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FAIRPLAY, Colo. – The decision to offer federal oil and gas leases in South Park – a regional hunting and fishing haven – before updating its planning documents or contacting local officials reinforces the need for the Bureau of Land Management to honor its promise on leasing reforms, conservation groups said Friday.

The BLM will offer six parcels totaling about 2,850 acres in South Park in its February 2013 auction. Some of the parcels include public land withdrawn from a sale last November. Sites up for auction include land near Spinney Reservoir and the Middle Fork of the South Platte River, both gold-medal fisheries, and important big-game summer and winter habitat. The area is also the headwaters of the South Platte River and a major water source for the cities of Denver and Aurora.

“South Park is a unique fish and wildlife resource that offers world-class hunting, fishing and other outdoor recreation is less than a two-hour drive from a major metropolitan area,’’ said Suzanne O’Neill, executive director of the Colorado Wildlife Federation.

Hunting and angling groups and Park County, at the heart of South Park, questioned why the BLM would offer the leases using a management plan last updated in 1996. The groups, hundreds of area residents and business owners and county officials asked the BLM to do more planning and review before approving new development.

Earlier this year, the BLM rejected developing a master leasing plan for South Park, saying there wasn’t enough interest from energy companies in the area. A master leasing plan is among the reforms the Interior Department unveiled in 2010 and is a landscape-scale analysis to assess potential, cumulative impacts before leases are issued.

The BLM hasn’t responded to Park County’s July 5 letter requesting comprehensive planning “before major energy development changes the face of this special part of the West .’’

“And we didn’t learn of the upcoming lease sale in Park County until it was past the date to make comments,’’ said Tom Eisenman, county administration officer. “It’s kind of insulting.’’

The BLM said North Park in northern Colorado was too developed to use a master leasing plan and South Park wasn’t developed enough, said Bob Meulengracht of Trout Unlimited, the Colorado organizer for Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development.

“We’re waiting for the BLM to follow through on its promise to use this planning tool, which can be helpful to industry as well as local governments and conservation efforts,’’ Meulengracht added.

Park County is spending tens of thousands of dollars and is working with the Coalition for the Upper South Platte to establish baseline data on water quality before oil and gas drilling increases. South Park, like North Park, is a high-elevation basin ringed by mountains that’s being eyed by energy companies for its oil and natural gas deposits. The Niobrara oil formation underlies both areas.

“This is Denver’s watershed, but the BLM’s knowledge of the area’s baseline water quality is weak to nonexistent,’’ said Eddie Kochman, a Park County landowner and retired Colorado state fisheries manager.

The BLM can address questions about effects on water, fish and wildlife by doing a little more planning on the front end, said Kate Zimmerman, public lands policy director for the National Wildlife Federation.

“The purpose is to explore the potential impacts and conflicts before leases are sold and drilling permits issued,’’ Zimmerman. “We support well-planned, responsible energy development and avoiding and minimizing the impacts and conflicts while it’s still possible.’’

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Elevenmile Reservoir (connected to, and near, Spinney Mountain Reservoir) is a top destination for Colorado anglers in South Park. Photo: Rich Holland

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