Based on public input from a year of meetings, the approved boundaries of MLP footprint have shrunk from 326,000 acres to 71,000 acres, reported Connie Clementson, field manager for the Tres Rios BLM office, based in Dolores.
“The BLM listened to the public, and we decided to proceed with an MLP with decreased acreage,” Clementson told Montezuma County Commissioners on Monday.
Of the 71,000 acres within the MLP boundary, only 50,000 acres have federal minerals. Of that, 28,000 acres are BLM surface lands, and 22,000 acres are split estate, where the surface is private but the subsurface federal minerals are partly managed by the BLM.
The remaining are private lands with private minerals that the BLM does not manage.
“What we heard from the public is to focus on protecting the Cortez Special Recreation Management Area, Phil’s World, and the Mesa Verde escarpment,” Clementson said. “In La Plata County, we heard that the area to focus protection on is the Hesperus area.”
The boundaries of the MLP are separated into five distinct areas. The MLP will include 44,000 acres in Montezuma County and 27,000 acres in La Plata County.
Areas left out of the original proposal include the Menefee Mountain and Weber Mountain Wilderness Study Areas because those BLM areas have withdrawn from oil and gas leasing.
Federal minerals near the western boundary of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument were also dropped from the MLP because the area is largely leased. Vast areas with private land and minerals were also left out of the final MLP boundaries since the BLM does not have jurisdiction.
Clementson said the process of creating an MLP will include an environmental analysis and public input and meetings as required under the National Environmental Policy Act.
However, developing the MLP will have to wait in line, and is not expected to begin before June 2018.
The BLM said it will not begin the MLP process until after the conclusion of a separate ongoing study that will determine Areas of Critical Environmental Concern in the Tres Rios district.
There will be no oil and gas leasing within the MLP boundary until the process is complete, Clementson said.
The Montezuma County Commission has opposed an MLP, fearing it could limit oil and gas development. Instead of an MLP, they supported an amendment to BLM plans that would protect the Phil’s World trail network, which could be leased by oil and gas companies.
Commissioner Keenan Ertel saw the delay of starting the MLP process as an opportunity to stop it in the administration of President-elect Donald Trump.
“We still have time to work on putting (the MLP) away,” he said.
Phil Ayers, of Southwest Colorado Cycling Association, was pleased to learn the MLP will move forward. He said the group supports the MLP as a way to secure a sustainable trail system, not only at Phil’s World but at future BLM trail sites in the area.
“Our intent is not to block energy development,” he said. “The MLP just provides more control over where roads and well pads go so they don’t intersect with trails. We don’t want uncontrolled development.”
BLM recreation areas northwest of Mancos and north of Mesa Verde have potential for trail development, Ayers said, and will benefit because they are in the MLP boundaries.
Eric Sanford, who represented the oil and gas industry’s opposition, said the regulations were unnecessary.
“When I apply for a permit to drill, it already goes through an environmental analysis,” he said. “MLPs are delay mechanisms for those who oppose oil and gas, and they are the wrong tool to analyze such a small area.”
Sanford called the MLP approval part of a “rush to get things approved before the new administration. Supporters got what they wanted because it will take years for the necessary studies, unless the new administration undoes it,” he said.
The San Juan Citizen’s Alliance, a Durango environmental group, said MLPs help to balance BLM land use.
“Public land use policy has for too long given preference to energy extraction often at the expense of other resources,” the Alliance said in a news release. “The Tres Rios Master Leasing Plan ensures we will protect our most precious public lands, including Mesa Verde National Park, recreation opportunities and our agricultural and cultural heritage.”
Crow Canyon Archaeological Center praised the decision.
“The cultural resources here are significant, bring tremendous economic opportunities and deserve to be avoided in the course of development,” said CEO Deborah Gangloff.
In Monday’s La Plata County meeting, commissioner Gwen Lachelt supported the decision, but with mixed feelings.
“I’m of course happy that Washington has approved an MLP for this area, but I’m concerned the local BLM office wants to delay it two years. Who knows what can happen in two years? I hope this is something we can move forward now, while there’s funding.”
Reporter Jessica Pace, of the Durango Herald, contributed to this article.