Colorado’s Vermillion Basin: Finally safe from oil and gas development!

Vermillion Basin in Colorado. Photo by Sam Cox.

After years of struggle to protect Colorado’s spectacular Vermillion Basin from damaging oil and gas leasing, a verdict for the rugged western landscape is finally in — and it’s a great one.

The Bureau of Land Management’s Little Snake Field Office announced Tuesday, June 29, that it will close Vermillion Basin to all future oil and gas leasing.

Knowing that drilling would threaten Vermillion Basin’s abundant wildlife, cultural artifacts, and scenic wonder, The Wilderness Society and our local Colorado staff have been part of an intensive decade-long effort with conservation partners in the northwest Colorado region to safeguard this unspoiled landscape from oil and gas drilling.

The BLM’s hard-fought announcement comes after years of efforts to protect this area from oil and gas drilling. It fixes a major flaw in a preliminary plan that would have opened all of Vermillion Basin to development. The decision is part of the ongoing revision of the BLM’s Resource Management Plan for the Little Snake Resource Area in Northwest Colorado.

Vermillion Basin includes more than 80,000 acres of wide-open sagebrush vistas, desert canyons and delicate multicolored badlands. It also provides a home for a wide diversity of wildlife that ranges from big game species such as pronghorn and mule deer to the majestic golden and bald eagles. The area is also steeped in a rich cultural history, as exemplified by Vermillion Canyon, which showcases one of the most spectacular collections of petroglyphs found in Colorado.

Vermillion Canyon. Photo by Sam Cox.“Vermillion Basin’s immense beauty provides outstanding opportunities for solitude, hunting and hiking, and tranquility and it is rightly protected from drilling,” said Soren Jespersen, The Wilderness Society’s Northwest Colorado Wildlands Coordinator. “We are hopeful that the final resource management plan will restore balance to a draft plan that was highly weighted in favor of the oil and gas industry”.

With oil and gas development growing rapidly — and often haphazardly — in the western United States over the past decade, this decision by the BLM is an important recognition that our most treasured wildlands are in need of permanent protections.

“The 77,000 acres set aside by the BLM today represents only a tiny fraction of the nearly 2 million acres currently available for energy development in the Little Snake”, said Nada Culver, Senior Counsel for the Wilderness Society. “There are, and will continue to be, plenty of lands left to develop, but the indispensable Vermillion Basin would not make a real dent in our energy needs,” she added. In Colorado alone, nearly 5 million acres of federal mineral estate have been leased by oil and gas interests, 70% of which industry has not yet developed — a trend which is reflected nationwide.

Analysis from The Wilderness Society had shown, the lands in Vermillion Basin Proposed Wilderness Area contains only enough technically recoverable natural gas to supply U.S. energy needs for about 10 days, and less than 20 minutes’ worth of oil.

The importance of leaving Vermillion Basin untouched from oil and gas development has been recognized by local citizens, conservation groups, Colorado leaders and now, through the decision of the BLM, the Obama administration. This decision reflects Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s vision of balanced and responsible energy development as set forth in recent oil and gas leasing reforms. Under Salazar, the BLM has committed to taking on its rightful role as steward of these lands for all Americans — not just for the oil and gas industry.

While the protections announced by the BLM this week will protect Vermillion Basin from drilling in the immediate future, The Wilderness Society will continue to work with our local partners and supporters in this community to ensure that the vistas and history that make this truly unique American landscape special will be truly and permanently protected. We are expecting the full revised Resource Management Plan in the coming months and hope to see many more protections for the Little Snake region in that plan.

Vermillion Basin in Colorado. Photo by Sam Cox.
Vermillion Canyon. Photo by Sam Cox.