Colorado’s Vermillion Basin Safe! Another victory against excessive oil and gas drilling

Vermillion Basin, a little-known treasure that Colorado citizens and our supporters have campaigned to protect in Colorado’s western canyon country is now officially protected from what once seemed imminent oil and gas drilling.

Wilderness Society staff, local Colorado partner groups and western Colorado citizens were celebrating Oct. 17, just after the Bureau of Land Management’s Little Snake Field Office finalized the decision to protect Vermillion Basin from oil and gas leasing and development as part of its resource management plan for the area.

The decision comes after a decade-and-a-half long struggle to prevent oil and gas leasing in this colorful area just outside of Colorado’s Dinosaur National Monument.

Now Vermillion Basin, which includes one of Colorado’s largest unprotected blocks of wilderness-quality lands, will remain undisturbed from drilling rigs and heavy maintenance traffic for at least 15 years—or the life of the resource management plan- while continuing to provide Americans with a chance to experience western Colorado’s wilderness on a grand scale.

Turning the tide through working with local citizens

Vermillion Basin came under severe threat under the Bush administration in 2007 when a BLM draft resource management plan proposed opening the entirety of the pristine basin to damaging activities including oil and gas exploration.

The draft plan caused great alarm because The Wilderness Society had been campaigning with local citizens and partner groups to protect Vermillion Basin since 1998 when a citizen’s wilderness inventory was conducted.

We knew Vermillion Basin was important, not only ecologically but also as a true vestige of the American West—a place for those seeking the isolation and solitude that only wilderness can provide. So along with local partners and citizen groups, we began the long journey of convincing the BLM to reshape its final resource management plan.

Working with local citizens, participating in over three dozen public meetings, and mobilizing our members to participate and comment on the plan for the benefit of wilderness and wildlife habitats, The Wilderness Society succeeded in preserving this key piece of the sagebrush steppes for the next generation.  The new plan balances energy development with the myriad other uses of these public lands—oil and gas drilling can still take place in appropriate areas surrounding Vermillion Basin.

“Nobody is saying that oil and gas development should not happen in northwest Colorado.  We only want it if it is kept out of our most sensitive landscapes such as Vermillion Basin. This [new] plan recognizes that we must balance energy development with the things that make this area such a great place to live,” said Wes McStay, a rancher in the Great Divide area north of Craig, Colorado.

Working with Northwest Colorado citizens like McStay has been an important part of our Vermillion Basin campaign, which is also aimed at ensuring that local customs, recreation traditions and clean air and pure water are protected.  

Along with the protections to Vermillion Basin, nearly 76,000 additional acres of wilderness quality lands within the BLM’s Little Snake Resource Area are receiving new protections. These places include Cold Springs Mountain—an area of rugged canyons that overlooks the Green River and Browns Park National Wildlife Refuge and which hosts invaluable populations of greater sage-grouse and key big-game habitats. 

The proposed wilderness of Dinosaur North—abutting Dinosaur National Monument—will also gain new protections.

The Little Snake Resource Area is an area roughly the size of Grand Canyon National Park. The area boasts some of North America’s largest herds of elk and mule deer and is home to Colorado’s largest population of the imperiled greater sage-grouse.  Besides its wildlife bounty, nearly 270,000 acres of proposed wilderness remain—including iconic landscapes such as those found at Vermillion Basin and on lands surrounding Dinosaur National Monument. 

With this decision the BLM is finally beginning to reverse some of the completely unbalanced plans proposed under the Bush administration.