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Remote public lands are battlefield in gas debate

Drilling pads from natural gas exploration have started to emerge in what was solid aspen and spruce forest in West Divide Creek, southwest of Carbondale. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service.
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In the extreme western tip of Pitkin County, far off the beaten track of most Aspenites, there’s a knoll with a great view into West Divide Creek, where thick, green aspen trees cover mountainous terrain as far as the eye can see.That knoll also provides a glimpse of what the fight over natural gas exploration on public land is all about.At first glance, the thousands of acres of aspen stands in West Divide Creek drainage appear broken only by occasional meadows and rocky outcroppings. It’s comparable to the amazing view of thick aspen stands surrounding North Star Nature Preserve east of Aspen.But a careful look at the West Divide area reveals a red and white boom of an exploratory drill rig poking up from a clearing.

West Divide Creek is deep in the White River National Forest backcountry about 16 miles southwest of Carbondale, accessed via rough forest roads.Although it is west of Pitkin County’s western boundary, conservation groups fear the scenario unfolding there could soon spread to land closer to home. What happens there could foreshadow the fate of the Thompson Creek area – near the Spring Gulch ski area and in roadless areas to the south.The U.S. Forest Service has determined that areas in the White River National Forest west of Redstone and the Crystal River Valley hold the greatest potential for natural gas development. That includes all of the Rifle district of the forest and a large part of the Sopris district.If exploratory wells in West Divide Creek show promise, the solid forest of aspen trees could take on a checkerboard pattern, with drill pads mixed in.

In Pitkin County, about 13 miles southwest of Ski Sunlight, EnCana Oil and Gas USA has applied to drill exploratory wells in the Wolf Creek Gas Field, which was a producer from 1960 to 1972 but now is used by KN Energy for storage of natural gas piped in from elsewhere.To call Wolf Creek a gas field somewhat overblows it. The wells aren’t packed in. About eight wells are scattered in the forest over 10,000 acres. The pads, where all vegetation has been removed, house wells and other equipment locked in small buildings.The Wolf Creek area isn’t dazzling, picture-perfect forest on par with, say, the Maroon Bells. But it’s scenic nevertheless. Thick stands of aspen are mixed with the deeper green of spruce and fir.A network of roads crisscrosses the forest at and around Wolf Creek. An occasional pickup or SUV drifts by on weekdays, but for the most part the area is abandoned except for small herds of cows lazing away in the shade at the edge of numerous meadows.

All-terrain vehicles hit the area hard during weekends. Hunters will inundate it this fall and it is a snowmobilers’ paradise in winter.The Wolf Creek field isn’t the environmentalists’ prime concern, according to Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Wilderness Workshop. But land to the south is part of a 125,000-acre roadless area that conservation groups want protected. At least 60,000 acres have already been leased by oil and gas companies. The conservation groups are protesting recent decisions by the federal government to lease 2,000 additional acres.The conservation groups are concerned that the areas that are now roadless will be transformed into territory more similar to the Wolf Creek area – reducing their ecological value.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com


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