The Bureau of Land Management has granted a two-week extension to March 29 for public comment on a contentious proposal to lease 6,137-acres in the HD Mountains southeast of Bayfield for oil and gas development.
The deferral comes at the behest of elected officials in La Plata and Archuleta counties, as well as the environmental group San Juan Citizens Alliance, which sent letters to the BLM demanding more time to review the impacts new wells would have on the wilderness area.
Comments can be submitted until March 29, with the sale set for May 12.
In the letters sent, the BLM and the Forest Service were criticized for rushing the leasing process, not holding a public meeting on the sale and failing to notify adjacent property owners.
"It was way too short of notice to respond," said La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt. "With the sheer lack of time, we're just asking for a timeout so we can really take the time to look at these leases."
The BLM posted the sale of four parcels, most of which are in La Plata County, on Feb. 12 - to the ire of community members opposed to oil and gas development on the largely roadless area.
Dan Olson, executive director of San Juan Citizen's Alliance, wrote to the BLM that the Environmental Impact Statement conducted in the early 2000s, which authorized oil and gas leasing over local opposition, falls short of taking into account the cumulative impact of new wells in the area.
"In general, there has been a lack of landscape scale NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) analysis completed to help our community understand the impact these additional leases will have on environmental, socio-economic and human health factors," Olson wrote.
"Given the lack of oil and gas drilling activity in the region as a result of depressed commodity prices, there is no need to rush this lease sale process, especially in light of the significant deficiencies of both public outreach and analysis on a regional scale."
The BLM provided a 30-day public comment period on the sale, per statute, but Olson maintained that the federal agency "failed to meet community expectations" on the "highly contentious lease parcel."
Steven Hall, communications director for the BLM, said another two weeks of public comment will allow more time for input while not delaying the sale.
"We've heard from the local community that had some concerns about the timing involved," Hall said. "We want to provide as much time as we can for the public to weigh in."
Hall added that since the parcels are on Forest Service land, the agency is not required to notify adjacent property owners. However, the La Plata County commissioners' letter said that was unacceptable.
"With a projected population growth of nearly 50 percent in the unincorporated areas of La Plata County, an area rich in oil and gas development, conflicts specific to siting of new development will become inevitable," the letter said.
Commissioners Lachelt and Julie Westendorff signed the letter. Commissioner Brad Blake declined, saying he was satisfied with the agency's process.
In a separate letter to the Forest Service, the San Juan Citizen Alliance called on the agency to withdraw all parcels from the lease sale.
Olson wrote the withdrawal would "ensure fluid mineral development does not proceed in a way that irrevocably harms other treasured values of this region.
"More that 6,000 of these acres proposed for leasing are situated in the HD Mountains, a unique low-elevation range which is home to an array of Puebloan and other Native American cultural sites, critical year-around and winter-specific habitat for big game and other species."
Forest Service officials said in an email that although the agency did not hold a public hearing for the sale, if the leases are purchased and an operator submits a project proposal, a project-specific NEPA analysis and public comment period would then occur.