CWF and NWF's South Park Comments to BLM's Draft Env. Assessment

September 18, 2012

 On September 17, 2012, CWF and NWF submitted comments to the BLM re its Royal Gorge Field Office's Draft Environmental Assessment.  We confined our comments to opposing inclusion of 6 parcels in South Park in the February 2013 lease auction.

The comment letter appears below:

     

September 17, 2012

 BLM Royal Gorge Field Office

3028 East Main

Canon City, Colorado 81212

 

      Transmitted by email to:  BLM_CO_RG_Comments@blm.gov

            Re: Parcels 6484, 6485, 6486, 6487, 6488, 6489

The following comments are submitted on behalf of the Colorado Wildlife Federation (CWF) and the National Wildlife Federation (NWF).   CWF is Colorado’s oldest statewide wildlife conservation organization, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit whose members consist of hunters, anglers, viewers, birders, and other wildlife enthusiasts.  CWF’s mission is to promote the conservation, sound management and sustainable use and enjoyment of Colorado’s wildlife and habitat through education and advocacy.  CWF understands that wildlife habitat is critical to conserving Colorado’s unique wildlife, fishing and hunting heritage, and wildlife viewing opportunities. These wildlife-related recreation pursuits enrich the well-being of residents and visitors and form a substantial segment of Colorado’s economy.  As an organization, NWF represents the power and commitment of four million members and supporters joined by affiliated organizations in 47 states and territories.  NWF and its affiliates have a long history of working to conserve the wildlife and wild places on federal public lands in the West.  Many members of CWF and NWF use the lands and resources that will be impacted in South Park.

 We thank you for the opportunity to review and provide comment on the Royal Gorge Field Office (RGFO) Draft Environmental Assessment (DEA).  CWF opposes inclusion of each of the six parcels in South Park in the DEA.  As to these parcels, we urge that BLM adopt the No Action Alternative.   

South Park offers big game, prized fisheries, mountain plover, and other wildlife.  It includes the communities of Fairplay, Alma, Como, Jefferson, Hartsel and Tarryall. 

 CWF, joined by other organizations and more than 200 residents, requested on November 4, that the BLM undertake a master leasing planning (MLP) process for South Park under 2011 Instruction Memorandum No. 2010-117.  (The number of residents who added their support grew to more than 400 by early January 2012.)  The MLP application addressed in detail the numerous shortcomings in continuing to apply the1996 resource management plan to leasing decisions in 2011, as well as to potential future lease sales. BLM rejected the application on February 7, 2012.  In its letter to CWF, BLM stated that it does not meet the third criterion: ”The oil and gas industry has expressed a specific interest in leasing, and there is moderate or high potential for oil and gas as confirmed by the discovery of oil and gas in the general area.”  BLM had also acknowledged in its South Park Land Tenure Adjustment EA that South Park contains “favorable source and reservoir rocks” for development and that what is limiting development is the “lack of infrastructure” (and not lack of industry interest or development potential). The Decision Record To Amend the South Park Land Tenure Designations in the Royal Gorge Resource Management Plan was signed on May 18, 2009.  Only four months after rejecting the application for master leasing planning, BLM announced its scoping period to identify issues for its February 2013 lease sale that included six parcels in South Park.  BLM’s proposed inclusion of the six parcels in the February 2013 lease sale appears to undercut its reasoning that there was little interest in leasing and developing South Park. 

 In this draft Environmental Assessment for the February 2013 Oil and Gas Lease Sale issued on August 17, 2012, BLM presents its rationale for offering leases in February: if BLM does not offer leases as soon as possible it would “set up situations in which reservoirs could not be adequately developed and public minerals would be drained by nearby private or state wells, resulting in a loss of revenue due to drainage situations that could be resolved by timely leasing.”

This is not a persuasive reason for including the six South Park parcels in this lease sale. The chart in the DEA shows no activity in South Park.  Further, in its February 7 letter rejecting the master leasing plan application referenced above, BLM stated, “… there are no producing oil and gas wells in the South Park Basin.  Oil and gas development in South Park is still in the exploratory stage and highly speculative.”

Five of the parcels are only ½ mile from Spinney Mountain Reservoir and Spinney Mountain State Park. Spinney Mountain Reservoir is a gold medal fishery, accessible within a drive of two hours or less from a major metropolitan area.   BLM notes on page 61 that “there would begin to be cumulative changes that could detract from the peaceful and serene stated management objectives of the state park by introducing a variety of human intrusions such as roads, equipment, facilities, and workers.” BLM also states that its objective concerning parcels in its VRM class III area is to “partially retain existing character of the landscape… the level of change should be moderate….” (Page 56.)

Although various lease stipulations would be imposed, BLM makes clear that it intends to address very complex, difficult resource questions at the application for permit to drill (APD) stage.  They include specific geologic formations; potential impacts to the site specific water quality associated with any exploration and development; and wildlife (beyond lease stipulations).  

BLM must look at the cumulative (and direct/indirect impacts) of leasing now, and may not wait until the APD stage. “Under the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”), the BLM must “take a hard look at the impacts of a proposed action.”  Wyoming v. Dep’t of Agric., 661 F.3d 1209, 1263 (10th Cir. 2011; see also Pennaco Energy, Inc. v. U.S. Dep’t of Interior, 377 F.3d 1147, 1159 (10th Cir. 2004) (requiring a “hard look” at the impacts of oil and gas leasing).  “Impacts” under NEPA include indirect and cumulative impacts, as well as direct impacts.  See 40 C.F.R. §§ 1502.16, 1508.7, 1508.5 (establishing duty to evaluate direct, indirect and cumulative impacts).   Further, these issues should be addressed on a landscape level using the MLP tools provided to BLM in May 2010.  

Water Resources, Geology, Wetlands/Riparian Zones

Water resources in South Park are extremely important to its economy.  It is essential that BLM assess impacts to the South Platte River watershed and its water quality before offering any more leases. This watershed supplies drinking water to the major metropolitan areas of the Front Range.   

The South Platte River is renowned throughout the State and among anglers nationally as some of the finest trout fisheries in the country.  In addition to many prized fisheries along the South Platte River, the following reaches have been designated as gold medal waters by Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW):

Ø  From the confluence of the Middle and South Forks to Spinney Mountain Reservoir inlet

Ø  From Spinney Mountain Reservoir outlet to Eleven Mile Reservoir inlet

Ø  Middle Fork, from the Hwy. 9 bridge to the South Fork confluence

The Reservoirs, too, are jewels for fishing recreation, and Spinney Mountain Reservoir is designated as a gold medal lake. 

 Serious impacts to the general public and to recreational economic segment of the economy will result if South Park’s water quality becomes degraded.  To our knowledge, BLM has not undertaken any modeling to understand the important interaction of groundwater and surface water in South Park.  In fact, BLM acknowledged during a meeting of the Park County Board of Commissioners on February 25, 2012 that it knows little concerning the South Park water basin.  Section 3.2.5 Water, devotes one general paragraph to surface water and to groundwater, respectively.  BLM does not address the water table or known natural radioactivity found in Park County’s water quality assessment samples, to date.  Further, the components of the hydrofracturing fluids and the methods used for hydrofracturing involve risks to surface water and to groundwater quality. 

 Park County is in the process of conducting baseline water quality testing.  Testing already has been conducted near Parcels 6484 and 6486.  Instead of waiting until the study is completed, BLM states in the DEA at page 26 in reference to both surface water and to groundwater, “… activities at the exploration and development stage could have impacts to water quality. The magnitude and location of direct and indirect effects cannot be predicted until the site-specific APD stage of development…. Potential impacts to the site specific water quality associated with any exploration and development activities would be assessed for each location during specific project proposals.”    

As to the geology, on page 22, Section 3.2.2, BLM states, “The South Park Basin is a wide faulted syncline sitting between the Front Range to the east and the Saguache Uplift to the west.”  The DEA does not make reference to the USGS reports and the relationship of fault to the parcels (such as a quaternary fault running through parcel 6487).  It defers an analysis to the APD stage, simply stating, “Site specific geology would need to be analyzed during the APD NEPA process to determine if a separate permit would be required for use of federal minerals in the construction of roads, pad building, or for any other construction needs.” 

In Section 3.3.4, BLM discussed wetlands and riparian zones. It states at page 40, “At the APD stage, the RGFO “will need to evaluate if location stipulations are sufficient by themselves to protect wetland resources, or if in addition to location modification, are [sic] other protective measures are necessary.  RGFO will need to incorporate appropriate oil and gas development BMP’s to limit and buffer overland runoff from being accelerated into drainages.”

BLM must not defer this analysis until the leasing stage.  NEPA requires that when there “is incomplete or unavailable information” about “reasonable foreseeable adverse effects,” BLM must do one of the following:·

OObtain the information if the information is “essential to a reasoned choice among alternatives” and “the overall costs of obtaining it are not exorbitant. . . .” 40 C.F.R. § 1502.22(a)

·     I     If costs are exorbitant, then include a statement:

o   that the information is “incomplete or unavailable;”

o   describing the “relevance” of the missing information to understanding impacts;

o   summarizing “existing credible scientific evidence” relevant to evaluating the impacts; and

o   the agency’s “evaluation” of impacts “based upon theoretical approaches or research methods. . . .” 40 C.F.R. § 1502.22.

This regulation requires that BLM either obtain missing information about foreseeable impacts or if that information cannot be obtained, then it must develop a “theoretical” model or approach to evaluating impacts.  Also, IM 2010-117 says that when evaluating parcels for lease, the BLM must “determine the need for additional information and develop strategies to obtain any data that may be required to support a leasing decision. Generally speaking, it is anticipated that this information will have been developed at the land use planning stage or subsequently, such as through an MLP process, if any has been conducted. However, in some circumstances it may be necessary to defer parcels from leasing while additional resource information is collected and analyzed.” 

Mountain Plover

Each of the six of the parcels contains mapped mountain plover habitat, as noted by the BLM.  On page 35, Threatened, Endangered and Sensitive Species, as to Mountain Plover, BLM states, “Oil and gas extraction activities may be compatible with Mountain Plover needs.  In Utah, disturbed areas around oil well pads create open habitat with high amounts of bare ground suitable for Mountain Plovers (Day 1994).  Ball (1996) recommended curtailing or prohibiting activities during the peak breeding period (April-July); however, Mountain Plovers in southeastern Wyoming did not seem to be disturbed by nearby mining activity (Parrish 1988).”

 It turns out, though, that the bird population cited in the study was extirpated in the early 2000’s.  This single, pivotal fact teaches that the BLM must conduct its own evaluation, and must not base its thinking and conclusions -- in a blithe and facile (if convenient) manner -- upon materials that have been demonstrated, after scrutiny, to be unsound.  BLM goes on to note appropriately, “Mountain plovers nest on nearby level ground (often near roads), adults and chicks often feed on or near roads, and make plovers susceptible to being killed by vehicles.”

 BLM must consider the best available science on direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts of leasing and development on the habitat of this species.  CPW designated the mountain plover as a state species of concern. It is important that the BLM view its habitat area on a landscape level rather than a parcel by parcel basis.

 Socio-Economic Impacts

The DEA does not provide consideration of the importance of the aquatic resources and their habitats within the watershed, as noted above.  The document also does not discuss the importance of recreational fisheries to anglers and to the local economy.  BLM’s presentation of statistical data is confined to population and to average annual production and revenue from fluid minerals in the vicinity of Spinney. The DEA does not address economic impacts to fishing, other outdoor recreation and tourism in section 3.4.4, Environmental Justice and Socioeconomics; in 3.4.5, Visual Resources, or in 3.5.1, Land Resources - Recreation.  There is no mention of the contribution of recreation to the local economy or to the number of visitor days at Spinney Mountain Reservoir and Spinney Mountain State Park.

Located within a two-hour drive from the Denver Metro area, recreational use and the accompanying economic contribution to the County and State cannot be underestimated. Angling in Colorado’s gold medal waters in South Park is an important economic and tourism driver and consideration of this importance must be provided. Colorado’s gold medal waters of the Middle Fork of the South Platte River and to Spinney Mountain Reservoir could be impacted by spills in future development of the proposed leases. 

 It is essential that BLM consider the economic contribution that fish and wildlife, other outdoor recreation and tourism in South Park make to the County and to the State. As hunters, anglers and wildlife watchers, we expect our federal agencies to recognize the importance of wildlife-based recreation to local economies and to our Western heritage and traditions.  Wildlife-based recreation contributes more than $17,790,000 annually to the Park County economy (BBC Research & Consulting study - 2007 statistics), an impressive amount for a county with a population of only 16,206 residents (an 11.6 percent population increase since 2000 according to the 2010 Census).   The economic impacts of healthy wildlife populations will grow in importance, as well as tourism in general, provided we act as stewards of the land.

In 2009, the South Park National Heritage Area designation was approved by the US Congress and signed by the President.   According to Park County, the designation “opens the door” to obtain grants and matching funds “to help Park County preserve its valuable history and natural resources and to help others learn to appreciate our preservation of the past.” It will promote strongly tourism, ranching, and mining. It also has been designated in 2006 as a Preserve America Community, a national honor awarded by the First Lady to communities that demonstrate strong efforts in preservation, education and tourism programs.  The DEA does not mention the South Park National Heritage Area designation in its section 3.4 Heritage Resources and Human Environment. 

 NEPA requires analysis of “economic or social effects” which are aspects of the “human environment” that must be fully discussed in the EA. 40 C.F.R. § 1508.14.  Effects also include “growth inducing effects and other effects related to induce changes in the patterns of land use, population density or growth rate”, effects on “aesthetic, historic,  cultural, economic, social or health” resources/values and those “resulting from actions which may have both beneficial and detrimental effects. . . .” 40 C.F.R. § 1508.8(b).

 

Sincerely,

 

Suzanne O’Neill

Executive Director

Colorado Wildlife Federation

 

Bill Dvorak

Public Lands Organizer

Rocky Mountain Regional Center

National Wildlife Federation

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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