Concerns with BLM Plan for Roan
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) recently released the Final Plan for the Roan Plateau in September 2006. This new Plan is not one of the Alternatives originally presented to the public for review and comment. It is something different, presented as a final document with no further public review or comment allowed, only formal protests.
Colorado Trout Unlimited is gravely concerned about the Plan’s potential impacts on trout, including rare populations of genetically-pure Colorado River cutthroat trout. We are also troubled by the lack of opportunity for public review on the new plan, and by the document’s bureaucratic doublespeak, which calls the whole plan’s credibility into question. For example – the BLM’s “No Surface Occupancy” restrictions don’t mean “no surface occupancy” at all, but allow it for up to two years – and perhaps even longer, under possible waivers.
The BLM’s new plan calls for phased development of clustered wells on the Roan, and has been presented as “fair and balanced.” As Colorado’s “voice for trout,” CTU cannot agree with that characterization – since the BLM’s own analysis indicates that the plan would result in “impacts [that] could never be reversed, especially those that eliminate genetically unique resources represented by populations of rare or disjunct species such as genetically pure Colorado River cutthroat trout.”
Localized extinction of native cutthroat trout doesn’t seem very “fair and balanced.” Accordingly, CTU has filed a protest with the BLM, urging them to reconsider aspects of the Roan Plan that put watersheds and its unique trout fisheries at risk.
The proposed Plan does have some intriguing elements. As proposed, development would occur in phases with a “clustered well” strategy. Drilling would be restricted to one of several development areas, not allowed to move into the next area until substantially completed in the current zone. That way the impacts and damage will be limited. The phased, clustered well approach is an interesting concept for doing development in an incremental way.
What about protections for the streams, rare fish in streams like Trapper Creek and Northwater Creek, wildlife and other unique features found only on the Roan, such as the hanging gardens and the highest waterfall in Colorado? The BLM asserts that stringent planning, regulation, stipulations and monitoring will protect and preserve these public resources. Unfortunately, the protection measures, Best Management Practices, and mitigation proposals that are supposed to protect the Roan’s natural resources are in reality woefully inadequate. Some of the major points of concern are outlined below.
When does “no” mean “yes”?
Stipulations such as No Surface Occupancy (NSO) and No Ground Disturbance (NGD) are cited in the Plan as providing protections for streams, rare trout, etc. Indeed, TU requested NSO protections for key cutthroat trout watersheds. Unfortunately, in this Plan “NSO” doesn’t mean “No Surface Occupancy” at all. It means no “long term use or occupancy of the land surface…”. Development and surface occupancy can occur for as long as two years. That’s more than enough time to do a lot of damage. The same goes for NGD. The ground can be disturbed on a “temporary basis”, up to two years, or even longer. Unfortunately, there are many other examples of official double-speak like this throughout the Plan.
As if this loophole weren’t sufficient, there are also a number of “outs” available to over-ride the proposed protections. Waivers and exemptions can make the alleged protections meaningless. And if issued, waivers are deemed to – “by definition” – mean that there is no adverse impact. This doesn’t mean that the BLM must ensure that waivers do not result in adverse impacts, but rather means that any time a waiver is granted it will be assumed that there is no adverse impact … regardless of what the data or the public may say.
What does protection and mitigation really look like?
While the BLM indicates that “a variety of BMPs [best management practices] and mitigation measures would be implemented to protect aquatic habitat”, the document offers no specifics as to how, where, and when these practices would be used or how they would be monitored and enforced. Without more specifics, the BMPs offer little more than wishful thinking – not any assurance that habitats will be protected.
One disturbing piece of what the BLM does say about mitigation is that one of their strategies would be to use “habitat banking”. This concept – banking “improvements” in one area to offset degradation or loss of habitat in another – isn’t broadly accepted to begin with, and in the case of the Roan’s trout fisheries wouldn’t work at all. One simply cannot improve a stream elsewhere and consider that an appropriate replacement for a unique population of an at-risk native trout. The Roan’s core conservation populations of Colorado River Cutthroat trout can’t be replaced, and so need to be protected – not traded for stream improvements elsewhere.
What about state water quality regulations?
Last year, the state of Colorado adopted regulations requiring ground disturbance by oil and gas development to go through state storm water planning and permitting, as other ground-disturbing activities are required to do. These common sense regulations help make sure that sedimentation doesn’t become a serious problem from disturbed sites – generally, through the use of simple technologies like hay bales and settling basins. Even though federal agencies are required to follow these State standards, the Roan Plan says nothing about how compliance with the water quality regulations will be assured.
The Plan also gives no meaningful response to concerns about the potential for accidental spills of hazardous materials (such as drilling fluids, fracturing fluids, or other hazardous substances). The BLM claims that the risk of accidental spills affecting streams is very low – but given the thousands of truck trips that are planned, many hauling hazardous materials in clustered areas – makes the risks much greater for the areas of proposed development. Meaningful plans to help prevent accidents – and measures to help ensure that if accidents occur, impacts are contained – need to be added to the plan so as to protect water quality.