The prospects for expanding natural gas exploration and production (E&P) on federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands in eastern Utah were given a boost by the federal agency on Friday, although the action drew strong opposition from environmental groups concerned about the impact on a rugged wilderness area.

An alternative endorsed by BLM would allow Gasco Energy Inc.’s proposed development of a natural gas E&P project covering more than 200,000 acres and potentially 1,300 gas wells, according to the parties involved. The project is in line for final approval by mid-April when a final environmental impact statement (EIS) is scheduled for approval.

Utah BLM Director Juan Palma told local news media that Utah is now closer to expanding its gas production capabilities, noting it was part of initial steps by the federal agency to expand energy production in Utah and nationally, “while ensuring that development happens safely and responsibly with a minimal surface footprint.”

A coalition of environmental groups criticized the action, saying it will jeopardize what they classify as the “unique and rugged beauty of Desolation Canyon wilderness.” The groups — Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council and Wilderness Society — oppose the development of remote parts of the Uinta Basin Shale play.

BLM officials came up with an alternative to the plan proposed by Denver-based Gasco under its joint venture with Wapiti Oil & Gas II LLC for developing the Uinta Basin. BLM’s alternative proposes that no well pads be located within a half-mile or line of sight of the Green River or within two miles of the Sand Wash camp ground/boat launch or Desolation Canyon.

In addition, BLM would ban development in the Green River flood plain and the Nine-Mile Canyon, while prohibiting surface disturbance in riparian and wetlands areas. A spokesperson for the federal agency told local news media that the federal Environmental Protection Agency has closely coordinated on the project and included air quality safeguards in the proposed project.

Gasco has said it new joint venture with Wapiti will help it develop various acreage including testing of the Mancos Formation, in addition to its Uinta projects with natural gas and Green River oil.

The Uinta Basin is located south and east of the Wasatch and Uinta Mountains, fed by a number of creeks and rivers that eventually feed into Green River, a tributary of the Colorado River. Although less well known than the Wasatch, the Uinta Mountains include Utah’s highest peak, the 13,528-foot Kings Peak. Vernal, UT (population 7,700) is the largest town in the basin.