NORTH FORK VALLEY – After receiving a letter from Senator Mark Udall, the Bureau of Land Management has extended the comment period on its draft Environmental Assessment (EA) and Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) to a proposed lease sale of 30,000 acres in and around the Delta County towns of Paonia, Hotchkiss and Crawford.
Udall wrote BLM’s Colorado State Director Helen Hankins asking her to “give communities in Delta County's North Fork Valley extra time to comment on two planning documents for proposed oil and natural gas development in the area. After hearing concerns from constituents about technical issues with using the BLM's comment website,” Udall wanted to ensure the communities affected are given ample opportunity to comment on the proposals, according to a release from his office. Senator Michael Bennet also signed the letter.
Udall’s letter requested adding 30 days to the comment period, extending it to May 7. The BLM announced a two-week extension; the new deadline is April 20.
The BLM is considering leasing about 30,000 acres in the valley for oil and gas development, and on March 7 released its draft EA and FONSI, on which the public could comment. However, Udall’s press release stated, “many Coloradans have said they had technical difficulties with using the BLM's e-Planning website on certain web browsers, in addition to the confusing layout that may also prevent them from voicing their views before the comment period closes.”
Pubic Information Specialist Shannon Borders with the BLM Uncompahgre Field Office in Montrose, which prepared the EA and the FONSI, said Tuesday that the agency’s e-Planning website “works, but it is limited to people who have Internet Explorer.”
People wishing to comment from Apple computers, or those using Safari and other web browsers have not been able to get their comments through. Asked if the BLM is working to expand access to e-Planning, Borders referred inquiries to headquarters in Washington, D.C.
The agency has set up a website independent of the e-Planning system to which citizens can send comments. It is: firstname.lastname@example.org. Borders said hard-copy comments can also be mailed to: Barbara Sharrow, Field Manager, BLM Uncompahgre Field Office, 2465 S. Townsend Ave., Montrose CO 81401.
The Senators’ letter went on to say: “Though we appreciate BLM's efforts to encourage the public to review planning documents and submit substantive comments through e-Planning, it is essential that the comment process be simple, transparent, and accessible to the public.
“As this area supports key aspects of Colorado's economy, from tourism and resource development to agriculture and outdoor recreation, it is essential that management decisions regarding these public lands be informed by comments from all stakeholders. Due to the technical concerns described above, we believe a 30-day extension of the comment period to May 7 would be appropriate.”
Borders did not say why the requested 30-day extension was halved to 14 days. Asked if the extension and attendant response periods built into the agency’s schedule could bump the North Fork leases out of the August quarterly mineral lease auction, Borders replied, “As I understand, there is still time to make the August lease sale.”
Daniel Feldman, a board member of Citizens for a Healthy Community, which has led the fight against oil and gas development in the largely agricultural valley, commented, “Obviously, it’s good there’s an extension. It’s a little late. We first requested this [extension] two weeks ago. But it shows they’re paying attention. And it helps with the impression of ‘predetermination’ about the whole process.”
CHC has argued that the Finding of No Significant Impact is little more than verbal cover for the BLM, which claims a narrow interpretation of the words, saying, in effect, that the sale of mineral leases by itself has no impact on the land or the livelihoods and quality of life of the surrounding communities. Once the parcels are leased, however, there is nothing the community can do to prevent permitted drilling, and its attendant impacts, from going forward.