By Denver Business Journal

Both environmental groups and an oil and gas industry trade group decried a final decision issued Monday by the federal Bureau of Land Management detailing acceptable uses of 1.3 million acres of public land in northwestern Colorado.

The BLM⿿s ⿿Record of Decision⿝ on the Little Snake Resources Management Plan covered federal land in Moffat, Routt and Rio Blanco counties, an area that includes the Vermillion Basin, thought to have a high potential for natural gas development.

The decision ( available here) was issued by the BLMâ¿¿s Craig office.

The final plan includes a decision to close the 77,000-acre Vermillion Basin to oil and gas operations for the duration of the plan ⿿ about 20 years. The plan also details efforts to conserve habitat critical to sage grouse, considered a candidate for the ⿿endangered species⿝ listing.

⿿There has been extensive public and cooperator involvement throughout this process, which began in 2004,⿝ said Wendy Reynolds, field manager of the Little Snake office. ⿿We have used this involvement to develop a plan that balances protection of sensitive resources with resource use.⿝

But the Western Energy Alliance, an oil and gas industry trade group, said the BLMâ¿¿s final plan dismisses a proposal crafted over many years by the public and energy companies.

⿿The BLM talks about the extensive public and cooperating agency involvement, but they basically ignored the recommendations of counties and community groups and imposed a conservation-only approach that limits energy development, job creation and economic development in the local communities,⿝ said Kathleen Sgamma, director of government and public affairs for the alliance.

Sgamma said a previous proposal, put forward by community groups and the industry, suggested allowing energy development in the Vermillion Basin â¿¿ but restricting development so that only 1 percent of the basin would be disturbed at any one time.

Environmental groups, meanwhile, said the management plan goes too far in allowing oil and gas drilling on the land.

The plan ⿿opens roughly 89 [percent] of the landscape to oil and gas drilling, including habitat essential to the survival of the imperiled greater sage-grouse and Colorado⿿s largest and most prized game herds,⿝ said an emailed statement from Rocky Mountain Wild, a Denver-based nonprofit environmental advocacy group.

⿿Colorado⿿s largest population of sage-grouse will be threatened by oil and gas drilling under the plan, increasing the likelihood that the bird will need to be protected under the Endangered Species Act,⿝ said Ken Strom, director of Audubon Colorado, in a statement.

Matt Anderson, associate field manager in the BLMâ¿¿s Little Snake office, said the agency tries to balance the needs of all the resources that exist on public lands.

⿿If they [Western Energy Alliance and some environmental groups] are adamant that it⿿s a bad decision, then we may have gotten pretty close,⿝ Anderson said.

Whether the Vermillion Basin area should be opened for oil and gas drilling was the source of controversy in 2007 when former Gov. Bill Ritter and former Colorado U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar flew into Moffat County on July 3 of that year via helicopter, and Ritter said the basin should be protected from oil and gas drilling.

Moffat County commissioners a few weeks later wrote an angry letter to Ritter complaining that the state had reneged on a years-long agreement to allow some drilling in the area.

Salazar is now U.S. Interior secretary, and oversees the BLM.

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