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Battle over drilling on federal lands flares at valley’s doorstep

Environmentalists renewed efforts yesterday to try to prevent the drilling of between 850 and 3,000 natural gas wells in public lands on top of an immense plateau near Rifle.

But leaders of the Colorado Environmental Coalition acknowledged they might be launching an impossible mission considering President Bush’s mandate to increase domestic gas and oil extraction.

The coalition wants to preserve 40,000 acres of public lands on the top of the Roan Plateau, the high ground that lies beyond the jagged cliffs just north of Interstate 70 to the west of Rifle.



The area is worth preserving as a wilderness because of its value for outdoor activities, wildlife and ecosystem diversity, according to Clare Bastable, Western Slope coordinator for the Colorado Mountain Club. The club is one of several members of the Colorado Environmental Coalition.

But the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has indicated that up to 25,000 acres of the public lands will be leased to companies that want to install one natural gas well every 20 acres.




No lands can be leased until the BLM finishes an environmental impact statement and completes a management plan. A draft of that extensive study is scheduled to be completed in September. The public will have 90 days to comment on the proposed recommendation.

Environmentalists contend the values of the land as a wilderness aren’t carrying much weight in the study because the BLM is accommodating the president’s commands to make it easier to extract oil and gas.

“It’s like those wilderness values are being ignored and we’re being steamrolled,” said Bastable. “There’s a value here being overlooked by this administration.”

Roan Plateau represents the closest battle to the Roaring Fork Valley occurring over extensive BLM lands holdings in the West. In addition to mandating a streamlined process for leasing public lands for oil and gas exploration, the Bush administration has stopped considering additional BLM lands for wilderness designation, which prohibits motorized and mechanized uses.

The Colorado Environmental Coalition believes the Roan Plateau battle should concern all of Colorado, not just neighboring towns like Parachute and Rifle. Even if people aren’t familiar with that particular plateau, the bigger issue is the fate of public lands.

To try to get residents of the region interested in the issue, the environmental coalition teamed with Aspen-based EcoFlight to fly ranchers, elected officials, government staffers and journalists over Roan Plateau Wednesday. Additional flights were scheduled today.

Bruce Gordon of Aspen, president of EcoFlight, loaded four or five people at a time into his single-engine Cessna 210 for 40-minute aerial tours of the plateau.

Concentrated at the base of the big cliffs north of Interstate 70 were natural gas wells spaced 20 acres apart. Their pads of scraped earth created a checkerboard effect along huge swaths. A handful of towers for drilling rigs sprouted out of the ground every so often. Ponds where waste water and other residue from the drilling process is stored were also visible.

Garfield County has the highest concentration of natural gas wells in the country thanks to activity at the base of Roan Plateau and on other public and private lands, according to Bastable.

The Colorado Environmental Coalition isn’t fighting gas-well development on private lands nor in areas like the base of the Roan Cliffs. But it’s fighting like hell to prevent the spread of the wells to the top.

“Imagine what it means – which is absolute destruction on the top,” said Bastable. “This would absolutely destroy everything that the top of the plateau means to us.”

The top of the plateau doesn’t have drop-dead beauty like much of the high peaks in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. Instead it features rolling hills covered in aspen and conifer trees and small gorges that abruptly cut into the earth. It’s similar to the Flat Tops area north of Glenwood Springs.

Bastable noted that 94 percent of the gas estimated to be in the Unita and Piceance basins in western Colorado and eastern Utah are accessible from lands already open for gas and oil leasing and drilling. The Roan Plateau, part of the Piceance Basin, is part of the 6 percent currently unopened.

“You can’t protest everything, and you don’t want to,” said Gordon. But when so many other places are already available for gas and oil leases, it makes sense to protect places that are valuable for wildlife, like Roan Plateau, he said.

Bastable said many people agree. The BLM received about 13,000 comments during what’s known as a public scoping period on the proposal to open the public lands of the plateau to drilling. All but 500 comments favored restrictions on drilling and preservation of wild lands, she claimed.

Despite that sentiment, it appears unlikely that gas exploration will be prohibited, Bastable said. Four options being studied in the environmental impact statement allow for varying numbers of natural gas wells, from a low of 850 to a high of about 3,000, she said.

Although complete preservation of the plateau appears unlikely, the environmental coalition believes it’s important to make sure their issues remain at the forefront since the latest round of debate on the fate of BLM lands is just beginning.

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


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