Groups: deal pending in Colorado wildlife refuge suit | AspenTimes.com

Groups: deal pending in Colorado wildlife refuge suit

Judith Kohler
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

DENVER – A pending settlement of a lawsuit over energy development on a national wildlife refuge in south-central Colorado could keep the area off-limits to drilling, a group that sued said Monday.

The agreement among the federal government, environmental groups and Toronto-based Lexam Explorations Inc. would scuttle the 2007 approval of the company’s drilling plans and initiate a new environmental review.

Meanwhile, the environmental groups continue to meet with private and public agencies to gain support for buying Lexam’s mineral rights on the Baca National Wildlife Refuge in the San Luis Valley, about 200 miles southwest of Denver.

Lexam Vice President Stefan Spears said the company would want to recoup its investment of about $8.5 million. He said the environmental groups missed a deadline for coming up with the money, but the company would review offers.

Rather than see a new environmental review done, the hope is to buy out Lexam, said Christine Canaly of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council. She said her group has met with public officials about funding and the agreement, which could be approved soon, will make those discussions easier because of more certainty.

Travis Stills, an attorney representing the environmental groups, said a key step will be an appraisal of Lexam’s mineral rights on the refuge.

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“One of the things this does is help lead us back to protecting the Baca refuge for the incredible values it has,” Still said.

A 2007 lawsuit by environmental groups accused the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of violating federal environmental laws when it found the drilling wouldn’t significantly affect the refuge and approved Lexam’s plan to drill for oil and gas. The lawsuit claimed that energy development would irreparably harm the refuge, home to several colonies of Gunnison’s prairie dogs, a candidate species for the endangered list.

The refuge is also used by migratory birds, burrowing owls, songbirds and elk.

A federal judge granted the conservation groups a preliminary injunction last year, blocking the drilling while the lawsuit continued.

Spears said Lexam wants to drill only two wells, which would create minimal disturbance.

The company acquired its mineral rights in the 1990s, before the former Baca Ranch was bought by the federal government for a wildlife refuge. Federal allows mineral-rights holders reasonable use of the surface to extract minerals.

The minerals extend to the adjacent Great Sand Dunes National Park and national forest land. The national park was created by a combination of private and public funds. The Nature Conservancy bought a ranch to preserve the land while federal funding was put together.

The 750-foot dunes, North America’s tallest, hug the bottom of snowy Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

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