Cortez City Council members on Tuesday endorsed the Bureau of Land Management’s plan to create a master lease plan for oil, gas and mineral development.
Members unanimously voted at their meeting to authorize Mayor Karen Sheek to sign and send a letter to the BLM’s Southwest Resource Advisory Council Oil and Gas subcommittee.
“While energy and mineral extraction does have a positive economic benefit (in Montezuma County), it is dwarfed by the agricultural and tourism sectors,” the letter reads. “These uses must be considered first in any areas eligible for extraction.”
Several citizens spoke in favor of the lease plan at the meeting.
Ellen Foster, of Dolores, said instituting the plan would help protect present tourism projects, such as Phil’s World, and potential future endeavors, such as the proposed Paths to Mesa Verde bike trail between Cortez and Mancos. Foster said the plan should be extended further than has been proposed, possibly north all the way to the Montezuma-Dolores county line. Extending the plan north would ensure protection of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument and the San Juan National Forest, she said. Foster urged the council to include those points in the letter to the BLM.
“This is a defining moment,” Foster said. “We don’t want to become the next Farmington. We want to retool our economy for outdoor recreation and agriculture.”
Foster added that the BLM shouldn’t issue a new development permit until it has adequate staff to enforce regulations.
Chris Eastin, a Cortez resident and former city Planning and Zoning board chair, said the county’s land use code is not comprehensive and BLM needs a process for putting concerns about oil and gas development on the table. He said the master lease plan provides a framework for that.
Eastin said people in the area have lost touch with the McPhee Reservoir project and how important it is to the area. He added that increased oil and gas development would threaten the integrity of that project.
“I think (the MLP) deserves the support of every government entity in the county,” Eastin said. “The commissioners aren’t supporting it, so that leaves the city needing to step up.”
Lewis resident MB McAfee said the BLM has a resource management plan in place, but that isn’t enough. The MLP is a sort of zoning tool for the BLM that has much more specificity than existing plans, she said.
McAfee said it is to the city’s economic advantage to protect wild areas such as the area between U.S. Highway 160 and Mesa Verde National Park. She scolded county commissioners for failing to endorse the plan.
“(Commissioners) put themselves in a totally useless situation,” she said.
No one in attendance at the meeting spoke against the council endorsing the master lease plan. However, the council received several letters, including from Dexter Gill of the Four Corners 9/12 Tea Party group.
Gill said in his letter that instituting the MLP would eliminate potential tax revenue and would not include any additional protection of the environment, the people or the economy.
“What would happen is the elimination of any unknown future economic opportunity for our children and grandchildren on the BLM lands in the county,” Gill wrote. “This MLP proposal is simply one more piece of eliminating and restricting economic and public uses of the ‘public lands’ by the several groups referred to as protecting the environment.”
Dennis Atwater, who previously served as Montezuma County Planing and Zoning Commission chairman, also wrote a letter to the council asking if more regulation was truly necessary for the oil and gas industry, which already is heavily regulated.
Atwater urged the council not to send a letter of support to the BLM.
“We are foolish to add additional regulation to an already sufficiently, if not over-regulated, industry,” Atwater wrote. “We need to put our efforts to the areas where there is economic opportunity for the community.”
Councilman Tom Butler said he hoped there could be some common ground on the issue.
“I don’t want to see oil and gas, which contributes greatly to our economy, completely stop,” he said. “There should be some compromise.”