BLM Roadless Review Concluded

by Mark Pearson, Wilderness Committee Chair

In a related effort, last November the BLM released the final conclusions of an 18-month review of six roadless areas proposed by Colorado Citizens for Wilderness Protection. Of 167,000 acres reviewed and found by BLM to be roadless, the agency proposed additional wilderness studies, and potential modifications in its land use practices, for three areas totaling 133,000 acres. The BLM will not permit any harmful development activity in these areas until the further studies are completed. In addition, BLM determined its existing management protected the wilderness qualities of two smaller areas and thus no changes were needed. Only one area, Pinyon Ridge, was left completely unprotected and open to additional development.

BLM’s roadless area review of these six areas was an outgrowth of simmering controversy generated by repeated requests by oil companies to lease the areas for oil and gas exploration. The issue finally came to a head in early 1997 when BLM denied Marathon Oil’s leasing request for the 90,000-acre proposed Vermillion Basin wilderness in extreme northwest Colorado. Marathon sued in federal court and demanded BLM open the area to leasing because BLM’s land use plans indicated the area was potentially available for such leasing.

BLM responded with a public process to review the roadless character of Vermillion Basin and five additional areas: South Shale Ridge and Bangs Canyon near Grand Junction; Pinyon Ridge near Meeker; Yampa River near Craig; and Castle Peak north of Eagle. More than 3,000 people commented during BLM’s public review, the large majority in favor of protecting wilderness qualities.

BLM decided to conduct additional studies, and hold all development actions in abeyance, for Vermillion Basin, South Shale Ridge, and Bangs Canyon. These areas also happen to contain some of the greatest abundance and diversity of imperiled plant species and rare plant communities among all potential wilderness areas in Colorado, so conservationists were pleased with BLM’s action.

BLM decided the 10,000-acre Yampa River unit’s wilderness qualities were already largely protected by the area’s management for recreation. Similarly, BLM previously proposed to close two abandoned roads entering the 4,000-acre Castle Peak addition, so no further management action was required in this case either.

Only the 20,000-acre Pinyon Ridge roadless area near Meeker is likely to suffer as a result of BLM’s decision. BLM left Pinyon Ridge open to future oil and gas leasing. We can only hope depressed oil prices safeguard Pinyon Ridge until Congress can ultimately protect the area as wilderness.