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Drilling at Mesa Verde and Dinosaur National Monument: BLM boss backpedals after protests

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The director of Colorado's Bureau of Land Management office seems to be engaged in an elaborate game of chicken over the past few months. On several occasions, Helen Hankins has announced plans to auction off oil and gas leases in environmentally sensitive areas, including tracts near Mesa Verde National Park and Dinosaur National Monument -- only to back off at the eleventh hour after a surge of protests from environmental and community groups.

The latest showdown concerns eight drilling leases comprising 10,839 acres near Mesa Verde, which the BLM announced last week would be withdrawn from a February 14 sale. Hankins also recently retreated on 2,626 acres of leases outside Dinosaur, originally planned for sale in May. In addition, she's repeatedly deferred action on 20,000 acres of proposed oil and gas leases in the scenic North Fork Valley, where local tourism, farming and ranching interests have been involved in a series of passionate and well-organized protests against the plan.

Hankins' critics say this tiresome cycle of proposal, protest and deferral isn't the way the leasing process is supposed to operate. Reforms implemented by outgoing Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar call for BLM officials to engage in a wider range of consultation with other federal agencies (such as the National Park Service) and community outreach before determining what leases will be offered to energy interests. Former Dinosaur superintendent Denny Huffman recently took Hankins to task in a Denver Post guest column for ignoring those reforms, saying that her plan "was heavily influenced by the oil and gas industry" and "woefully fails to take a balanced approach."

Under Hankins, the federal leasing process in Colorado has become much more adversarial than in neighboring states. A Wilderness Society study indicates that an astonishing 85 percent of leases offered in the state last year were protested, compared to only 33 percent in the Rocky Mountain region as a whole.

"These deferrals are a band-aid, not a cure," Ellynne Bannon of the Checks and Balances Project noted in a statement in response to the BLM turnabout on Mesa Verde. "Director Hankins must modernize her leasing policies and include other agencies, like the National Park Service, residents and business owners, in her planning as much as oil and gas executives, or we'll be back to square one for the next lease sale."

Defenders of the parks and the North Fork Valley also contend that the leasing plans are based on outmoded environmental assessments and fail to take into account the full range of impacts increased drilling would have. For example, the latest annual air quality monitoring reports for the National Park Service indicate that in 2012, Rocky Mountain National Park became the smoggiest park in the system outside of California, with fourteen days of ozone exceedances -- the first time that's happened since the parks system started keeping records on air quality. Last year's fires certainly contributed to the park's respiratory problems, but so do auto traffic and emissions related to oil and gas drilling as far away as Weld County.

More from our Environment archive: "Fracking the North Fork: Protests pour in over BLM lease plan."

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