New plan protects areas in northwest Colorado, but opens others to drilling

White River outside of Dinosaur National Monument.

Soren Jespersen. 

Some big changes are coming to northwest Colorado's lands—bringing some new conservation protections but also lot of new oil and gas drilling, some of it sensitive areas.

The Bureau of Land Management is instituting a new Master Leasing Plan for an area outside Dinosaur National Monument. Large areas of wild lands in northwest Colorado will now be protected, but the new plan also opens up several sensitive areas to oil and gas drilling.

The new plan covers a lot of northwest Colorado, including the White River, a popular destination for fishing and rafting. It also keeps development away from Dinosaur National Monument, keeping air pollution and other effects of drilling away from the amazing vistas and spectacular night skies of Dinosaur.

This “too wild to drill” landscape is home to pronghorn antelope, sage grouse, elk, and one of the most imperiled herds of mule deer in Colorado. It’s also one of the top rafting destinations in the west, with two popular rivers, the White River and the Yampa River, flowing through the area.

Protecting northwest Colorado's wild places

The Master Leasing Plan (MLP) is part of an amendment to the larger Resource Management Plan (RMP) for the BLM’s White River Field Office. The amendment revises leasing plans for oil and gas in the area, allowing for new drilling.

“The White River RMP Amendment, through the Dinosaur Trail Master Leasing Plan and identification and protection of wilderness-quality lands, shows that the BLM is using all of the tools in its toolbox to build meaningful multiple use," said Nada Culver, senior director of agency policy and planning for The Wilderness Society.

The BLM identified more than 300,000 acres of land with wilderness characteristics through this plan. Nearly 140,000 acres of that will be managed to protect those wild qualities, and placing limits on the rest to protect against any unnecessary degradation.

Room for improvement in the overall management plan

There are some negative implications of the plan as well, however. The overall RMP amendment calls for up to 1,100 new well pads, from which there could be an additional 15,000 new oil and gas wells. While the well pads will need to be placed to minimize the number of acres they disturb, there are still serious impacts from so many new oil and gas wells.

Mule deer might take the brunt of these impacts. The mule deer herd that migrates through the White River region has suffered a dramatic population crash in the past several years. While there are some protections in place to avoid development in areas where deer are concentrated, they might not be enough to ensure healthy populations.

Both the MLP and the amended RMP show that the BLM is including more than just oil and gas drilling considerations in their planning—especially in a heavily leased and developed part of the state. There is a brief opportunity for the BLM to improve these plans before they are fully finalized.