- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 9, 2014

DENVER (AP) - The federal government is making more than 90 percent of the 2.2-million-acre White River National Forest off-limits to future energy exploration, angering the energy industry but encouraging environmentalists who had pushed to protect mountain towns that depend on recreational tourism.

The U.S. Forest Service released two formal documents Tuesday prohibiting energy development in most of the forest, which stretches from the Continental Divide to the western slope of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains and includes renowned ski resorts like Breckenridge, Vail and Aspen. Combined, they protect more than 2 million acres - an area bigger than the state of Delaware. About half of the land never had potential for energy development anyway, the Forest Service said.

“Today’s decision reflects extensive analysis and public input, and represents a balance between providing opportunities for oil and gas development and protecting the natural resources of the White River National Forest,” Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said in a statement.

The land declared off-limits includes 61,000 acres of the Thompson Divide, an area southwest of Aspen that has been the center of some of the most aggressive lobbying by local groups and municipalities that depend on the burgeoning outdoor recreation industry.

“It’s a major victory for rural communities and for the men and women who rely on these public lands for their livelihoods,” said Carbondale Mayor Stacey Bernot.

But the energy industry was disappointed. Kathleen Sgamma of the Western Energy Alliance said the Forest Service overreached and there may be energy on some of the land it believes can’t be developed.

“They’re proposing putting a huge amount of land off-limits,” Sgamma said. “We don’t really think it balances economic development with protecting the land.”

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