| The view from high in the
HD Mountains east of Bayfield. In coming weeks, a draft
study of impacts from proposed local gas development, which
includes wells in this Roadless Area, will be released.
/Photo courtesy San Juan Citizens’ Alliance.
Local gas development is sure to stir up
controversy in coming weeks as the planning process for hundreds
of new coalbed methane wells leaves the back burner. Breaking
months of deadlock, the San Juan Public Lands Center says that
a draft environmental impact statement will be released early
next month and the pristine HD Mountains near Bayfield are among
the places earmarked for drilling.
For the last two years, the San Juan Public Lands Center has
worked to assess the impacts of drilling 297 new coalbed methane
wells in southeast La Plata County and southwest Archuleta County.
A variety of natural gas, methane often lies underground along
coal seams. Locally, the gas- and oil-rich San Juan Basin stretches
through Northern New Mexico and into southwest Colorado. The
enormous circular depression is surrounded by the Fruitland
outcrop, a methane-rich, coalbed formation. Nearly half of the
297 wells would be located in local areas that have already
seen gas development. The remaining wells are slated for the
HD Mountains, a pristine roadless area east of Bayfield.
A long time coming
Walt Brown, the project leader with the San Juan Public Lands
Center, said that the draft “Northern San Juan Basin Coalbed
Methane Environmental Impact Statement” should be available
in early November. He noted that the draft was expected months
ago but has been hindered by the complexity of the issue.
“We’ve been saying it for a long time, but we’re
pulling the pieces together, and we should have a draft EIS
out and available for comment early in November,” Brown
Brown characterizes the draft as “a gas development document”
and said it was triggered by an industry request to develop
more methane locally.
“From the public perspective, the HD Mountains are the
focus,” Brown said. “But we’re responding
to an industry proposal for 300 new wells on public and private
Mark Pearson, executive director of San Juan Citizens’
Alliance, said that delays in the draft’s release have
become a running joke. “We’ve talked about printing
up T-shirts that say, ‘The EIS will be out in a month,’”
Eviscerating a roadless area
However, the San Juan Citizens’ Alliance views potential
impact to the HD Mountains as no laughing matter. “There’s
probably nothing else in the last 50 years that would be such
a massive transformation of the local landscape,” Pearson
said. “This will completely eviscerate the roadless area
from one end to the other. There’s no other proposal in
Colorado that I know of that would do that.”
Located east of Bayfield, the HD Mountains Roadless Area covers
nearly 35,000 acres. Pearson said that the area includes some
of the highest quality old-growth ponderosa pine in the state;
prime habitat for deer, elk, bear, turkey and the rare Mexican
spotted owl; hundreds of Ancestral Puebloan cultural sites;
and is a recreational amenity for hikers, mountain bikers, hunters
and horseback riders. The proposal would disrupt or destroy
all of these features, he said.
“It would essentially lace the roadless area from one
end to the other with roads and new wells,” Pearson said.
Specifically addressing the old-growth trees, Pearson added,
“Every single old-growth stand would have a road or well
right in the middle of it.”
|An pump-jack east of Durango
on Florida Mesa works tirelessly to pull fuel to the surface.
Nearly 300 new wells are being proposed for southeast La
and southwest Archuleta counties, including inside the pristine
HD Mountains Roadless Area. /Photo by Todd Newcomer.
Something in the water
On a human scale, drilling in the HD Mountains could also severely
impact Bayfield’s water supply and create methane contamination
and unwanted seeps along the Fruitland outcrop. Leisa Glass,
San Juan Citizens’ Alliance’s HD Mountains Coordinator,
commented, “The eventual contamination of water and loss
of water have all been documented even by the industry’s
As a result of these threats, a diverse group known as the
HD Mountains Coalition has been meeting once a month and strategizing.
Glass has been involved with the coalition since its inception
and says there is a sense that the drilling is being ram-rodded
through from on high.
“There’s a push to get this through without any
real analysis,” Glass said. “People in the coalition
are wondering why not put it off and do a proper analysis.”
She added that a recent study commissioned by San Juan Citizens’
Alliance reported that the drilling in the HD’s would
fuel only two days of national usage. “For all that destruction,
it’s only two days,” she said.
Trying to get horizontal
The Board of La Plata County Commissioners is another entity
that has expressed its reservations over the proposed drilling
of the HD Mountains. The commissioners have already drafted
a letter to the public land managers urging the use of horizontal
drilling in the roadless area to minimize impacts and expressing
concern that it has been dropped from consideration. Commission
chair Josh Joswick commented, “What we’re concerned
about is the removal of directional and horizontal drilling
from the plan. We don’t know why they were removed other
than for the economic benefit of the oil and gas companies.”
Joswick also referenced the limited supply of methane in the
HD Mountains. “Personally speaking, I don’t see
any reason to go into the HDs for the amount of gas that’s
there,” he said. “But if they are going in, I’d
like to see it done as sensitively as possible.”
Trading wilderness for wells
Pearson said that another irony of the plan to drill the HD
Mountains is that it coincides with ongoing efforts to revise
the San Juan National Forest Plan. One of the requirements of
forest plan revision is that all roadless areas be considered
for their potential value as designated wilderness and consequently
protected from mechanized uses.
Pearson said that while the Hermosa Creek Roadless Area is
being considered for its value as wilderness, the HD Mountains
Roadless Area is not being given consideration. “They
should look at wilderness potential for the HDs just like any
other roadless area,” Pearson argued.
However, Brown countered that the HD Mountains slipped out
of the wilderness picture nearly two decades ago. “The
forest plan will probably be revised in the near future, but
in the meantime, we have a proposal on our plates that reflects
20 years of planning,” he said. “When the roadless
area was inventoried in the late ’70s, there was a decision
to not make it wilderness. The land was identified as suitable
for multiple uses.”
Whether the public agrees with that designation will begin
to be weighed after the forthcoming release of the draft EIS.
Brown said that, to date, the San Juan Public Lands Center has
received more than 2,000 letters and comments on the proposal
but expects many more. However, he said that addressing concerns
and impacts has been a big part of the reason it has taken so
long to release a draft EIS.
“I’m sure we’ll get a lot of comments,”
Brown said. “But one of the reasons it’s taken so
long is we’ve really been working on addressing all of
the issues with this document.”