GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — The federal government on Friday said it will cancel 25 oil and gas leases in central Colorado's White River National Forest, reversing what it called faulty environmental reviews on the leases that were issued between 1995 and 2012.
The Bureau of Land Management said it was canceling leases in the Thompson Divide — an area southwest of Aspen that has been the subject of aggressive lobbying by groups and municipalities that depend on the outdoor recreation industry.
The agency said it would apply new stipulations for other leases on forest land that are not currently producing oil or gas, and make minor or no adjustments to producing leases.
"Drilling in this area would have put the area's ranching and tourism economies at risk," said Pete Maysmith, executive director of Conservation Colorado.
Two energy industry groups decried the decision and said they were studying legal challenges.
"The decision to cancel natural gas leases retroactively is beneath the U.S. government," said David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil & Gas Association.
"Companies are getting the message loudly and clearly that the federal government cannot be trusted to honor contracts and property rights," said Kathleen Sgamma of the Western Energy Alliance.
Energy firms recently had been pushing for another review of forest leases following a U.S. Geological Survey study that greatly increased the estimated abundance of natural gas in western Colorado, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent reported (http://bit.ly/2afZsBr ).
The bureau's decision will be open for a 30-day public comment period starting Aug. 5.
Two years ago, the federal government made more than 90 percent of the 2.2-million-acre White River National Forest off-limits to energy exploration. Last year, White River Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams removed the Thompson Divide from new leasing for the next two decades.
The forest stretches from the Continental Divide to the western slope of Colorado's Rocky Mountains and includes renowned ski resorts like Breckenridge, Vail and Aspen.
The agency conducted a study that led to Friday's decision because the leases were issued either without formal adoption of a 1993 U.S. Forest Service environmental review or because the BLM didn't do its own review in the first place.
While applauding the cancellations, some conservationists criticized the agency for not ruling out all leasing in the White River forest.
"Important fish and wildlife habitat will be affected by development of the other leases," said Kate Zimmerman, public lands policy director for the National Wildlife Federation.