groups who are determined to end resource development on public lands,” said caucus chair Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Washington state, “The Western Caucus strongly opposes this proposal that will only push energy prices to new record highs.”


The draft supplemental impact statement up for public comment does put striking numbers behind the oil and gas arguments. The original 2015 preferred alternative from BLM would have resulted in 59 oil and gas wells “foregone” over both districts, by closing off some areas to leasing. The revised BLM preferred alternative would eliminate 599 possible wells in the area, according to BLM’s Colorado state office, a number picked up on by Colorado’s Eastern Plains U.S. Rep. Ken Buck and amplified by the caucus. 

Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Rifle, whose 3rd Congressional District includes much of the BLM land in dispute, is also a vocal caucus member. She said in a caucus news release the preferred draft would “kill responsible oil and gas leasing” on the Western Slope. “Families in the 3rd District depend on these jobs to put food on the table and a roof over their heads,” Boebert said.

For now, the BLM is calling for as much public input as possible through the 90-day comment period on the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement. 

The BLM will hold public meetings to talk about the resource plan and impact statement on Sept. 12 and 13, from 6 p.m. to 7:45 p.m. at the Glenwood Springs Community Center and Grand Junction, Colorado BLM spokesman Steven Hall said. There will also be virtual meetings online, as well as other site meetings, which can be tracked here.

Michael Booth is The Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of The Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He and John Ingold host the weekly Sun-Up podcast on The Temperature topics every Thursday. He is co-author with...

Tracy Ross writes about the intersection of people and the natural world, industry, social justice and rural life from the perspective of someone who grew up in rural Idaho, lived in the Alaskan bush, reported in regions from Iran to Ecuador...