A decade-long fight to save the HD Mountains from oil and gas development took a hit last week: Leases on more than 6,000 acres of Forest Service land sold for $5.2 million.
On May 12, the Bureau of Land Management held the oil and gas lease sale in Denver, covering a total of 7,000 acres of land in western Colorado – most of which was in the HD Mountains, southeast of Bayfield.
About 250 protesters attempted to shut down the auction at a Holiday Inn, overtaking the parking lot, occupying the hotel lobby and chanting for more than an hour, according to High Country News.
The six parcels sold for $5,211,268. The four parcels within the HD Mountains, totaling 6,150 acres, accounted for $5,203,620.
The effort to minimize, if not outright deter, the development of oil and gas on the remote, roadless mountain range goes back more than 10 years, said Jimbo Buickerood with the San Juan Citizens Alliance.
Notice that the sale would proceed despite a handful of unanswered protest letters happened in the blink of an eye, he said.
As per BLM rules, a 30-day protest period began after a lease sale notice was issued Feb. 12. That deadline was subsequently extended to March 29 after multiple requests.
During that time, 14 protests were submitted. Notably, the citizens alliance filed a petition with 400 citizen signatures, and La Plata County Commissioners argued the public was not involved enough in environmental studies.
Petitions highlighted concerns over the impacts to wildlife, Native American cultural sites, air and water quality, as well as disturbances to an old-growth forest.
Buickerood said he phoned the BLM’s Denver office last Tuesday – two days before the scheduled May 12 lease sale – to check on the bureau’s response to the protest letters.
“They said they wouldn’t know until Wednesday afternoon what the outcome is,” he said. “So Wednesday afternoon, we learned all of the protests were denied, and then they went ahead with the lease sale the next day.”
Steven Hall, communications director for the BLM in Denver, said everything went according to the books. The bureau sent out a news release and posted notice of the sale on its website.
“There are always questions if we do enough in terms of public outreach,” he said. “We try to do the best we can.”
Hall deferred further comments about the sale to the Forest Service – the agency that determined the last remaining unleased parcels in the HD Mountains were suitable for oil and gas development.
Walt Brown, a geologist with the Forest Service, said all protests were denied because no new issues were raised that hadn’t already been taken into account by previous planning studies.
Brown said the leased parcels have a “tremendous amount” of surface protections, meaning future developers have little land to build infrastructure, roads or drill, which will require them to use horizontal or directional drilling.
“The Forest Service took a hard look at the landscape in 2013 and determined 60 to 70 percent of the HDs were not suitable for leasing,” he said. “These other parts, the Forest Service believes those minerals can be developed reasonably with strong surface protections.”
Opponents of the lease sale have 30 days to file appeals. The buyers, Contex Energy Company LLC and Allen & Kirmse LTD, have 10 years to put the land in production. Brown said any development would warrant further public comment periods.
The BLM, in a news release, said Colorado receives 49 percent of the proceeds in lease sales, which resulted in $247 million from royalties, rentals and bonus bid payments for all federal minerals in 2015.
“This probably wasn’t the right sale to complain about how little money we get,” Hall said of the protestors denouncing the federal minimum of $2-per acre in leasing public lands for oil and gas extraction.