WASHINGTON -- February 3 -- As Congress prepares energy legislation with an emphasis on opening sensitive Western lands, newly released plans open more than 8 million acres of environmentally important areas in New Mexico, Wyoming, and Utah to oil and gas development. According to a new analysis by The Wilderness Society, the new draft and final plans released by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) open nearly 8.3 million of the 8.6 million acres (96.8%) covered by the plans.
Now that the elections over, the Interior Department is rolling out plans that largely ignore public input and reflect a tremendously unbalanced approach to how our public lands will be used, said The Wilderness Societys Nada Culver, who analyzed the plans.
Resource management plans have significant ramifications for the West because they guide how natural resources and activities will be managed during the next 15 to 20 years. These plans, which take several years to develop, spell out such details as which lands will be open to oil and gas development and off-road vehicle use, or for other non-consumptive uses like wildlife habitat and non-motorized recreation. The Wilderness Society analysis covers the first post-election wave of an expected 80 plans that the BLM will be revising for public lands across the West over the next few years.
Because many land-use plans throughout the West were outdated, the previous administration asked Congress to fund new plans, with the mandate that the plans would balance protection of natural resources with some oil and gas and mineral development, said Dave Alberswerth of The Wilderness Society. But the Interior Department has chosen to ignore public input, new information and technological improvements and is instead using these new plans to open nearly every acre to oil and gas development.
The three plans in The Wilderness Societys analysis include:
· The final Record of Decision for New Mexicos Greater Otero Mesa area, which contains the largest Chihuahuan Desert grassland in the United States, sits atop a groundwater reserve that could provide water for hundreds of thousands of New Mexicans, and is home to New Mexicos healthiest population of pronghorn antelope. Despite strong local opposition, the Otero and Sierra Counties Record of Decision, released on January 24, opened 95 percent of this wild 2-million-acre grassland to oil and gas development. In 2004, Governor Bill Richardson condemned the BLMs plans and signed an executive order directing all departments of state government to use their authority to protect Otero Mesa.
· The draft land-use plan for Wyomings Great Divide (which the BLM calls the Rawlins area), which includes the eastern half of the Red Desert, Wyomings largest and most spectacular desert wilderness. Included in this part of the Red Desert is Adobe Town, a 181,000-acre proposed wilderness. The Great Divide Area is home to antelope, deer and other big game populations, raptors and wild horses that occupy places such as the Pedro Mountains, Ferris Dunes, the Powder Rim, and the canyons of Wild Cow Creek. Of the total planning area acreage of 4,587,900, the new plan, released December 17, 2004, opens 4,510,950 acres or 98% to oil and gas development. BLM records indicate that more than 15,000,000 acres of BLM lands in the state are already under lease for oil and gas development.
· The January 14, 2005 draft land-use plan for Utahs 1.9 million-acre Vernal Field Office, which includes Nine Mile Canyon a meandering gallery of prehistoric ruins and Native American art -- and such wilderness-quality lands as the Book Cliffs. Although acknowledging the presence of 275,000 acres of wilderness quality lands, the plan opens 1,850,162 acres million acres (or 97%) to oil and gas development.
The Wilderness Society analysis faults each of the three BLM plans because they do not specifically require best management practices (BMPs) for oil and gas development, such as clustering multiple wells from a single pad or centralizing production facilities. In addition, the conservation group criticizes the Vernal and Rawlins plans for acknowledging few new areas of critical environmental concern (ACECs) and, in fact, demoting from protection several existing ACECs. Under federal law, BLM is required to prioritize designation (of new) and protection (of existing) ACECs in the planning process. These areas protect values such as cultural resources, wildlife habitat and scenic values. And especially disturbing is that in the Vernal and Rawlins plans, the BLM failed to follow though on previous commitment to use the planning process to protect wilderness quality lands. Furthermore, the Otero Mesa Record of Decision shows the BLM blatantly ignored the vast majority of public comment and the formal protests by Governor Richardson and three State agencies, despite repeatedly declaring its policy to take into account community concerns.
The BLM could have chosen to highlight best management practices and strong policies regarding protection of the wide range of resources on our public lands, through the designation of areas of critical environmental concern and safeguarding wilderness values, but instead it only paid lip service to these important procedures, said Culver. The result is severely flawed plans that ignore the publics desire to preserve things like wilderness and prehistoric rock art and provide places where people can enjoy all sorts of uses, including hunting and camping, on these lands
Recent information from the BLM shows that while drilling permit approvals on Western public lands increased by 62 percent in 2004, the number of new wells that were drilled declined by nearly 10 percent. BLM approved 6,130 drilling permits in 2004, but only 2,702 wells were drilled. (In 2003, 3,802 permits were issued while 2,957 wells were drilled) In addition, BLM data also indicates that while over 42 million acres of public lands managed by the agency are currently under lease, less than 12 million acres (29%) are actually in production.
The oil and gas industry clearly has a large backlog of drilling permits and plenty of access to our public lands, despite their complaints to the contrary, said The Wilderness Societys Alberswerth. Why, then, is BLM issuing plans that seem to bend over backward for the oil and gas industry, while putting all other values at risk?
Appendix: Some lowlights of the Rawlins, Otero, and Vernal Resource Management Plans
Total covered by the 3 plans: 8,552,856 acres
Total opened to oil and gas development: 8,292,128 acres, or 97%
Rawlins (WY) Draft RMP/EIS, December 2004
Open to oil & gas 98% (an increase from previous plan)
Areas of critical environmental concern (ACECs) ? Demoted 3 of 4 existing ACECs: Como Bluff (paleontological/historical sites), Jep Canyon (wildlife), Shamrock Hills (raptors) all removed from protection. Of the 18 ACECs proposed for expansion or new designation, including those proposed and document by citizens in Western Heritage Alternative, the RMP only designated 2:
Shirley Mountain was 24,400-acre SRMA and became 240-acre ACEC so protection lost on remaining 24,160 acres. Other new ACEC was only 4020 acres
Wilderness values? Of 156,908 acres of wilderness quality lands proposed and documented by citizens in Western Heritage Alternative, only 5,300 proposed for protection.
Best management practices (BMPs)? Identifies range of protective measures but does not require use of any.
Otero and Sierra Counties (NM) RMP Amendment, January 2005
Open to oil & gas 95% of planning area
Areas of critical environmental concern (ACECs) ? Not under consideration in RMP Amendment but protection may be limited or foreclosed in ongoing planning process by failure to constrain oil and gas development.
Wilderness values? Not under consideration in RMP Amendment but protection may be limited or foreclosed in ongoing planning process by failure to constrain oil and gas development.
Best management practices (BMPs)? No new protections for surface water or groundwater; some BMPs identified as possible but none are required. Not even stipulation for washing vehicles to avoid transporting noxious weeds which is relatively easy to perform and was proposed by the Governor in his Consistency Review and Recommendations.
Vernal (Utah) Draft RMP/EIS, January 2005
Open to oil & gas 97% (an increase from previous plan)
Areas of critical environmental concern (ACECs) ? Of proposed new ACECs or expansions of existing, declined to protect most and those they did recommend were less than proposed for protection of key resources.
Nine Mile Canyon only increased acreage and protection by approximately 3200 acres instead of close to 40,000 acres proposed to protect cultural resources & special status plant species while enhancing scenic values, recreation & wildlife.
Coyote Basin considered close to 125,000 acres for black-footed ferret habitat and white-tailed prairie dog only recommended 88,000 acres.
Main Canyon found that it met relevance & importance criteria for cultural and historic resources and natural systems was also part of Book Cliffs NCA and was included in Book Cliffs Conservation Initiative but did not designate even though considered protecting approximately 100,000 acres in one management alternative.
Acknowledged natural systems & cultural values of Dragon/Atchee/Davis Canyons, Cliff Creek, Cliff Bridge & Lower Bitter Creek areas were relevant but claimed were not sufficiently important. Wilderness values?
Although BLM found that 25 areas have either wilderness characteristics (110,492 acres) or are likely to (164,904 acres), none are specifically protected for these characteristics.
17% of planning area (328,374 acres) BLM has acknowledged as wilderness quality lands (including WSAs) - but no corresponding protection in plan.
Best management practices (BMPs)?
None required or even identified specifically.