Surface-owner protection bill killed

A contentious piece of legislation originally drafted to protect property owners from oil and gas development has been withdrawn. Critics of the bill alleged that it had been “hijacked by the oil and gas industry” and would actually be damaging to private property owners in La Plata County and elsewhere.

Sponsored by State Sen. Jim Isgar, D-Hesperus, House Bill 1185 was intended to protect surface owners from the impacts of drilling on their private land. The legislation was intended to give landowners leverage to negotiate a fair surface use agreement with drillers. However, opponents argue that industry altered the bill so that it could continue to offer “take-it-or-leave-it” agreements and drill without landowner consent.  

Another critical flaw of the bill was that it exempts existing leases. According to the Oil and Gas Accountability Project, an industry watchdog, 90 percent of new drilling will occur on existing leases. As a result, the bill would exempt the industry from paying 90 percent of landowners for damages caused by drilling.

The La Plata County Board of Commissioners was among many opponents statewide. The commissioners sent a letter to Isgar last week objecting to changes in the bill and withdrawing their support.

In a letter signed by board chair Wally White, the commissioners wrote, “On February 28, 2006, the La Plata County Board of County Commissioners expressed its support of HB 1185 as it emerged from the House. However, since that time, the bill has undergone serious and deleterious changes that have fundamentally changed the scope of the bill.”

The letter went on to explain that the bill would not only adversely affect property rights, it would undermine governmental control of oil and mineral leases.

“The bill was originally intended to address surface owner compensation for the decrease in fair market value of a surface estate reasonably expected to result from oil and gas operations,” the letter stated. “However, the bill as drafted is detrimental to local government authority and contravenes the original intent of the bill.”

The surface owner protection bill was scheduled to go before the State Senate on April 13. However, given objections and growing contention, Isgar said that he decided to withdraw it.

“The rhetoric got so heated that we couldn’t reach a compromise,” Isgar said early this week. “So we’ve decided to kill it.”


Prescribed burning set to begin

Smoke will soon fill local skies. However, local residents can rest easy. Fire managers plan on beginning a series of prescribed burns next week in an effort to avert catastrophic wildfire later in the summer.

Fire managers with San Juan Public Lands have announced that the conditions are ripe for a prescribed burn to reduce hazardous fuels over the next several weeks. The fires are expected to begin the week of April 17 around Durango, even earlier near Dolores and toward the end of the month around Pagosa Springs. A total of 4,500 acres are earmarked for prescribed fire. Prescribed burns are low-intensity fires, which are set and carefully monitored by fire crews. They are used to improve forest health and reduce “ladder fuels,” the shrubs and other plants that can carry flames up into tree canopies, turning a manageable wildland blaze into a devastating crown fire. “We call these ‘prescribed burns’ because there is a ‘prescription,’ or several conditions that must be met, before we’ll even think about igniting a fire,” explained Mark Lauer, fire management officer for the San Juan Public Lands Center. These conditions include temperatures, relative humidity, moisture level of the grasses, needles and trees, wind speed and direction, and smoke dispersal. Spring and fall are generally the best times of year to burn because the temperatures are more moderate and the fuels have enough moisture to keep the fire at a low intensity.

Two major burns are planned for the Durango area. A 1,616-acre prescribed fire is planned for the Mitchell Lakes area 12 miles north of Durango and on the west side of U.S. Highway 550. That fire in the vicinity of Hermosa will be ignited from an aircraft. A second 3,421-acre fire is planned for Sawmill Canyon, located 9 miles west of Durango and north of U.S. Highway 160 in the vicinity of Hesperus and Durango West.

Lauer said that smoke will be present in and around Durango, but that it is a small price to pay for wildfire avoidance.

“Residents are often concerned about the smoke from prescribed burns,” he said, “but we need to remember that it is generally short term and much less significant than the smoke from an unplanned wildfire.”


Lynx reintroduction forges ahead

The Colorado Division of Wildlife is currently continuing to make progress on its groundbreaking reintroduction of Canada lynx into the San Juan Mountains. Another four cats were released into the San Juans early this month.

This is the sixth year the DOW has released lynx locally, and a total of 218 of the large cats have been introduced. This month, 14 lynx, all from the Yukon Territory and British Columbia, will be released north of the town of South Fork.

Thus far, the lynx have adapted well to the heavily-wooded, high-altitude terrain in the southern and central mountains. DOW biologists estimate that about 150 to 200 lynx are now roaming the mountains and are particularly pleased that 105 kittens have been born during the last three years, including 50 in 2005.

“The healthy reproduction provides the best evidence that lynx are again becoming part of Colorado’s wildlife landscape,” said Tanya Shenk, the DOW’s lead field researcher on the lynx project.

Because of the strong reproduction rate, the DOW reduced the number of lynx it brought down from Canada this year by more than half.

“We prefer to see the natural reproduction,” said Rick Kahn, head of the DOW’s terrestrial biology section and the team leader for the reintroduction project. “We hope that the cats born here will adapt best to living in Colorado’s high country.” Several lynx have wandered out of Colorado, but the core populations are in the San Juan Mountains in the area generally between Dolores and Creede and in the central mountains generally in the large triangle area between Buena Vista, Vail and Aspen. Before the reintroduction the last lynx were seen in Colorado in 1973.

Forest sale comment period extended

The public has until May 1 to comment on a controversial proposal to sell up to 300,000 acres of national forest to provide money for rural schools and roads.

In Colorado, 21,572 acres of national forest could be sold, and 240 acres of them are in La Plata County. The Forest Service has classified the acreage as low grade and difficult to manage.

Among the opponents of the sale is U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo. Reacting to the Forest Service’s extension of the comment period, he said, “Extending the public comment period for an extra month will not change my skepticism of this short-sighted proposal. I continue to be very concerned about the administration’s proposal to sell off pieces of America’s permanent heritage of public lands as part of a short-term budget issue.”

Comments can be submitted through May 1 to: USDA Forest Service, SRS Comments, Lands 4S, 1400 Independence Ave., SW, Mailstop 1124, Washington, D.C.,  20250-0003. They can also be faxed to: (202) 205-1604.

– compiled by Will Sands


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