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Oil and gas developers are pursuing plans to drill 640 wells south of the Strawberry River between Strawberry and Starvation reservoirs in Duchesne County.

As proposed, the project would include drilling inside the Strawberry River Wildlife Management Area — land set aside to mitigate environmental damage from the Central Utah Project and other federal water projects. The management area safeguards wildlife migration corridors and critical populations of native cutthroat trout. It also supports public recreation.

Berry Petroleum Co. is proposing the Avintaquin Canyon Exploration and Development Project on 34,254 acres that fall within the borders of the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation. While not all the land is owned by the Ute Indian Tribe, the tribe owns 81 percent of the mineral estate inside the project area, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

An Environmental Assessment began last month to gauge its impacts, and the bureau is accepting comments until Friday on what the assessment should include.

About 30 percent of the land in the project area is privately owned, the bureau's public notice said. Fourteen percent is owned by the state, forming the Timber Canyon unit of the Avintaquin Wildlife Management Area.

The notice fails to mention the federal government owns 2,450 surface acres, or 7 percent of the total. It includes land that forms a critical stretch of the Strawberry River Wildlife Management Area (WMA).

The Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission, the federal agency that owns the Strawberry River WMA, says the project's planned Environmental Assessment is insufficient.

A more detailed Environmental Impact Statement is needed, it contends.

"There would be many new miles of roads, supporting infrastructure, initial construction and many years of ongoing operation and maintenance," wrote project coordinator Richard Mingo in the agency's comments. The commission doubts "that a [finding of no significant environmental impact] could ever be concluded," he wrote, "given the scope of the project and the context and intensity of the likely impacts."

Berry's proposal comes at a time of aggressive development to the east in the Uinta Basin, which is raising a concern that the drilling boom's "cumulative" impacts are taking an environmental toll that has yet to be addressed."We look at it as one more project. There is a tidal wave of oil and gas activity and a lot of pressure on government to approve as many projects as possible," said Michael Weland, the conservation commission's executive director.

Berry, which was recently acquired by Houston-based LINN Energy, also is pursuing a 26,000-acre project to the southeast on nearby Ashley National Forest.

The U.S. Forest Service two years ago approved a plan to drill 400 wells from 162 pads about 11 miles south of Duchesne. This project has been challenged by environmentalists who cite impacts to water, roadless areas and sage grouse. Berry prevailed in the appeals process, but opponents may take the matter to court.

Since the 1980s, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has acquired most of the Strawberry corridor, nearly 20 miles in all, from Soldier Creek Dam to the Camelot Resort at the Red Creek confluence. Much of this property is Camelot's old undeveloped holdings purchased with the help of The Nature Conservancy.

"It has been a series of strategic acquisitions," Mingo said. "Taken as a whole, it protects migration corridors, deer winter range, sage grouse."

The latest proposal has also raised concerns in the angling community because the stretch of the Strawberry inside the project area is a blue-ribbon fishery harboring critical populations of native Colorado River cutthroat trout.

The Avintaquin project envisions lots of directional, or nonvertical, drilling, with an average of four wells from each of 173 proposed pads. Such consolidated drilling reduces surfaces impacts, but some of this drilling and road building would occur in sensitive places.

A project map, for example, indicates 10 pads on the Strawberry River, where there is an existing road, and another 24 inside the state's Avintaquin WMA, along with several miles of new roads.

Under the feds' Strawberry management plan, there is to be no new road construction on the mitigation lands and traffic must stick to existing roads and parking areas. But these protections may be no stronger than the paper they are printed on since Utah law puts priority on the mineral owner.

"We can set stipulations for the surface, but we can't exclude them from the property," Mingo said. "We don't own the minerals in most cases, so we are forced to work with the oil and gas companies." —

Assessing the Avintaquin project

The public has until Friday to submit comments to Bradford Wazaney at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Uintah and Ouray Agency, P.O. Box 130, Fort Duchesne, UT 84026, or fax comments to 435-722-2323.