Moffat County Shrieks from the peregrine falcons echo off the vertical canyon walls climbing 600 feet up from the creek bed. It's immediately apparent how far you are from civilization.
From the fragile cryptobiotic soils sprouting bluebells and Indian paintbrush to the sun-soaked walls adorned with prehistoric petroglyphs, Vermillion Canyon boasts the gamut of bona fide wilderness characteristics that only scratches the surface of the sprawling Vermillion Basin.
Luke Schafer, the Northwest organizer for the Colorado Environmental Coalition, acts as a watchdog for the Colorado land management agencies that govern the basin and the broad area of public lands around it. In Moffat County alone, those lands are bigger than the state of Rhode Island. Schafer's public outreach - intensely focused on the future protection of the Vermillion Basin to oil and gas development as the Bureau of Land Management conducts its Resource Management Plan draft revisions for the entire Little Snake Resource Area - hopes to make sure the remote basin can remain simply for the birds and the occasional visitor.
It may just be a bird that helps the conservationist argument when the BLM takes the suggested revisions to the state director's November review and eventually to Washington, D.C., to determine management of the LSRA's 1.3 million surface acres for the next 15 to 20 years.
"Two-thirds of the greater sage grouse Colorado population lives in this county. If we lose it here, it's gone for the whole state," Schafer said as he cruised west past Maybell and up the barren expanses that line Moffat County Road 318. "The sage grouse and Vermillion Basin are the two biggest and most controversial issues with the plan's revisions. One's a bird that's petitioned for the endangered species list, and the other is one of the largest Citizens' Wilderness Proposals in the West."
Not that the Vermillion Basin isn't under some protective restrictions already.
After a 2001 field review, the BLM determined that 77,067 of the basin's 81,028 total acres have wilderness characteristics. In the language of the inventory report's conclusion, this includes "expansive and colorful badlands, rugged, steep-walled canyons : rare and uncommon plants and plant communities, unique geological features, spectacular scenery and scenic vistas and irreplaceable cultural resources."
Based on the inventory's information, the BLM placed an interim hold on development in the basin.
"Even though the current Resource Management Plan says it's open, it's been placed temporarily off-limits to leasing, pending the resolution of this planning process," said John Husband, BLM field manager of the Little Snake Field Office in Craig.
But the oil and gas boom in southern Wyoming and eastern Utah only puts increased pressure on the basin lands. Last year, Vermillion Basin was placed on the Wilderness Society's national "Too Wild to Drill" list with 17 other areas.
Schafer and Lee-Ann Hill, the CEC's West Slope wilderness organizer, had secured permission in advance from the Colorado State Land Board to take a small group into Vermillion Canyon for a guided hike Wednesday. The canyon is surrounded on all sides by BLM land, but public access is restricted to the steepest one-mile section of the canyon, which contains at least eight petroglyph panels.
After swimming up a tight pool in the canyon and hiking in to view the carvings thought to date as far back as 5,000 years ago, Hill outlined her support of the BLM's "Alternative C" plan - with a few stipulations - as the most logical plan to mix conservation with compromise. The main addition is the closure of Vermillion Basin to all oil and gas development.
On Tuesday evening, the Steamboat Springs City Council approved a motion to send a letter for comment to the BLM with similar support of "Alternative C" with backing for Vermillion Basin's closure to drilling.
"We understand how important energy development is to (the Moffat County) economy, but we can co-exist with our own goals of conservation ethic with energy development," councilman Ken Brenner said.
Husband said "Alternative C" also is the BLM's preferred alternative; it states that no more than 1 percent of the total acres leased within a federal unit can be disturbed at a time.
Regardless of the intricacies of the various alternatives, Hill urged those interested to "not get caught up with the fine print of the alternatives," but to write in with the specifics of "what matters to you most on the ground."
"I like to use the metaphor that the Defense Department never asks if they should bomb a country," Schafer said. "Here, the BLM's asking for public comment on a federal process, giving people an opportunity to be heard."