Our Work in Lands
The stunning landscapes of the West are legendary, cherished by residents and visitors alike. Yet the lands we love are at risk. They have been scarred by a succession of extractive industries ranging from hard rock mining to logging, and now from intensive energy development. We advocate for sound stewardship in the face of forces that view our public lands solely as a commercial resource. At Western Resource Advocates, we are committed to safeguarding the ecological integrity of our treasured public lands and wildlife.
Lands Program News:
Roadless Areas: Keeping Wild Places Wild
Western Resource Advocates is working to ensure that the proposed Colorado Roadless Rule provides strong protections for the state's remaining unroaded National Forest lands. According to the Colorado Division of Wildlife, roadless areas "optimize ecologic health and sustain the numerous economic benefits derived from watersheds, view-sheds, wildlife and outdoor recreation." In other words, they are amazing places that should remain as they are.
A number of these roadless areas are under pressure from some oil and gas companies for exploration or development, despite overwhelming public support for conservation of these wild forests.
"We're trying to help the Forest Service achieve the shared goal of conserving roadless area values, so that future generations can enjoy the same experiences on Colorado's magnificent National Forests that we take for granted," said Western Resource Advocates Lands Program Director Mike Chiropolos. "As climate, beetles, energy development, and other threats loom – it is more important than ever that we meet the challenge by protecting wildlife habitat and headwaters streams."
In comments to federal land managers, Western Resource Advocates makes three main points:
- Western Resource Advocatesshows how to achieve the goal of protecting 4.2 million acres of roadless areas in Colorado.
- At least 2.6 million acres should receive the highest level of protection as "Upper Tier" roadless areas, significantly more than the 562,200 acres initially proposed by the Forest Service based on outdated forest plans.
- The Forest Service needs to exercise its clear legal authority to prevent drilling on 136,700 acres of disputed oil and gas leases. Western Resource Advocatesdocuments the ability to protect these lands based on examples from Colorado, Wyoming and Utah – all three of which were pioneered by Western Resource Advocates roadless advocacy.
Western Resource Advocates Preserves Critical Sagebrush Habitat From Being Overrun
The Greater sage-grouse has a little more room to roam after Western Resource Advocates actions forced the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to review their decision to lease a dozen areas of the threatened bird’s most important habitat in Wyoming.
Greater sage-grouse numbers have been plummeting, nearly to the point of earning a spot on the Endangered Species List. But sage-grouse are much more than an imperiled bird, they are a harbinger of the rapid loss of sagebrush steppe habitat upon which a huge diversity of animals, plants, and birds depend. Wyoming's wide-open sage steppe, sometimes called "America's Serengeti" for its abundant wildlife and lengthy animal migrations, is also an epicenter of natural gas drilling activity.
The race is on to preserve as much of the sage-grouse's "core" habitat before rampant energy development and other human encroachments shrink and divide-up the last of the sage habitat into parcels too small to sustain viable animal populations.
Western Resource Advocates' defense of this important sage-grouse habitat will also preserve the open areas necessary for the region’s mule deer, whose numbers have dropped by over half in some areas due to intense drilling activity in just the past decade.
The sagebrush ecosystem is uniquely adapted to surviving the West's aridity and is an iconic symbol of the West’s wide-open spaces.
Gas Industry Can Live With New Drilling Rules After All
Oil and gas drilling in source of Utah drinking water protested by Western Resource Advocates
With Drilling, "Doing it Right" Should be Mandatory
Public health receives greater protections due to Western Resource Advocates pressure on Rands Butte drilling
WRA Supports "Hidden Gems" Wilderness Proposal
Western Resource Advocates Provides Comments to Feds About Assessing GHG Impacts in Federal Permitting
- WRA Comments to the CEQ
- Exhibit A - Oil Shale Emissions
- Exhibit B - Planning for Fluid Mineral Resources
- Exhibit C - Addressing the Impacts of Climate Change on American Resources
- Exhibit D - DOI Coordinated Climate Response Plan
Sage-grouse's New Status Recognizes the Threats to Its Existence, But Lacks the Teeth of a Full ESA Listing
WRA’s Work on Wyoming Range Pays Off
WRA Holds BLM Accountable on Jonah Field Enforcement
Ferret Habitat Removed from Oil and Gas Lease Sale
IBLA Rules in Favor of WRA to Preserve Historical Treasures
WRA Prevails in Utah Supreme Court Case on Open Records
Colorado Moves Forward with New Oil and Gas Rules
Drops Lawsuit Against State of Colorado
Western Resource Advocates’ goal of ensuring sound oversight of oil and gas drilling in Colorado marked a key victory on February 3, when the Colorado Oil & Gas Association (COGA) dropped its legal challenge to new environmentally-protective rules that were approved in 2008. We support the regulations because they provide some of the best protections in the nation for landowners, water, and wildlife.
Western Resource Advocates was in the thick of the action from day one. We drafted the Colorado Habitat Stewardship Act, which made the case for protecting wildlife from the hazards of oil and gas development and served as the basis for the regulations that passed in 2008. Throughout the rule making process, we effectively advocated for strong protections. We were also part of the legal team that defended the rules in state court from the industry challenge
“We credit former Governor Ritter for having the courage and vision to stand behind the rules, and Governor Hickenlooper for facilitating industry’s decision to drop its suit,” said Mike Chiropolos, Western Resource Advocates Lands Program Director. “Balanced regulations make sense for Colorado, our wildlife, and citizens in the gas patch. It’s time to unite around the cleaner energy economy that is vital to Colorado's future.”
The industry lawsuit was the last legal challenge to the new rules. Some in industry claimed that these protections would force drillers out of the state. This has been proven to be untrue. In December 2010, there were an all-time high of 43,354 active oil and gas wells in the state – which is 5,995 more wells today (16% more) than when the rules were approved in December, 2008.
According to Colorado Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Mike King, “Colorado cannot effectively address the challenges of the future unless everyone is working collaboratively, and litigation is not the best way to achieve that goal. We are happy this litigation is over.”
Western Resource Advocates is working to ensure that the rules are fully and fairly implemented.
The final rules are a Colorado success story that can serve as a model for other states that are wrestling with the same issues. “Outdated rules, inadequate protections, and a major drilling boom are a bad combination for the environment and local communities,” observed Chiropolos. “Colorado’s experience establishes that industry can apply best practices that reduce impacts such as water pollution and habitat fragmentation. Collaboration can result in a win-win.”
The following links describe the protections enabled by the legislation:
Won't become a "Jonah in the Woods"
The Wyoming Range doesn’t draw the same attention as its more famous neighbors, the Grand Tetons and the Wind River Range, but as one of the largest undeveloped National Forest landscapes in the state of Wyoming it is a haven for hunters, anglers and other visitors lured by the abundant wildlife and rugged scenery. Responding to a groundswell of popular support, the Wyoming Range Legacy Act was passed by Congress with strong bipartisan support in 2009, setting aside the 1.2 million acres of the Range from being overrun by energy development.
In January 2010, the Forest Service reversed course and decided not to allow oil and gas leases on 42,700 contested acres in the Wyoming Range – meaning that these lands will enjoy the full protections of the Legacy Act including a permanent withdrawal from mineral entry. The head of the Bridger-Teton National Forest announced that leasing was inappropriate because of the substantial impacts that would come from drilling activities -- including air pollution, disrupted wildlife habitat, and compromised recreation.
WRA worked long and hard to achieve this victory. In 2006, we represented five clients in a legal challenge to decisions approving the leasing of more than 19,000 of the acres protected by the new decision. WRA argued for protection of this magnificent landscape, securing a victory remanding the leases to the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service. Our clients were Greys River Trophies, Hoback Peak Outfitters, the National Outdoor Leadership School, Trophy Mountain Outfitters, and Trout Unlimited.
This victory is especially important to wildlife. The disturbances from nearby gas development in the Pinedale Anticline and Jonah Field have sent wildlife numbers plummeting in northwest Wyoming. The Wyoming Range provides crucially important summer range, calving areas, and migration routes for deer, elk, moose, and pronghorn that would be disrupted by ongoing drilling.
In a major success for public lands, Western Resource Advocates and our partners have prevented all five oil and gas parcels up for bid at the November Colorado lease auction from making it to the auction block. The targeted areas included the Mamm Creek roadless area on the White River National Forest, and the Black Mountain and Sugarloaf North roadless areas on the Routt National Forest. We were also able to protect more than 200,000 acres of critically important sage-grouse habitat spread throughout Wyoming's Wind River Basin.
The areas were withdrawn from pending lease sales because their roadless and wildlife values. In addition to being important habitat, the areas have tremendous value for recreation and are critical watersheds for downstream water users.
The Bureau of Land Management recognized that leasing these parcels would be inappropriate because of the negative impacts to regional air quality and a number of threatened or endangered species such as the lynx. Drilling operations would also produce large quantities of greenhouse gasses.
Western Resource Advocates filed a protest against offering these leases for sale on behalf of six other environmental organizations.
Already Protecting 355,000 Acres in Colorado
Colorado’s Western Slope is one of the most beautiful parts of the country. In addition to supporting communities, this spectacular area is recognized for its recreational offerings, including skiing, fishing, hunting, hiking, and mountain biking. It is home to some of Colorado’s favorite forests and wilderness areas. However, large reserves of natural gas on the Western Slope also make the area prime for drilling that can harm habitat for elk, deer, and sensitive species such as sage-grouse and cutthroat trout.
In August, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter and nine industry parties unveiled agreements to provide additional wildlife protections on 355,000 acres (555 square miles) of sensitive wildlife habitat across northwest Colorado. The Oil and Gas Journal, an industry trade publication, recognized this new way of doing business as a national model for protecting wildlife in the gas patch, while providing greater certainty for drillers. Exxon and Encana are among the companies that have raised the bar for habitat protections.
These landmark agreements were made possible under the Colorado Habitat Stewardship Act, which was largely drafted by WRA. New rules implemented under the act require that companies use “best management practices” and consult with experts at the Division of Wildlife to conserve wildlife resources.
These new standards are the first of their kind in the nation under state law.
Western Resource Advocates is contesting a US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management decision to lease 140,000 acres for oil and gas development that includes a watershed that is an important source of drinking water for communities along Utah's populous Wasatch Front. The area near Strawberry Reservoir is also an important recreational resource of the region's residents who have spent millions of dollars restoring the health of streams in this forested area. About 90,000 acres out of the total leased acreage is high value roadless area with an abundance of wildlife. WRA is filing this action on behalf of the Utah Rivers Council, Utah Environmental Congress and Save Our Canyons.
Western Resource Advocates is pressing the federal government to make Best Management Practices, or BMPs, a mandatory rather than voluntary way to work in the field . BMPs are guidelines for how the oil and gas industry should operate when drilling in order to protect both humans and the environment they live in. To support ongoing reforms of the broken system overseeing leasing and drilling on federal lands, Western Resource Advocates and over a dozen other signatories sent a letter to the Bureau of Land Management requesting that they mandate industry should conduct their business properly at all times, rather than just when they opt to do so. Read a copy of the letter here.
The Bureau of Lands Management directed drilling company Cimarex to institute a public safety plan after Western Resource Advocates voiced concerns over their permit to drill for potentially dangerous "sour" natural gas in the area. Sour gas contains the compound hydrogen sulfide, which can be lethal to humans in even minute concentrations. In addition, Western Resource Advocates is asking the Forest Service to stand behind all protective measures in the controlling management plan for the Hoback Basin -- provisions that will prevent drilling from occuring at the expense of resources such as the Canada lynx, clean water, or air quality.
WRA's Lands Program released a statement supporting the Hidden Gems Wilderness proposal that requires Congressional approval to protect a slate of special places in the White River and Gunnison National Forests and on nearby Bureau of Land Management lands. Most of Colorado's existing designated wilderness are high-elevation lands featuring lots of rock and ice and little diverse animal habitat. The Hidden Gems proposal seeks to protect more ecologically-diverse middle elevations and provide habitat for imperiled species. The proposal would significantly enlarging some existing wilderness while creating several brand-new, stand-alone wilderness areas. Read WRA's comment here.
The need to limit the amount of climate-changing pollutants we pump into the sky is beyond obvious, especially for those living in the West who are already seeing changes to climate in how our water supply fucntions, with increases in pests and invasive species, and in the health of our forests. Federal agencies can play a key role in limiting those emissions because their permitting processes have the ability to approve or disapprove of polluting activities that bring into play the use of public lands or resources. In an effort to get the government to step-up to the plate and use these powers effectively, Western Resource Advocates is pressing federal agencies to recognize their role in limiting climate-changing pollution
When the federal government undertakes a significant action using public resources, it is required to assess whether those those actions while have significant environmental costs before moving forward. In a very thorough set of comments to the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), WRA's Lands program lays out why greenhouse gas emissions, including CO2 and methane, should be consided in the mix. To this point, their impacts have not been taken into account.
Oil shale and tar sands development, oil and gas drilling, and other highly-polluting activities that take place on public lands are subject to this approval process. WRA is calling on federal agencies to abide by laws requiring them to do what's right for America's citizens.
Click below for access to the comments and supporting document:
The Department of the Interior announced that sage-grouse have been given candidate status for Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing, noting that a full listing is “warranted but precluded” because of the logjam of as many as 250 other species on the verge of being declared endangered.
The sage-grouse is not only an iconic species of the West, it is also a bellwether species indicating that once-vast areas of sagebrush habitat have now been whittled down to much smaller, fragmented areas. The sage-grouse may be the most imperiled species, but the survival of 350 other species of animals and plants relies on the protection of the same sagebrush habitat.
"Interior's decision recognizes that business as usual could drive the sage grouse to extinction," said Lands Program Director Mike Chiropolos. "Now is the time for Westerners to collaborate on how to preserve our open spaces and wildlife habitat. The main thing will be applying good science to ensure the recovery of the species and the health of sagebrush ecosystems."
Most of the remaining sage-grouse habitat exists in Wyoming, Nevada, Idaho and Montana, areas that are also seeing extensive growth in energy development. Further inroads by industry into core areas of sage-grouse habitat will certainly push the sage-grouse toward a full listing as an endangered species and even closer to extinction.
The sage-grouse’s new status provides recognition of threats to its existence, but lacks the teeth a full listing would have had. It’s imperative that federal and state governments take action so landowners and industry can take steps to avoid damage to critical habitat and permit recovery of sage-grouse populations.
Western Resource Advocates has convinced the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to withdraw eight proposed lease parcels, covering 10,361 acres, from the upcoming October 21 lease auction. These proposed leases are located within five miles of Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwest New Mexico, a World Heritage Site that is one of the top attractions on the "Trail of the Ancients" through the Four Corners region.
"It's hard to imagine a more inappropriate location for gas drilling," said Western Resource Advocates' Lands Program Director Mike Chiropolos. "Visitors from around the world are drawn to this area because of its significance. Their experience of mystery, culture and history would be shattered by industrial development on the park's doorstep."
In proposing these areas for oil and gas development. the BLM failed to consult with the many Pueblo Tribes with ancestral ties to these lands, as required by the National Historic Preservation Act. The Hopi Tribe objected to oil and gas leasing on lands they call "the Place Beyond the Horizon," entitled to protection as a Traditional Cultural Property under federal law. The rich archeological sites on these lands include ancient masonry dwellings, kivas, middens, and hearths.
To defeat the leasing proposal, Western Resource Advocates worked closely with San Juan Citizens Alliance, New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, Diné CARE, the Chaco Alliance, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. These groups are working toward permanent protection for Greater Chaco Canyon.
The Bureau of Land Management is withdrawing tens of thousands of acres of contested oil and gas leases in the Wyoming Range. The leases were pulled after passage of the Wyoming Range Legacy Act, a groundbreaking bipartisan law that withdraws the area from energy development. Efforts by Western Resource Advocates (WRA), in conjunction with the Wyoming Outdoor Council, aided in passage of the Act.
In a state significantly scarred by aggressive oil and gas drilling, the Wyoming Range is a place state residents are unwilling to let suffer the same fate as the nearby Pinedale and Jonah gas fields.
The Wyoming Range is the largest roadless area remaining in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. It holds considerable value to Wyoming for its abundant recreational opportunities and the richness of its wildlife. Because of this, it is a vital economic asset for the region, especially to the hunting and fishing outfitting community whose livelihoods depend upon this area.
When vast areas of the Wyoming Range were auctioned in violation of laws requiring the BLM and U.S. Forest Service to analyze impacts of future drilling on wildlife and local recreation businesses, WRA appealed the sale. WRA’s lease challenge prevailed, giving citizen groups in Wyoming the opportunity to build formidable local support for federal legislation permanently protecting these lands.
“Passage of the Legacy Act shows that a small group of dedicated people can succeed at protecting our public lands against all odds,” said WRA Lands Program Director Mike Chiropolos. “When we first took this case, the chances of winning in the long run were minimal because the federal bureaucracy seemed to be in the pocket of energy companies. But Wyoming’s elected officials got behind the outfitters and sportsmen who love the Wyoming Range as it is. It’s a sweet victory for those who fought to protect this rugged mountain range.”
The BLM is withdrawing 12 proposed leases covering approximately 24,000 acres in the Wyoming Range, though an additional 20,000 acres of contested leases still remain in dispute.
WRA’s clients in the case were National Outdoor Leadership School, Trout Unlimited and three local outfitter/guide businesses: Greys River Trophies, Hoback Peak Outfitters, and Trophy Mountain Outfitters.
WRA filed a suit against the Bureau of Land Management for failing to be forthcoming about its enforcement of environmental mitigation requirements in the Jonah Field Infill Project. The Jonah Field in Wyoming is a stark example of the damage that can occur with intensive natural gas production. The BLM, as part of its directive in managing the Jonah Field Infill Project, is supposed to ensure that proper mitigation of drilling impacts is taking place and provide the documentation to prove it.
WRA filed its claims against the BLM after an initial attempt to obtain public records on mitigation activities was not met and a second request was similarly ignored by the BLM.
The lack of cooperation by the BLM and internal correspondence obtained from the nearby Pinedale Anticline gas field indicate there is reason to be suspicious about BLM enforcement of its own guidelines. The Jonah field has suffered from declines in animal populations, very poor air quality, and complaints of impaired water quality since gas drilling began booming in the area. The Infill Project proposes drilling 3,100 new wells in an area that already has over 500 wells drilled. The project permits around 20,409 acres of surface disturbance out of an area of 30,550 total acres. The mitigation activity WRA is monitoring affects the health and well-being of the human population in the region, as well as the health of the rest of the ecosystem.
A report from the region's Wyoming Tribune Eagle newspaper has more information.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) removed six disputed parcels from an oil and gas lease auction after WRA challenged the inclusion of these parcels located in a black-footed ferret reintroduction area. WRA argued that BLM needed to consult with wildlife experts and consider the most recent scientific data on how leasing could impact the reintroduced population of the ferret, the most endangered mammal in North America. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working to bring endangered ferret populations back to self-sustaining levels. The BLM agreed with WRA’s assessment.
This marks WRA’s third consecutive victory for the black-footed ferret. According to Lands Program Director Mike Chiropolos, “we’re heartened that, under Secretary Salazar, BLM is recognizing the need for sound scientific review before offering leases. Under the prior administration, we were forced to litigate these cases before the Department of Interior’s appeals board to win protections for the ferret.”
The Interior Board of Land Appeals(IBLA) agreed with WRA that the Bureau of Land Management failed to adequately protect historical sites in Utah's Red Rock country when issuing grazing leases. Click here to read more on the decision.
WRA contested and prevailed over the State of Utah's claim to be able to hide records from public view regarding the state's claim to rights of way over federal lands. For more on this case, click here.
In late September, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) approved a sweeping set of new rules governing oil and gas drilling in the state. This broad set of reforms will require the oil and gas industry to implement new safeguards to better protect Colorado’s water supplies, air quality, lands, and wildlife. Although substantial compromise was required by all participants in the rulemaking process, the end result is improved protection from the activities of a booming energy industry.
After his election, Governor Bill Ritter changed the make-up of the COGCC, turning it from a board dominated by the industry to one more representative of other perspectives. The new commission responded to citizen concerns about the failure of outmoded oil and gas drilling rules to protect the state from the negative environmental and social impacts of an extraordinary drilling boom.
WRA attorneys represented a coalition of environmental groups in the rulemaking proceedings and played a large role in providing expert testimony and battling industry efforts to water down or eliminate needed protections.
Among the changes in the rules were measures to protect drinking water and wildlife habitat, control odor and dust, and require disclosure of toxic chemicals used in the drilling process. Rules regarding the safety of open waste pits, which often contain toxic substances, were deferred for future deliberations.
Colorado’s approach of reassessing a broad array of regulations all at once sets a precedent for other states similarly confronting drilling booms. Some of the approved rules break new ground, while others bring Colorado closer to the protections imposed by neighboring
WRA successfully challenged the inclusion of 145,000 acres of Rio Grande National Forest in a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oil and gas lease sale, forcing the withdrawal of that acreage from the sale. The Rio Grande National Forest is not known to have extensive oil and gas resources. The lease proposal shocked local residents, who questioned its size as well as the inclusion of high-value forestlands in an area with questionable oil and gas deposits.
WRA successfully argued that the federal agencies had not carried out any analysis of the environmental impacts of drilling in the forest since 1995, when only 23 additional wells were planned. The proposed leasing of more than 145,000 acres could result in hundreds, if not thousands, of wells. The impacts to the forest of this monumental increase in drilling had not been considered by the BLM. The BLM rescinded the lease sale until a more thorough analysis can be done.
“Not leasing now was the right decision,” said WRA Lands Program Director Mike Chiropolos. “By stepping back to ‘look before it leaps,’ the Forest Service avoided repeating the mistakes it has made on other National Forests across the Rockies.”
The initial lease sale, which was scheduled to occur on May 8th, put more than 175,000 acres up for lease in 14 Colorado counties. The vast majority of these lands were in the Rio Grande National Forest, which had not had a single acre leased for oil and gas drilling since 1994.
Other Recent Developments
WYOMING: Protecting Sage Grouse Habitat in Pinedale Resource Area
WRA is working closely with Audubon to protect Wyoming's greater sage-grouse from impacts caused by oil and gas development, specifically by:
1) protesting the sale of oil and gas leases covering hundreds of thousands of acres of "core" sage-grouse habitat (nesting, strutting and brood rearing areas); and
2) by challenging BLM's proposed Resource Management Plan for the Pinedale area, comprising tens of thousands of acres of important sage-grouse core population areas.
WYOMING: Limiting Air Pollution in Pinedale Gas Fields
WRA is partnering with the Upper Green River Valley Coalition to ensure that emissions from increased oil and gas activities in the booming Pinedale Anticline field do not contribute to further degradation of visibility in Class I wilderness areas, cause air quality violations or unhealthy levels of ground level ozone. Pinedale, a rural Wyoming town with a population of less than 2,000, has experienced ground-level ozone pollution worse than Los Angeles at times due to excessive emissions produced by oil and gas drilling activities.
WYOMING: Stopping Drilling Contamination in Pavillion
Pavillion is a small farming community in central Wyoming experiencing rapid growth in oil and gas drilling. Because of air and water contamination problems resulting from the drilling activity, WRA is working with local groups to press Wyoming's Department of Environmental Quality for stronger controls on oil and gas production facilities to protect the health of local residents.
WYOMING: Providing Citizens with Information on Toxic Drilling Chemicals
WRA is assisting the Oil and Gas Accountability Project (OGAP) and coalition of individuals and organizations across Wyoming to gain access to information about chemicals used by the oil and gas industry under the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know law. A number of toxic chemicals can be used in the oil and gas drilling process and citizens can be exposed to them through spills, vapors and water wells contaminated through " fracing," a process that breaks apart tight underground formations using chemicals, water, sand and extreme hydraulic pressure.
WYOMING: Human Health Needs to Factor into Oil and Gas Drilling Expansion
WRA, local citizens and grass roots groups in Pinedale and Pavillion are working to persuade the BLM to prepare Health Impact Assessments for large natural gas development projects proposed on public lands. These assessments will take into account the human public health and environmental health impacts of Wyoming's explosive growth in oil and gas drilling. Area residents have felt the detrimental effects to local air and water quality due to the drilling. With proposals to more than double the current number of wells in the Pinedale Anticline in the works, Wyoming residents are pressing to have their health concerns taken into account in the decision-making process.