A Colorado canyon faces an uncertain future

  • Western Colorado's Demaree Canyon

    Dawn Capewell

Demaree Canyon, a steep-walled sagebrush and pinon-pine expanse in the Bookcliffs area outside Grand Junction, Colo., could become part of the national wilderness system. Or the wilderness study area might be transformed this summer into a series of natural-gas drilling pads.

The small canyon's fate could set a precedent for how much development can be allowed on Colorado BLM land that is both beautiful and valuable.

In the late 1970s, the Bureau of Land Management was directed to inventory suitable wilderness lands by the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act. The goal was to eventually get Congress to pass a BLM wilderness bill permanently protecting the most suitable lands. This has yet to happen.

Until that day, development is illegal in the 48 wilderness study areas identified by the agency - at least most development. National Fuels of Grand Junction held a gas lease in the canyon for six years before FLPMA became law. Now the company wants to exercise its lease to drill two gas wells.

BLM officials say they have no choice but to approve a grandfathered permit to drill wells. But environmentalists, believing the agency has more flexibility, have appealed the agency's decision to the Interior Board of Land Appeals.

The fight over Demaree Canyon is a microcosm of the battle over Colorado's last roadless BLM lands: With Congress showing no interest in passing a BLM wilderness bill, environmentalists have engaged in a tooth-and-nail battle with the agency to keep development out of these canyons and desert lands.

BLM and Colorado environmentalists have widely different views on how much land should be designated wilderness. The Colorado Environmental Coalition and 47 other groups put together a study in 1994 recommending just over 1 million acres, including Demaree Canyon. BLM recommended 388,000 acres in a review conducted in the 1970s and 1980s. The agency did not include Demaree Canyon or nearby Little Bookcliffs, both of which contain significant oil and gas reserves and have pre-FLPMA leases.

A total of six of the state's 48 wilderness study areas have pre-FLPMA leases. In the 1980s environmentalists successfully appealed a decision to drill in one of those areas in southwestern Colorado, says Norm Mullen, the west slope representative of the Colorado Environmental Coalition. In that case, the administrative panel of judges ruled that the BLM could reject the permit because the company wanted to build a road across a portion of the wilderness area it did not lease.

In the case of Demaree Canyon, however, the access issue is not a problem. Still, Debra Asimus, a Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund attorney representing the coalition, believes the BLM could have rejected National Fuel's application because the company has already used a portion of the lease area outside the wilderness study area to drill a gas well. Opponents say the BLM gave only cursory review of the legal and environmental implications of the project.

The BLM itself is not of one mind on Demaree Canyon. Wade Johnson, a BLM wilderness specialist, says his agency could justifiably reject the permit because of the potential damage that building roads in the steep canyon could inflict.

"I personally don't think it's a good thing," agrees Dave Trappett, BLM's oil and gas specialist in Grand Junction. But he says the agency is hamstrung by the lessee's legal rights. BLM's state director, Don Glaser, says he studied the Demaree proposal carefully and is convinced BLM was right in approving it. "I don't think we'll be overturned on this one."

It may take the Interior Board of Land Appeals more than a year to make a decision on Demaree Canyon. In the interim, environmentalists say they have no shortage of work protecting other potential wilderness areas.

Last November, state director Glaser approved six new leases in other potential wilderness areas in the state. When environmentalists pointed out that two were on wilderness study areas, the agency rescinded them. But the four other leases were allowed to stand even though they are on lands environmentalists would like to see included in the state's BLM wilderness bill. Glaser had promised the Colorado Environmental Coalition that he would not issue leases in these areas until he studied them more closely.

"Anyone who I have failed as I have in this case has a right to be disappointed," admits Glaser.

Mullen says he is still "extremely disappointed" in Glaser's decision to proceed with the four leases. "BLM is leasing the last untouched areas we have," he says.

Mullen says his effort to protect roadless areas faces two problems. The first, he says is the BLM's predisposition to lease every acre outside of wilderness study areas for oil and gas development. The agency has put up for leasing between 98 percent and 100 percent of its land base in the state, he says.

The second is the public. Colorado's canyons aren't as well known or appreciated as its high-mountain wilderness areas. Mullen believes it will take a number of years to build support that will move Congress to take action.

In the meantime, the stock of wilderness from which Congress will ultimately choose will likely diminish.

"We don't have very much eligible wilderness at lower elevations," says Asimus of the Legal Defense Fund. "It's important to really think before we give up the resource."

For more information, contact the BLM office in Grand Junction at 970/244-3000 or contact the Colorado Environmental Coalition at 970/243-0002.

Dawn Capewell is a freelance writer in Grand Junction, Colorado.

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