The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) late Monday released its proposed Resource Management Plan (RMP) and final environmental impact statement for the Little Snake Field Office in northwestern Colorado, which when implemented would guide federal leasing decisions for almost two decades.

An estimated 9.9 Tcf of recoverable natural gas reserves is estimated to exist within more than four million acres within the planning area, officials said. The plan provides a framework to guide subsequent management decisions on about 1.3 million acres of BLM-administered public lands and an additional 1.1 million acres of subsurface mineral estate administered by the Little Snake Field Office in Moffat, Routt and Rio Blanco counties.

Most of the lands managed by the Little Snake Field Office in Craig, CO, have high (63%) or medium (10%) potential for gas and oil. About 90% of the 1.9 million acres of federal minerals covered by the proposed RMP would be open to gas and oil leasing, said officials.

"The extensive involvement from the public and local interests for the past six years has been critical to developing this Resource Management Plan," said Acting Little Snake Field Manager David Blackstun. "We have developed a plan that balances protection of sensitive resources with resource use."

Major issues addressed in the proposed RMP include energy and mineral development, special management areas such as lands with wilderness character and Wild and Scenic Rivers, transportation and travel management, and wildlife habitat, particularly for sage grouse and elk.

The proposed plan continues to allow natural gas and oil development on BLM-managed lands and minerals but new stipulations and conditions were added to ensure that sensitive resources receive adequate protection, BLM stated. Among other things the 77,000-acre Vermillion Basin would be closed to future leasing under the proposed RMP.

Areas also to be off limits to new drilling under the proposed RMP are:

The Little Snake Field Office contains some of the "highest priority" sagebrush habitats in Colorado, according to BLM. Under the proposed RMP, habitat fragmentation in high- and medium-priority sage grouse habitats would be minimized through a voluntary incentive program on existing leases, as well as required stipulations on new leases. The incentives and stipulations would apply to more than 500,000 areas of high-priority habitat and 1.5 million acres of medium priority habitat.

Operators with existing leases in high- and medium-priority sagebrush could receive exceptions to wildlife timing limitations if they voluntarily limited surface disturbance to 5% of a lease and provided BLM with a plan of development illustrating a strategy to maintain large blocks of unfragmented sagebrush habitat.

For new leases, operators working in the highest-priority sagebrush habitats, or "core areas," as defined by the Colorado Division of Wildlife, would have to keep their drilling disturbances below 1% of the lease and submit a plan of development. In medium-priority habitats, operators would be required to keep disturbances to less than 5% of the lease and submit a plan of development.

Existing leases that expire would be subject to the new requirements. Also, sage grouse leks (breeding areas) would be protected within a 0.6 mile no surface occupancy buffer, which is an increase from the 0.25 mile proposed in BLM's draft plan issued in 2007.

According to BLM, the proposal incorporates an "adaptive management approach" that allows for flexible, proactive management of public lands.

A 30-day public protest period for the proposed RMP ends Sept. 13. Information is available at (970) 826-5000. The proposed RMP also has been sent to Gov. Bill Ritter's office for a consistency review. A record of decision is to be issued after the consistency review and when any protests have been resolved, the agency said.

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