Aspenites take interest in Roan | AspenTimes.com

Aspenites take interest in Roan

A regional battle over natural gas exploration that one environmental leader dubbed “our little Arctic National Wildlife Refuge” is attracting the interest of Aspenites.

About 40 Aspenites proved they are interested in issues beyond their back yard by attending a meeting at the Zele Music Cafe last night to learn more about the battle over gas exploration on public lands of the Roan Plateau, a 48,000-acre island in the sky west of Rifle.

The Aspen Wilderness Workshop sponsored the meeting to aid a coalition of Garfield County-based environmental groups working to preserve the plateau. Wilderness Workshop spokesman Dave Reed explained that while the organization usually concentrates on issues affecting wilderness lands, it also strives to protect areas of great ecological diversity, like the plateau.

“That’s all we ask ” to protect that island of goodness,” said Reed.

Steve Smith, a volunteer for the coalition trying to preserve the plateau, said the effort is an all-or-nothing move. The group believes it cannot compromise with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to allow any level of drilling on the top of the plateau, he said.

The area is one of the four most ecologically diverse areas in Colorado, according to Smith. Its elevation makes it a heaven to imperiled wildlife.

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Opening the area to even a limited amount of leasing will make it “gas and oil country forever,” he said.

The BLM is working on a management plan for a 125,000-acre area that encompasses the island. That plan will dictate uses over a 20-year period. It’s tentatively scheduled to be released in March.

Smith said 86 percent of the natural gas in the Roan Plateau area is available without drilling on the top of the island itself. The coalition wants the gas companies to tap into the remaining 14 percent by using directional drilling from the base of the island.

It’s more expensive, but Smith said advances have made it more viable over the past five years and will make it even more economically feasible over the next couple of decades.

The crowd was clearly in favor of conservation over drilling. One audience member asked if the Pitkin County commissioners have voted on the issue.

“We are prepared to take a stand firmly against this,” said Pitkin County Commissioner Mick Ireland.

The board believes opposition is the right thing for the plateau. In addition, it doesn’t want to set a “drill now, mitigate later” precedent for potential gas drilling in Pitkin County, however limited that potential is, he said.

If the BLM releases its plan in March, the public will have 90 days to comment. Smith said the agency will likely take an additional 90 days or so to digest comments before issuing a final decision.

[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com]

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