April 5, 2018
Mr. Keith Berger
Manager, BLM Royal Gorge Field Office
3028 East Main Street
Cañon City, CO 81212
Comments on DOI-BLM-CO-F020-2018-0003-EA
September 2018 Oil & Gas Lease Sale, Royal Gorge Field Office
Dear Mr. Berger:
I am writing to you on behalf of over 1,500 members of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks (Coalition). Our membership is composed entirely of retired, former, or current salaried employees of the National Park Service (NPS). As a group, we collectively represent more than 35,000 years of national park management experience. The Coalition studies, educates, speaks, and acts for the preservation of America’s National Park System.
We are very concerned about the proposed September 2018 Competitive Oil and Gas Lease Sale by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Royal Gorge Field Office and its potential impacts on Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve. We hereby submit comments on the preliminary environmental assessment (EA) for the proposed sale.
In our comments below, we will use the term “park” to refer to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. We will use “National Park” or “Park” to refer specifically to the “National Park” portion of the park; and “National Preserve” or “Preserve” to refer to that portion of the park.
As a matter of law and policy, NPS manages both the Park and Preserve as one park, for the same conservation purposes and under the same statutory authorities (the NPS Organic Act and the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve Act of 2000), the same management policies (NPS Management Polices 2006), and the same management plan (the park’s 2007 General Management Plan). The only relatively minor differences, to the extent there are differences, are a few activities that are authorized by legislation or regulation in the Preserve (e.g., hunting) that are otherwise not allowed in the Park.
We make these distinctions now because there are sections in the EA where BLM makes carefully worded statements (e.g., to minimize or dismiss resource concerns) that are only true about the National Park. However, the same statements are patently untrue about the Preserve and thus untrue about the park as a whole. We will identify such sections of concern in our comments below.
Under the preferred alternative described in the EA, BLM would offer 25 parcels, a total of 21,762.320 acres for lease and defer 412.690 acres from the sale. The proposal includes 11 parcels (Parcels 8080-8090) totaling 18,358 acres in Huerfano County that are located east of and immediately over the ridge from Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. These parcels are located as close as 0.9 miles from the NPS boundary and less than 5 miles from the park’s dune field itself. As a result, the proposed leasing and development of these parcels would allow the expansion of industrial activity in close proximity to the park boundary.
As background, Great Sand Dunes National Monument was established in 1932 to preserve lands containing spectacular and unique sand dunes and additional features of scenic, scientific, and educational interest for the benefit and enjoyment of future generations. The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve Act of 2000 enlarged the existing national monument from 39,000 acres to over 100,000 acres, and established Great Sand Dunes National Preserve, which exceeds 40,000 acres. The purpose of the 2000 legislation was to protect the entire Great Sand Dunes natural system. In addition, the 35,955-acre Great Sand Dunes Wilderness Area, established in 1976, is located within the National Park; and, since the 2000 Act, approximately 40,000 acres of the National Preserve is managed by NPS as part of the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness Area (established in 1993).
As a national parks advocacy group, we will focus our comments on the 11 parcels in Huerfano County and the potential impacts of their proposed leasing and development on park resources and visitor experience opportunities within Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.
There are a number of significant shortcomings in the EA and in BLM’s NEPA process, which are described in detail below. These include:
1) The 15-day public comment is unreasonably brief and should have been extended – Given the nature and complexity of the proposal, which encompasses potential leasing of up to 28 parcels totaling approximately 22,175 acres of federal oil and gas leases in eastern Colorado, the 15-day public comment period for the EA is unreasonably brief. The 15 days is inconsistent with the 30-day comment period previously allowed for public scoping on the same project. Furthermore, it is also inconsistent with the past precedent of 30-day public comment periods for numerous previous lease proposal EAs issued by BLM’s Colorado Office. Our concerns about the length of the comment period are further described in the attached correspondence:
- On March 24, 2018, the Coalition submitted a letter (attached) to BLM explaining our concerns about the brevity of the 15-day comment period and requesting a 15-day extension of the comment period.
- On March 29, BLM RGFO responded (attached) denying the request for an extension. The letter stated, in part: “Colorado BLM will continue to follow current administration guidance, and will not extend the current 15-day comment period.” The letter goes on to say that the previous approach [of 30 day comment periods] “has currently changed as we work to streamline our NEPA process.”
- On March 30, the Coalition sent BLM RGFO a written request (attached) for a copy of the “current administration guidance” regarding the length of the comment period that was referred to in BLM’s denial letter.
At time of the submission of these comments on April 5, 2018, the Coalition still has NOT received a response to our information request, so it is unclear what BLM’s policy guidance actually says about the appropriate length of the comment period. Regardless, allowing only 15 days is unreasonable and the comment period should have been extended.
Our observation has been that hastening, streamlining, or otherwise abbreviating the NEPA process often leads to errors and omissions that compromise the quality of a NEPA document and increase the likelihood of legal challenge to the resulting management decision. In this case, BLM allowed the public a full 30 days to submit scoping comments on the proposed action. Given that the EA is a much more complex document to review than the scoping information, BLM’s decision to significantly reduce (by 50%) the length of the public comment period for the EA is baffling. Such a major reduction in the opportunity to comment conveys the message that BLM cares more about speeding up the process than providing reasonable opportunities for public involvement. If BLM’s policy going forward will be to limit public comment on future lease sale EAs to just 15 days, then it would be more appropriate to announce that change at the start of a project (i.e., before the scoping period).
2) The EA fails to describe or adequately address BLM’s statutory responsibilities for managing public lands – The EA (p. 1) barely mentions the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA) and then only in the context of BLM’s policy “to make mineral resources available for disposal and to encourage development of mineral resources to meet national, regional, and local needs.” Fundamentally, the EA fails to provide the full context of FLPMA as the authority under which BLM manages and protects resources and values on public lands. Section 1701(a)(8)) of the Act states:
“the public lands be managed in a manner that will protect the quality of scientific, scenic, historical, ecological, environmental, air and atmospheric, water resource, and archeological values; that, where appropriate, will preserve and protect certain public lands in their natural condition; that will provide food and habitat for fish and wildlife and domestic animals; and that will provide for outdoor recreation and human occupancy and use.”
The Act (43 U.S.C. 1701 et. seq.) spells out in further detail BLM’s resource protection responsibilities (emphasis added to underlined sections):
- Section 102 (a)(8). States that “…the public lands be managed in a manner that will protect the quality of the…scenic…values….”
- Section 103 (c). Identifies “scenic values” as one of the resources for which public land should be managed.
- Section 201 (a). States that “The Secretary shall prepare and maintain on a continuing basis an inventory of all public lands and their resources and other values (including…scenic values)….”
- Section 505 (a). Requires that “Each right-of-way shall contain terms and conditions which will… minimize damage to the scenic and esthetic values….”
While the current Administration is very assertive about giving priority to mineral resource extraction over conservation, FLPMA clearly puts the priority on resource protection, particularly with regard to “scenic values.” By failing to address these statutory responsibilities, the EA lacks necessary context upon which to evaluate the various adverse impacts of the proposed action; and therefore fails to take a “hard look” at likely impacts to not only BLM managed resources, but also to nearby special conservation lands managed by other government entities.
3) The EA fails to consider the statutory requirements for the protection of resources and values within Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve – In contrast to the BLM’s “multiple use mandate” under FLPMA, the NPS-managed resources within Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve are protected under a separate statutory requirement, which is the “conservation mandate” of the NPS Organic Act of 1916 (54 U.S.C. 100101) and subsequent amendments. The Organic Act established the fundamental purpose of units of the National Park System, which is
“to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations” (54 USC§ 100101(a))
Courts have consistently interpreted the Organic Act as giving conservation priority over use such that “when there is a conflict between conserving resources and values and providing for enjoyment of them, conservation is to be predominant” (NPS Management Policies 2006 §1.4.3).
Furthermore, the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve Act of 2000 expanded the 1932 National Monument in order to provide greater long-term protection of the geological, hydrological, paleontological, scenic, scientific, educational, wildlife, and recreational resources of the area; expand visitor use opportunities, including opportunities to experience the culturally diverse nature of the historical settlement of the area and the natural, ecological, wildlife, cultural, scenic, paleontological, wilderness, and recreational resources.
Given these substantial statutory protections provided to the resources and values of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, we believe protection of park resources merits special consideration, and potential impacts to them should be analyzed in the EA. Sadly, such is not the case.
4) The EA is tiered off an outdated Resource Management Plan (RMP) – The EA, as it applies to the Huerfano County parcels, is tiered off the 1996 Royal Gorge Resource Area RMP and Record of Decision. A number of important changes in oil and gas extraction technology, relevant laws and policies, and socio-economic factors have occurred since the RMP was completed in 1996, making it an obsolete basis for the current EA on oil and gas leasing proposals. These changes include, but are not limited to:
A) The 1996 RMP did not contemplate the advances in oil and gas extraction technologies, including the widespread use of hydraulic fracking. Whereas fracking was a relatively uncommon technology in 1996, hydraulic fracking is now commonly used and the adverse impacts are well documented. However, the potential use of hydraulic fracking on the eleven Huerfano County parcels is not adequately addressed in the EA.
B) The 1996 RMP did not contemplate the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve Act of 2000, which enlarged Great Sand Dunes National Monument from 39,000 acres to over 100,000 acres, and also established Great Sand Dunes National Preserve, which exceeds 40,000 acres. The purpose of the 2000 legislation was to protect the entire Great Sand Dunes natural system.
C) The 1996 RMP did not contemplate the 2007 Final General Management Plan/Wilderness Study/ Environmental Impact Statement (GMP) for Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.The GMP identified resource protection priorities for management of the park; however, potential impacts of the proposed leasing on these priority resources has NOT been adequately analyzed in the EA.
D) The 1996 RMP did not contemplate the dramatic growth in visitation and in the economic value of recreation and tourism in the San Luis Valley area that has occurred since 1996. For example, visitation to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve increased from 309,283 visitors in 1996 to 486,935 visitors in 2017, a 57% increase (NPS data). The total economic output generated in 2016 by Great Sand Dunes visitation in the local gateway economies surrounding the park was $28.9 million (NPS data). The lack of socioeconomic information and analysis in the RMP and EA provides further evidence the 1996 RMP is an outdated and inadequate basis in 2018 for evaluating potential impacts of leasing 11 oil and gas parcels near the park’s eastern boundary.
BLM also recognizes the need to replace the outdated 1996 Royal Gorge Resource Area RMP, along with the 1986 Northeastern RMP which applies to some of the other lease parcels listed in the EA. As stated on BLM’s eplanning website for the Eastern Colorado Resources Management Plan: “The BLM needs a new RMP to address issues and information that have arisen since the existing RMPs (Royal Gorge Resource Area RMP and Northeast RMP) were released.”
5) BLM improperly “segments” the project – It appears to be common practice for BLM to only evaluate “leasing” in its oil and gas program EAs, while putting off a detailed site analysis of potential impacts of oil and gas “development” and “operations” until after an Application for Permit to Drill (APD) is filed. This approach is extremely problematic from a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) perspective. It appears to be “improper segmentation” of the proposed action and fails to evaluate reasonably foreseeable “connected actions” (i.e., leasing, development, and operations) that are closely related, cannot or will not proceed unless other actions are taken previously or simultaneously, and are interdependent parts of a larger action. (40 CFR § 1508.25). When an agency intentionally attempts to circumvent NEPA by dividing a federal action into smaller components in order to allow those smaller components to avoid studying the overall impacts of the single project then “improper segmentation” has occurred. (O’Reilly v. U.S. Army Corp. Engineers, 950 F.2d 1129, 5th Cir. 2007)
Segmenting the impact analysis into separate documents for leasing and development is a particular concern with regard to specially protected resource areas such as Great Sand Dunes. Once a lease is issued, a contractual expectation is established that the lessee will be able to develop the site subject to certain conditions. And once a lease is issued, “avoidance” of impacts is no longer an option, leaving only a lesser range of measures to “reduce” impacts. Rather than defer an impact analysis until later, as BLM is doing in this case, we believe that a more appropriate approach would be for BLM to fully analyze the impacts as well as the relative benefits vs. impacts of both leasing AND developing the eleven parcels near Great Sand Dunes to determine if leasing is the highest and best use of these parcels.
6) The EA fails to provide a meaningful analysis of potential impacts to Great Sand Dunes resources and values that were identified for protection in the park’s 2007 GMP – With regard to the proposed leasing, the park resources and values of concern that are specifically identified in the park’s GMP include the following:
- (pp. 20-21) Air Quality – Great Sand Dunes’ Class I air quality is maintained or enhanced. Naturally dark night skies and scenic views are substantially unimpaired.
- (p. 27) Viewsheds – Key scenic vistas are identified and protected.
- (pp. 27-28) Night Sky – The naturally dark night sky is preserved. Artificial light sources within and outside of the park do not impair opportunities to see the moon, stars, planets, and other celestial features.
- (p. 28) Natural Sounds – The natural soundscape is preserved. Visitors have opportunities throughout most of the park to experience natural sounds. The sounds of civilization are generally confined to developed areas.
- (p. 29) Wilderness – Wilderness areas retain their wilderness characteristics and value. [Such] areas are affected primarily by the forces of nature, and signs of people remain substantially unnoticeable.
- (Page 34) Development and Uses In and Near the Park – Some areas of the San Luis Valley are gradually becoming more developed by residential, commercial, and other uses. These and other activities could degrade park resources and values such as scenic views, the night sky, ambient sound levels, opportunities for solitude, and native plant and animal communities.
- (Page 144) Scenic Resources and Visual Quality – The park’s fundamental resources and values include viewing the dune mass with the backdrop of the high peaks and viewing wildlife in its natural setting. For viewing the dune mass with the backdrop of the high peaks, key elements include: views approaching from the west and south, views from the mountains, changing light conditions, shadows and contrasts on the dunes in early morning and evening, good air quality, and undeveloped mountain slopes.
- (Pages 145-146) Visual Quality and Night Sky – Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is a Class I air quality area. However, visual quality is often affected by particulates in the air… Another component of visual quality is ambient light and its effect on the night sky…The National Park Service strives to preserve natural ambient lightscapes, which are natural resources and values that exist in the absence of human caused light.
In essence, the 2007 GMP for Great Sand Dunes clearly articulates NPS management objectives for the protection of specific park resources and values. Yet, the EA makes little, if any, mention of these resources (other than air quality) and generally fails to disclose or evaluate reasonably foreseeable potential impacts to these important resources.
Because of these and other shortcomings described below, the EA provides inadequate information and analysis of the potential impacts of the proposed action on nearby resources and values, including those within Great Sand Dunes. In essence, the EA fundamentally fails to take a “hard look” at those impacts as required under NEPA. Because of these inadequacies, we urge BLM to DEFER leasing the Huerfano County parcels until AFTER the Eastern Colorado RMP is completed.
SPECIFIC COMMENTS ABOUT THE EA
Chapter 1 – The EA fails to identify or consider its “relationship to statutes, regulations, or other plans,” an important section that is often found in Chapter 1 of other BLM oil and gas lease sale EAs. Presumably, this information was omitted due to “streamlining.” The omissions include FLPMA, the NPS Organic Act, and the Wilderness Act of 1964, as well as the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve Act of 2000 and the park’s 2007 GMP. As stated previously, the concern is that absent the identification of “relevant statutes, regulations, and other plans” the EA fails to provide necessary context for evaluating the potential impacts of the proposed leasing activity on park resources and for making informed judgments about the highest and best use of specific parcels.
Section 1.4.2 Issues Identified – According to the EA (emphasis added to underlined sections below),
“BLM considered several issues raised during project scoping. Issues raised at scoping were hydraulic fracturing, air quality, seismic activity, water quality, proximity to wilderness area and National Park, noise, night sky, soils, visual resources, and lesser prairie chicken habitat. The scoping comments were useful in drafting the EA and were carried forward for analysis. It should also be noted that some comments related to site specific issues may be more properly addressed in subsequent NEPA analysis if and when actual development on the potential leased areas is ever proposed. Additionally BLM received some comments related to issues in the vicinity of the Great Sand Dunes National Park that may not be entirely applicable to the actual location of the potential lease parcels themselves given the fact that they are primarily located on the other side of the 13,000 ft. Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range than most of the park itself.”
This brief paragraph in the EA raises a number of concerns about missing information and misleading statements. First, there is little, if any, information or analysis in the EA about potential impacts related to fracking, seismic activity, proximity to wilderness area and National Park, noise, or night sky. In essence, these topics were NOT “carried forward for analysis.”
Second, deferring site specific analysis to subsequent NEPA analysis fails to consider the foreseeable impacts of connected actions.
Third, BLM make several statements using the term “National Park” or “park” that are untrue about the “Preserve” and thus misleading about the “park” as a whole. It is misleading to say that the lease parcels are separated from the “National Park” (implying the park as a whole) by a 13,000 ft mountain range when, in fact, a substantial portion of the high ridge that separates portions of the park from the leasing area is the National Preserve’s eastern boundary. The truth of the matter is that much of the Preserve’s boundary looks down onto the leasing area to the east. As a result, it appears that BLM has carefully selected its words when referring to the “National Park” in order to minimize or even dismiss the potential for impacts on park lands managed by the NPS.
BLM should correct these inaccuracies and be more candid in disclosing potential adverse impacts to any/all park lands managed by the NPS, whether those lands are within the National Park or Preserve. As stated previously, under NPS management policies and statutory authorities, there is little distinction between the two designations; both are managed by NPS under the requirements of the NPS Organic Act.
Section 1.4.3 Public Comment Period – As discussed previously, the EA and the unsigned Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) were made available for a 15-day public review and comment period beginning March 22, 2018 and ending April 6, 2018. Fifteen (15) days is an unreasonably brief period for public comment on an issue of this breadth and complexity, and inconsistent with past precedent.
Section 2.2.3 Preferred Alternative – As described in the section, “Under the preferred alternative, BLM would offer 25 parcels, a total of 21,762.320 acres for lease and defer 412.690 acres from the sale. Deferral of nominated parcels allows BLM to address situations in which legitimate questions or controversy has arisen over the leasability of a parcel. (emphasis added) We concur with the rationale for this deferral. We believe the same rationale also applies to the 11 Huerfano County parcels and urge BLM to DEFER leasing them until AFTER the Eastern Colorado RMP has been completed.
Section 2.4 Plan Conformance Review – This section indicates that the proposed action was reviewed for conformance (43 CFR 1610.5-3) with the following plans:
- Northeast Resource Area RMP as amended by the Colorado Oil and Gas Final EIS and Record of Decision (ROD). Date Approved: 09/16/86 amended 12/06/91; and
- Royal Gorge Resource Area RMP and ROD, May 1996
As stated previously, the RMPs are seriously out of date and did not contemplate a number of significant technological changes, legislation, and relevant management plans that have occurred since the respective RMP’s completion. Thus the RMPs are a fundamentally flawed basis for making informed decisions about oil and gas leasing in 2018.
Chapter 3 Affected Environment and Effects – Despite the list of “issues identified” in Section 1.4.2 (see comment above) and “carried forward for analysis,” the EA lacks meaningful analysis on a number of the same identified impact topics. Topics, relevant to Parcels 8080-8090, that lack meaningful analysis include: hydraulic fracturing; seismic activity; wilderness characteristics; natural soundscapes; and dark night skies. BLM should create specific sections in the EA that analyze potential impacts related to these topics. Specifically, the topics most relevant to Great Sand Dunes that should be added to the EA include the following:
Wilderness Characteristics – As described in the “Background” section above, significant portions of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve are designated wilderness. Federal agencies that manage wilderness, including the NPS, have defined the 5 tangible qualities of wilderness character:
- Natural – Ecological systems are substantially free from the effects of modern civilization.
- Untrammeled – Wilderness is essentially unhindered and free from the intentional actions of modern human control or manipulation.
- Undeveloped – Wilderness is essentially without permanent improvements or the sights and sounds of modern human occupation.
- Opportunities for Solitude or Primitive & Unconfined Recreation – Wilderness provides opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.
- Other Features of Value* – Wilderness may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value. (*”Other Features of Value” is not a universal quality and may not apply to all NPS wilderness areas.)
To the extent that field activities associated with oil and gas leasing, development, and operations will be visible, audible, or otherwise observable from locations within wilderness, those activities have the clear potential to adversely affect wilderness characteristics. Visitors hiking into or out of the park at Mosca Pass or along other trails that ascend to the Preserve’s eastern boundary will likely confront the sight, sounds, and lights of drilling and ongoing oil and gas operations. Based on topography and proximity to the 11 Huerfano County lease parcels, adverse impacts are more likely to occur in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness than in the Great Sand Dunes Wilderness. Despite this, Chapter 3 of the EA provides no meaningful analysis of potential impacts to the characteristics of either NPS-managed wilderness areas (or in the U.S. Forest Service managed portion of Sangre de Cristo Wilderness).
The potential for oil and gas operations to adversely impact viewsheds, night skies, soundscapes, solitude, and other resource values affecting wilderness character and wilderness visitor experiences has been well documented in other BLM planning documents (e.g., see Utah BLM’s 2016 Moab Master Leasing Plan). This leads us to the conclusion that the potential for impacts to wilderness characteristics is quite real and has not been adequately considered in this EA.
Soundscapes – Quiet is a resource and Great Sand Dunes has plenty of it. Acoustic monitoring conducted in 2008 and 2009 documented that the park is one of the quietest locations ever monitored within the National Park System. It is unclear, based on the EA, if protection of natural soundscapes is a policy concern of BLM. However, such protection is clearly a concern of the NPS. NPS Management Policies 2006, Section 4.9 Soundscape Management, requires the NPS “to preserve, to the greatest extent possible, the natural soundscapes of parks.” In part because of this policy, Great Sand Dunes is one the quietest locations in the country.
Despite this, there is no meaningful analysis in the EA regarding potential adverse impacts to the park’s soundscape. The proposed oil and gas leases could create significant noise from construction, operations, and traffic. Low frequency sounds (those typical of trucks, equipment and machinery) can propagate for large distances with very little atmospheric attenuation and could therefore be audible in otherwise quiet park environments. Furthermore, various studies demonstrate that increases in human-caused noise can negatively affect mating, nesting, predation and other behaviors in a variety of wildlife species. And other studies show noise levels can affect the experience of park visitors and lead to a variety of social, psychological, and physiological changes. However, such impacts are not evaluated in the EA.
Dark Night Skies – With a combination of dry air, little light pollution, and high elevation, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is an excellent and easily accessible dark sky viewing location. From many locations within the park, one can see the stars of the Milky Way with remarkable clarity. Nationwide, dark night skies are a vanishing resource and increasing development, even in many rural areas, expands the impact of light pollution. Lighting associated with the implementation of oil and gas leases has the potential to adversely impact the naturally dark skies of Great Sand Dunes. Artificial sky glow (the brightening of the night sky from human caused light scattered in the atmosphere) can greatly detract from the overall darkness of the night sky, which can inhibit people’s ability to view celestial objects in the night sky. Artificial sky glow can also impact wildlife habitat, wildlife behavior, and scientific discovery. Potential impacts to night skies are not adequately evaluated in the EA.
Section 3.2.3 Reasonably Foreseeable Future Actions –The EA estimates that production potential for the 11 parcels in Huerfano County (Parcels # 8080-8090) is “Very Low < 1- well.” However, BLM fails to explain its rationale for leasing these “Very low” production parcels, especially considering their relative proximity and potential adverse impacts to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Such rationale should include a cost/benefit analysis that evaluates the trade-offs between parcel development and non-development and discussion of what constitutes the highest and best use of these parcels.
Section 220.127.116.11 Air Quality and Climate – Under the Clean Air Act, most of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is a Mandatory Class 1 Federal Area. Pristine air quality and nearly limitless views of impressive sand dunes against the back drop of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range are an integral part of the visitor experience at Great Sand Dunes. Unfortunately, air quality in the project area is already a significant concern. The area contains the northern Front Range Eight-Hour Ozone Control Area, which reaches from Colorado Springs to the Wyoming state line. This area has failed to attain the Environmental Protection Agency’s eight-hour ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) under 2004 and 2008 guidelines; its designation under more stringent 2015 guidelines has been delayed.
Two recent studies by state and federal agencies conclude that methane emissions from extensive oil and gas development in the Denver-Julesburg Basin north of Denver contribute significantly to ozone production in this region. (See Pfister, Locke et al., “Process-Based and Regional Source Impact Analysis for FRAPPE and DISCOVER-AQ”, NCAR, commissioned by CDPHE, July, 2017; and Cheadle, Oltmans, et al., “Surface Ozone in the Colorado northern Front Range during FRAPPE and DISCOVER-AQ in Summer, 2014,” (NOAA), Elementa 2017; 5:61.) Given data from these and other studies that have reached similar conclusions, and the implications of advanced ozone exposure to public and environmental health, it follows that further oil and gas leasing in any part of the RGFO should proceed only with the most stringent air quality controls in place, and should not leave room for discretion, exception or exemption.
Further, the National Park Service’s Air Resources Division air quality trends monitor for 2015 (the most recent year for which monitoring data is available) assigned Great Sand Dunes National Park the highest level of air quality concern for ozone as well as sulfur and nitrogen indicators. It assigns a “moderate concern” value for visibility and haze, also regulated values under the Clean Air Act (See National Park Air Resources Division, Air Quality Trends by Park).
Visibility effects at Great Sand Dunes include:
- Reduced visibility sometimes due to human-caused haze and fine particles of air pollution;
- Reduction of the average natural visual range from about 170 miles (without the effects of pollution) to about 100 miles because of pollution at the park;
- Reduction of the visual range to below 65 miles on high pollution days.
Colorado’s regional haze plan shows source regions for various pollutants on good and bad visibility days. Given frequent upslope and downslope weather patterns, the mountains do not shield Great Sand Dunes from air pollution originating on the Front Range. For example, when the impact of a specific coal-fired power plant near Colorado Springs was modeled, its greatest visibility impacts were at Rocky Mountain National Park and Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve (p. 47).
Nitrogen and sulfur deposition at the park can be particularly harmful to sensitive high elevation lakes and vegetation communities. Recent analyses indicate certain ecosystems in the park are at risk from atmospheric deposition (Nanus et al. 2009; Sullivan et al. 2011a; Sullivan et al. 2011b [pdf, 11.1 MB], Sullivan et al. 2011c; Sullivan et al. 2011d [pdf, 3.1 MB]). Air currents transport toxic contaminants such as pesticides, industrial pollutants, and mercury from their sources, and deposit these toxics in rain, snow, and dry deposition (e.g., dust) at Great Sand Dunes NP & Pres. Research findings from the Western Airborne Contaminants Assessment Project (WACAP) and Rocky Mountain Regional Snowpack Chemistry Monitoring Study found airborne contaminants in park air, vegetation, snow, and water (Ingersoll et al. 2007 [pdf, 1.1 MB]; Keteles 2011 [pdf, 57.0 KB]; Landers et al. 2010; Landers et al. 2008). Concentrations of current-use pesticides in air and vegetation samples at the park were elevated when compared to other national parks (Landers et al. 2010; Landers et al. 2008).
Despite this considerable evidence that air quality concerns are already an issue at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, page 18 of the EA states:
“The decision to offer the identified parcels for lease would not result in any direct emissions of air pollutants. However, any future development of these leases will result in emissions of criteria, VOC, HAP and GHG pollutants. Subsequent development would result in both short and longer term emissions of pollutants, including GHGs. Developmental air impacts will be examined in a subsequent analysis (emphasis added) when lessees file an Application for Permit to Drill (APD).”
As commented previously, once a lease is issued the lessee has a reasonable expectation that the parcel can be developed. We appreciate the inclusion of the landscape level cumulative air quality impact analysis in the EA, but the attempt to characterize the emissions and impacts as inconsequential ignores the fact that impacts are already occurring in Great Sand Dunes. Given the existing impacts, the cumulative emissions from increased regional oil and gas operations can contribute to adverse impacts on air quality and Air Quality Related Values (AQRV). Pollutants of concern (both primary and secondary) from oil and gas operations include nitrogen oxides (NOx), particulate matter (PM2.5 and PMl0), sulfur dioxide (SO2), volatile organic compounds, ozone (03), greenhouse gases and hazardous air pollutants. These pollutants can contribute to visibility degradation at Great Sand Dunes, adverse effects to human health which is a concern for park visitors and staff, and adverse ecosystem effects from excess nitrogen and sulfur deposition and ozone impacts to vegetation.
Fundamentally, the EA fails to explain how impacts would be mitigated or why increasing oil and gas production in this area is justifiable given the current air quality problems. This leads us to conclude that the analysis is inadequate. Under the circumstances, we believe that any additional contribution by the proposed oil and gas activities to the deterioration of air quality at Great Sand Dunes, which seems inevitable, is unacceptable.
Section 18.104.22.168 Invasive Plants – The EA indicates that “leasing” parcels would not have an effect on invasive plants; however, “development” following APD approval would cause soil disturbing activities that create an environment for and provide a mode of transport for invasive species and other noxious weeds to become established. Again, BLM approach involves improper segmentation of obviously connected actions and the threat of invasive plants is not properly evaluated. Regarding potential impacts, we call to your attention a joint project involving NPS and USFS to control the spread of white pine blister rust, a fungus that infects Limber and Bristlecone pines. If BLM decides to proceed with leasing the Huerfano County parcels, we recommend BLM consult both NPS and USFS regarding appropriate stipulations or best management practices to add to the APD requirements for those parcels.
Section 22.214.171.124 Special Status Species – We suggest that BLM add dwarfed short horned lizard (Phrynosoma hernandesi) to the list of special status special species potentially impacted by the proposed leasing. A population of dwarfed short horned lizards occurs on top of Mosca Pass near the proposed lease area.This population occurs at a higher elevation than the normal short horned lizard and is genetically divergent from the same species in the San Luis Valley (Lathi, 2010).
Section 126.96.36.199 Social and Economic Conditions – The EA fails to provide a meaningful cost/benefit analysis or evaluate potential socioeconomic impacts of the proposed action. In essence, the EA only discusses the potential (positive) impacts of revenue generation as the direct result of increased oil and gas leasing and development; yet fails to acknowledge or consider the potential adverse economic impacts the proposed leasing and development could cause to other thriving local industries, such as recreation and tourism. As described previously, there has been significant growth in Great Sand Dunes visitation and economic benefits since the preparation of the 1996 Royal Gorge Resource Area RMP.
A related concern is that BLM has not analyzed or weighed the relative benefits vs. the potential adverse impacts of leasing Parcels 8080-8090 in close proximity to the park. It is doubtful that the economic benefits and job creation generated by leasing and developing these “very low” production potential parcels is worth the risk of impacts to the well-documented economic benefits generated by visitation and visitor spending at Great Sand Dunes. If BLM believes leasing Parcels 8080-8090 is justified from a cost-benefit perspective, then it needs to do a much better job of explaining and justifying its thought process.
Section 188.8.131.52 Visual Resources – Viewshed impacts are a common concern whenever oil and gas leasing is proposed adjacent to a unit of the National Park System; and the potential for such impacts is a concern at Great Sand Dunes. Visitors come to the park to enjoy views of impressive sand dunes against the back drop of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range. Scenic vistas from high elevation points within the park provide dramatic views and a remote and far-reaching landscape. These unimpaired vistas are fundamental to the visitor experience at Great Sand Dunes.
The EA indicates that the Huerfano County project area falls within a VRM Class III area for which the management objective is “to partially retain the existing character of the landscape.” The EA also indicates that “while the parcels located in Huerfano County are in close proximity to the Great Sand Dunes National Park, the view between the project area and the National Park is blocked by an average of 10,000 foot elevation mountain range.” The EA concludes that “the current proposal of the lease sale would not affect the viewshed, night skies, and appearance of human modification to the area.”
Again, BLM selectively uses the term “National Park” to dismiss likely impacts to visual resources within the National Preserve portion of the park. Therefore, BLM’s conclusion that visual resources [on NPS managed lands] would not be affected is incorrect. In fact, much of the National Preserve’s eastern boundary is located at higher elevations than the proposed lease parcels, some as close as a mile away. It is highly likely that oil and gas development would be visible from multiple points along this boundary, including at Mosca Pass, Medano Pass, and from within portions of the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness managed by the NPS. This relatively remote, undeveloped portion of the Preserve, if classified by BLM VRM standards, would likely be within a Class 1 VRM area.
Because of this, a viewshed analysis is needed to adequately determine and mitigate, if needed, potential viewshed impacts to certain locations and trails within the Preserve. In addition, appropriate stipulations to minimize potential impacts to the Park and Preserve’s visual resources, including viewsheds and night skies, should be added to Attachment D. These should include design requirements (e.g., paint color and finish) to minimize contrast with the surrounding environment and reflectivity in the afternoon sun, as well as operational requirements to eliminate of the use artificial lighting after sunset.
Section 4.1 Persons/Agencies Consulted – Based on the entities listed (or not listed) in this section of the EA, it appears that BLM has NOT consulted the National Park Service regarding potential adverse impacts to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve; nor is there indication of consultation with the U.S. Forest Service regarding potential adverse impacts to the portion of the Sangre De Cristo Wilderness managed by USFS. This apparent lack of coordination with the adjacent Federal land managers is incredibly short-sighted and problematic; and likely has contributed to the lack of analysis of potential impacts to the National Park and Preserve and to the wilderness areas managed by NPS and USFS. If BLM has, in fact, consulted with NPS and USFS, then a brief summary of the concerns discussed (and any written comments provided by those agencies) should be added to the EA.
Attachment C: Preferred Alternative Parcels with Stipulations for Lease – BLM proposes a number of standard stipulations for Parcels # 8080 – 8090 that are subsequently described in Attachment D. These include Exhibits CO-03, CO-09, CO-10, CO-18, CO-19, CO-28, CO-34, CO-39, CO-56, and RG-07. We concur that these are appropriate stipulations. However, additional stipulations or best management practices (BMPs) should be applied to these parcels as well in order to minimize impacts to the following resources:
- Visual resources (scenic vistas, viewsheds, etc.)
- Dark night skies
- Wilderness characteristics.
As described in detail above, we have numerous concerns about the adequacy of the EA in disclosing and analyzing the potential impacts of the proposed action on nearby resources and values, particularly in regard to Parcels 8080-8090 and potential impacts to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. The EA fails to take the required “hard look” at those impacts. Much of the “analysis” is cursory at best (along the lines that “leasing itself will not cause direct impacts but future impacts could occur if the leased parcels are developed”). While other, potentially significant, impacts (such as to wilderness characteristics, soundscapes, and dark skies) have not been described or analyzed at all.
As described early in the EA (pp. 6-7), “Deferral of nominated parcels allows BLM to address situations in which legitimate questions or controversy has arisen over the leasability of a parcel. Deferral does not necessarily withdraw a parcel from potential future leasing, but indicates that further analysis is needed before possible inclusion in a future lease sale.”
For all the reasons described above, the Coalition to Protection America’s National Parks urges BLM to DEFER on leasing Parcels 8080-8090 in Huerfano County until AFTER the Eastern Colorado RMP has been completed. The deferment is justified due to the inadequacy of the current environmental analysis and the controversy created by leasing parcels in such close proximity to the park.
In closing, we appreciate the opportunity to comment on this important issue.
Philip A. Francis, Jr., Chair
Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks