SALT LAKE CITY — A federal proposal to set aside nearly 83,000 acres in Utah and Colorado to protect a pair of rare flowering plants will cost nearly $3 million in a single year, mostly to traditional oil and gas producers.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a draft economic analysis on the impacts of designating critical habitat for the Graham's beardtongue and White River beardtongue, which are only found in the oil shale formation in Utah and Colorado.
A draft conservation proposal, which drew sharp criticism from the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, is being pursued as a possibility because the agency said the plants would not receive the benefit of voluntary protections already in place under an Endangered Species Act listing.
"Under the ESA, plants do not receive protection on private lands unless there is a federal nexus," the agency said. "Therefore, the service is engaging private landowners in voluntary efforts for these two species. This is especially important for the White River beardtongue since almost half of its distribution occurs on private lands."
A public hearing will be held in Vernal May 28 at the Uintah County Library on the proposed protections for Uintah and Duchesne counties in Utah, and Rio Blanco County in Colorado.
"From our end, the (plants) are threatened on all sides by encroaching oil and gas and now oil shale development," said Steve Bloch, attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "This is just the latest of missteps by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. We are hugely disappointed that the Fish and Wildlife Service after 10 years of dithering is working against the betterment of this species."
According to the proposal, Graham's beardtongue, which sports vivid pink flowers, would be protected on 67,959 acres that would include "pollinator" zones to ensure its continued survival.
The plant grows only in a 80-mile horseshoe bend on oil shale strata. Oil shale development, the agency estimates, would impact 82 percent of the plant's population, while all energy development poses a risk to 91 percent of the plants, according to a draft environmental analysis.
For the White River beardtongue, the service is proposing 14,940 acres of land to be set aside for protections. Energy development, the service estimates, would impact 100 percent of the plant.
Energy development, the service contends, would "likely lead to severe declines," in both species if protective action isn't taken.
The analysis estimates the bulk of the costs that would come from the establishment of protection zones would be borne by traditional oil and gas producers — $2.7 million in the first year. Costs to grazing would be $9,000.
A potential oil shale project that would overlap with federal lands would incur costs estimated at $130,000, according to the federal analysis.
The study notes that a "substantial" portion of the proposed critical habitat for the plant falls within federal lease areas in Utah and Colorado for oil shale and tar sands. For the Graham's beardtongue, 66 percent of its population is on Bureau of Land Management acreage, while 39 percent of the White River beardtongue grows on BLM land.
Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of governmental affairs for the Western Energy Alliance, said the federal government is proposing an action that is unwarranted using an analysis that greatly downplays the economic ramifications.
"This is a good example of how the Endangered Species Act is being used to stop energy development as opposed to really protecting an endangered species."
Sgamma said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has wrongly taken an overall species of plant that widely occurs throughout the area and segregated it into two subgroups to make a case for federal protections.
"I don't think they have good science to support listing these as two separate species," she said.