- Associated Press - Saturday, December 20, 2014

FORT COLLINS, Colo. (AP) - Thirty-five miles east of Fort Collins, the wind hums through the open expanse of Pawnee National Grassland.

Pronghorn antelope stop grazing to swiftly bound away as trucks and cars roll down dirt roads. The telltale clouds of dust trailing each vehicle are quickly swept away by the persistent wind, which powers hundreds of turbines lining ridges not far from Pawnee Buttes, an iconic landmark and popular draw for the area’s recreationists.

Traffic along this once desolate swath of high plains has become as noticeable as the oil and gas sites. Some rigs, of older design, nod up and down rhythmically. Others are more discrete pillars, a modern version for the growing industry popping up on these plains.

Proposed regulations for the oil and gas industry would limit future development on forest service land to below the surface, forcing new industry growth to use private land for surface operations.

For recreators like Bruce Gill, 74, of Fort Collins, the measure could help preserve a “marred” landscape. Gill worked 35 years for what was then the Colorado Division of Wildlife and now called Colorado Parks and Wildlife and has “probably taken thousands of photographs out there.”

“The oil and wind energy developments have carved up the landscape,” Gill said. “It was unbroken wilderness. Now it’s pockmarked with development.”

Wells on federal land and those on private are nearly indistinguishable in the checkerboard of private and public landownership. There are 60 active well sites on federal lands on the Pawnee, and 38,735 of the 193,060 acres managed by Pawnee National Grassland are leased to oil and gas operations.

Existing leases will remain under 1997 agreements, meaning more sites could pop up on the surface of federal lands even if the proposed no-surface occupancy regulations are passed.

But the proposed regulations are a step toward balancing the needs of the growth of the industry with the beauty of open space, said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Reghan Cloudman.

U.S. Forest Service operates two trails, one campground, one designated shooting area, a main OHV (off highway vehicle) area and a scenic byway on the grassland, which also are also an internationally known birding area and popular for stargazing, photography, wildlife viewing and horseback riding.

The new regulations would continue to allow mining of mineral rights underneath Pawnee National Grassland but require the industry to use horizontal drilling to access the minerals.

“It’s just one of the tools we use to manage and protect some of the resources we have on the ground,” said Vanessa Lacayo, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management, which manages the United States’ mineral estate.

“We try to find the right balance between development and conservation of that mineral estate - whether we’re recovering it or protecting it from folks who are recovering it but don’t have a right to it,” added spokesman Steven Hall.

The no-surface occupancy model will result in 10 to 60 percent less visual impact than completely eliminating the industry’s access to federal mineral rights, Cloudman said.

“If those rights weren’t put up for lease, (the industry) would have to put up more facilities to extract the leases they already had,” she said. “If they can drill through and get the mineral rights underneath our land, they can utilize fewer facilities.”?

It’s a measure supported by the Forest Service and many of its recreators, Gill said. It could preserve what he loves most about the Pawnee.

“If you get to places where there are few fences and few telephone poles, you can recreate in your mind what it must have looked like before it was ever settled,” Gill said. “I still get a thrill going out to the Pawnee because there are still places that are undisturbed.”

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Information from: Fort Collins Coloradoan, https://www.coloradoan.com

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