A plan unveiled by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Colorado on Monday that was 10 years in the making, which attempts to balance oil and gas exploration with other uses across a 2.4 million-acre swath of land in northwestern Colorado, is drawing criticism from conservation groups, landowners and energy producers.

Under the Record of Decision (ROD) for the Little Snake Resource Management Plan (RMP), BLM opened 90% of the area to drilling, effective on Monday, while setting limits around breeding areas for sage grouse, the Vermillion Basin canyonlands and a 22-mile stretch of the Yampa River that as been designated “wild and scenic.” The plan is to guide federal decisions for close to 20 years.

A total of 242,560 acres now is closed to leasing for drilling in the region; BLM’s previous plan closed about 78,000 acres to drilling.

The ROD is the final step of an extensive, multi-year effort to develop a RMP for the 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.

“There has been extensive public and cooperator involvement throughout this process, which began in 2004,” said BLM’s Little Snake Field Manager Wendy Reynolds. “We have used this involvement to develop a plan that balances protection of sensitive resources with resource use.”

Major issues include energy and mineral development, transportation and travel management, and wildlife habitat — particularly for sage grouse, mule deer and elk.

The ROD carries forward the specific decisions from BLM’s proposed RMP released in August 2010 (see Daily GPI, Aug. 18, 2010). These decisions include closing the 77,000-acre Vermillion Basin to oil and gas leasing, and an innovative approach to conserve key sagebrush habitat while allowing oil and gas development.

With the ROD in place, BLM’s Little Snake Field Office plans to work on an implementation plan, including a route-by-route travel management designation process.

No drilling will be allowed within a 0.6-mile radius of sage grouse breeding areas, and disturbances on other critical habitat would have to be minimal. Regulations would limit drilling at sensitive times of year on more than 1 million acres of prime wildlife habitat.

The ROD immediately drew criticism from landowners and environmental groups.

Wilderness Society spokesman Soren Jespersen said his group was pleased that the Vermillion Basin was protected but “we are dismayed that the plan still opens around 90% of the resource area to oil and gas drilling, leaving 10% for the myriad other uses of these amazing lands.” The decision, he said, would hurt some of North America’s largest elk and mule deer herds, as well as threaten the basin’s red rock and petroglyphs.

However, the energy industry also denounced the plan. Western Energy Alliance spokeswoman Kathleen Sgamma accused federal officials of tampering with a previously acceptable plan that area communities had crafted that would have allowed “responsible oil and gas development” while only disturbing 1% of the Vermillion Basin area.

“It’s unfortunate that BLM was directed by Washington to ignore a balanced community plan, lock away American energy resources, and prevent jobs and economic growth,” Sgamma said.

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