When officials at the Bureau of Land Management sold the rights to drill for oil and gas on nearly 5,000 acres of land in Colorado’s White River National Forest in September 2018, it was the culmination of years of careful planning.
Though environmentalists protested the lease sales, the six parcels in question had been offered only after an extensive series of federal reviews initiated by the U.S. Forest Service in 2010. For nearly six years, federal regulators, activists, industry groups and members of the public participated in the process, through which more than 210,000 acres of the national forest were added to areas deemed off-limits for oil and gas development in order to minimize impacts on wildlife, the environment and the region’s scenic landscapes.
“The White River National Forest is a crown jewel of our nation’s public land system,” Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams wrote in the agency’s final decision, issued in December 2015. “Public lands managed for a wide variety of uses, from pristine wilderness to a slate of commercial activities, is a major contributor to the strength of our nation. But it isn’t easy. It requires making tough choices and significant compromise.”
Under a new rule proposed this week by the Trump administration, however, conservation advocates worry that the Forest Service’s future decisions on oil and gas drilling could be heavily tilted in the industry’s favor. Many of the country’s treasured national forests could be threatened by new industrial development as public input and painstaking compromises are eschewed in favor of fast-tracking and rubber stamps.
For oil and gas companies hoping to drill on national forestland, the new rule would mean that “everything is easier,” said Josh Axelrod, a senior advocate with the National Resources Defense Council.
“They don’t have to be as careful,” he said. “It has the potential to drastically speed things up.”
The 71-page proposed rule, published in the Federal Register on Sept. 1, aims to “streamline processes and promote efficiency” in the agency’s oil and gas policies. It would eliminate certain environmental reviews and public notice requirements, loosen enforcement of regulatory violations and change how the Forest Service coordinates with the BLM, the agency responsible for leasing subsurface mineral rights on all federal lands, including national forests.
“Updating our regulations about oil and gas resources will help us be more efficient, while improving customer service,” Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen said in a statement. “The rule would promote responsible development of our nation’s vast energy resources while preserving the surface resources of national forests and grasslands.”
If the new rule is adopted, more “streamlined” oil and gas development could affect more than 30 national forests across the Western U.S. where federal officials have identified accessible oil and gas resources, including White River, Routt, Arapahoe, San Juan and half a dozen other national forests in Colorado. The changes would also apply to the Pawnee National Grassland, which is managed by the Forest Service and lies almost entirely within the oil- and gas-rich Denver-Julesburg Basin on the state’s Eastern Plains.
The Forest Service did not respond to a Newsline request for comment on criticism of its proposed rule. Environmentalists fear that the changes, when combined with other regulatory rollbacks being pursued by the Trump administration — including an effort to curtail review processes required under the National Environmental Policy Act — could unleash a wave of drilling and destructive ecological impacts on public lands that have long been protected from industrial development.
“The administration really outdid itself with a proposal that has the Forest Service walking away from its responsibilities for managing our national forests and grassland while closing the door on public oversight,” Nada Culver, vice president of public lands for the National Audubon Society, said in a statement. “Replacing forested areas and grasslands with drill pads and access roads not only means fewer birds like mallards and prairie warblers, but also degrades our lands and natural spaces, and threatens water supplies for millions of people.”
Oil and gas development in national forests has long sparked controversy in Colorado — nowhere more so than in the Thompson Divide, a 220,000-acre section of the White River National Forest just west of Carbondale.
In 2009, a wide range of conservation, outdoor-recreation and agricultural groups formed a coalition to oppose increased natural gas extraction in the area, which had seen the gradual arrival of drilling activity following the BLM’s sale of 81 leases in White River National Forest in the early 2000s.
A years-long legal and regulatory battle led to a 2016 compromise in which 25 undeveloped leases within the Thompson Divide — which later were found to have been improperly issued — were canceled. Permanently protecting the area has been a cause championed by top Colorado Democrats including Sen. Michael Bennet, who has repeatedly introduced legislation to withdraw roughly 200,000 acres in the Thompson Divide from future oil and gas development.
Limited oil and gas drilling has also been approved in the San Juan National Forest in southwest Colorado, and in the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests near the Wyoming border.
Drilling in national forests is a rarity — only about 2.7% of the 193 million acres managed by the Forest Service are currently leased for oil, gas, coal or geothermal uses, and just 4,000 wells are currently active nationwide, according to a 2020 report. Pursuing fossil-fuel development has never been a major part of the agency’s mission, Axelrod said.
“The Forest Service is managing national forests for a lot of uses, many of which don’t have to do with extractive industry,” he said. “Timber is kind of the primary one, and then otherwise it’s a lot of recreation, and all of the ecosystem benefits that forests provide.”
But that has shifted under the Trump administration, as top public-lands officials emphasized a new policy of “energy dominance” aimed at dramatically ramping up oil and gas production on lands managed by the BLM, Forest Service and other federal agencies.
Under the controversial leadership of William Perry Pendley — a former attorney with the Colorado-based Mountain States Legal Foundation, and a longtime proponent of the privatization of public lands — the BLM has continued its Trump-era spree of fossil-fuel leases and environmental rollbacks, and critics say the Forest Service’s new oil and gas rule is aimed at following suit. In effect, many of the proposed changes would cede authority over environmental review processes from the Forest Service to the BLM.
“The intent of these proposed changes is to streamline and reduce redundancies to improve agency efficiency and better align Forest Service regulations with those used by the Bureau of Land Management,” reads the proposed rule.
The BLM right now, under the Trump administration, is extremely aggressive on leasing. -Josh Axelrod, a senior advocate with the National Resources Defense Council
The Forest Service is accepting public comment on the rule until November 2, after which it could be finalized within weeks.
While the Trump administration pushes ahead with the rule in Washington, Forest Service officials on the ground in Colorado continue to deal with the impacts of wildfires like the Grizzly Creek Fire, which has burned within the White River National Forest, just east of the Thompson Divide, since igniting on Aug. 10.
It’s a bitter irony, Axelrod noted, that the administration would propose a rule to accelerate drilling in national forests as a wave of destructive wildfires, worsened by a climate change-driven drought, swept over Colorado and much of the Western U.S.
“Here’s a proposal to not only open the forests to oil and gas development, which is driving climate change, but to disturb the forests (and) cut parts of them down,” he said. “It’s just kind of the ultimate slap in the face to proactive climate policy.”