The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is deferring 20,000 acres in Colorado’s North Fork Valley from an lease sale set for Thursday (Feb. 14). Another 88,000 acres elsewhere in the state will be part of the sale.

The federal agency already had agreed to defer nearly 10,000 acres in the North Fork area, leaving 20 parcels totaling 20,555 acres for development. The pullback by BLM comes after its Colorado officials met last month with city officials in Hotchkiss, Crawford and Paonia.

“We’ve listened to concerns raised in numerous comments and public meetings, and we are responding by deferring the North Fork Valley parcels at this time,” said BLM Colorado Director Helen Hankins. “We are addressing the deferred parcels through continued dialogue with the local community and with ongoing planning efforts in the Uncompahgre field office” in the state.

However, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA) said the deferrals are evidence that the Obama administration’s leasing reforms are not working. COGA Western Slope Executive Director David Ludlam told the Denver Post that the current administration “took a system that was broken and broke it some more.”

In a letter last month sent to BLM’s Uncompahgre office, Ludlam criticized leasing opposition efforts as painting a broad brush over all parcels within the designated 20,000 acres, using a “zero compromise approach” even after the BLM had earlier deferred 10,000 acres. “Opposition to the entire 20,000 acres demonstrates that paid opposition fueling community fears results in an exercise of political theater when what is needed is a thoughtful examination of what leases might really make sense,” Ludlam wrote to BLM’s Barbara Sharrow.

BLM weighed the strong local opposition against supporters of the lease sale who pointed to economic benefits, including possibly 21,000 direct jobs and nearly 45,000 indirect jobs since 2011. However, some residents said they feared tourism and farming would be damaged by oil and natural gas drilling.

Many of the 20 lease parcels near the three towns has led to concerns that drilling would threaten air quality, drinking water, irrigation water, and more broadly, “the sustainable organic food and wine economy” that has flourished along the North Fork of the Gunnison River.

Some residents want the North Fork parcels permanently deferred, but BLM may consider them for future sales.

Before its decision, BLM made the case that development in the area in question dates backed to the early 1900s, and most of it has occurred on private, split-status and U.S. Forest Service lands. A total of 116 gas wells have been drilled in the North Fork area on federally managed oil and gas leases. Among those, 15 wells are currently producing and 29 are shut in, BLM said.

The federal agency also cites recent statistics that indicate Colorado received $154 million in royalties, rentals and bonus bid payments for federal minerals in fiscal 2011, and oil and gas development overall contributed $6.5 billion in direct and $9.5 billion in total economic impacts during that fiscal year.

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