Locals blast proposed HDs drilling

The long-awaited Forest Service study of six energy companies' plans for gas extraction in the HD Mountains is drawing heat. Even though the environmental impact statement released last Thursday calls for fewer new wells than were proposed, a broad-based group of locals are criticizing public agencies for bowing to industry demands.

The Northern San Juan Basin Coalbed Methane Draft Environmental Impact Statement studies a proposal by the companies BP America, Pure Resources, XTO Energy, Elmridge Resources, Petrox Resources and Exok to develop approximately 300 new coalbed methane wells in the region. The most controversial part of the proposal deals with the HD Mountains, a roadless area southeast of Bayfield. Conservationists and residents charge that more than 100 new wells in the HDs would threaten stands of old-growth ponderosa pine, abundant wildlife and the very health and safety of their homes and families. The proposal would also put 60 miles of new roads into a designated roadless area.

"This is an incredibly reckless and destructive project and the EIS makes that abundantly clear," said Mark Pearson, executive director of San Juan Citizens' Alliance. "They will dry up people's water wells, impact homes with methane seeps, cut most of the old growth in the HDs, create landslides with their new roads, and they're waiving most of the environmental rules to do it."

Pearson added, "They expect that in two homes on Faucet Gulch Road, the residents will be at risk because of methane seeps. I haven't really seen any other government proposal where they acknowledge that they could kill people with their plan."

Jim Fitzgerald owns a farm adjacent to the HD Mountains and accused the Forest Service of bowing to industry pressure. "I'm heartsick that the Forest Service betrayed the wildlife, trees and watershed it is supposed to protect and instead chose the industry's bulldoze-and-drill alternative," he said. "The recommendation also betrays the people who love the HD Mountains. By caving in to the oil and gas industry, the Forest Service will ignite months or years of strife and conflict in Southwest Colorado."

The Forest Service counters that the EIS is the result of an exhaustive study of the physical, social and biological impacts from development of the proposed gas wells. The agency also stresses that the preferred alternative of 300 new wells is more of a suggestion than a mandate. The Forest Service will make a final decision only after hearing from the public and will accept comments through Sept. 8.

Fire restrictions to begin Monday

Responding to a lack of precipitation and steadily increasing fire danger, the San Juan Public Lands Center will begin enforcing fire restrictions on Monday, June 21. The restrictions apply only to the lower elevations of regional public lands.

"Our large dead fuels are exhibiting very low fuel moistures, and the grasses, which greened up so nicely this spring, have begun to cure out, increasing the chances of a human-caused fire escaping," said Ron Klatt, fire management officer for the Columbine Public Lands Office.

As a result: campfires are limited to permanent fire rings or grates within developed campgrounds; smoking is limited to vehicles, buildings or 3-foot wide areas cleared of vegetation; chainsaws and other internal-combustion engines must have approved, working spark arresters; acetylene and other torches with an open flame may not be used; andthe use of explosives is prohibited. From Highway 550 east to Wolf Creek Pass, the low zone includes all San Juan Public Lands outside of the South San Juan and Weminuche wildernesses. West of Highway 550 over to the Utah border, the zone includes lands south of Kennebec Pass, Spruce Mill Road and the West Dolores Road.

The restrictions are timely. Last Wednesday, lightning triggered the Puma Fire, south of Pagosa Springs. Burning in heavy timer and dense undergrowth, the blaze spread to 30 acres. However, aided by cooler temperatures, quick response and higher humidity, firefighters were able to contain the Puma Fire over the weekend. In a week, such a feat will likely be more difficult, according to Klatt.

"Seven to 10 days from now, this fire would probably have been more difficult to control," said Klatt on June 11. "As the cheatgrass turns from purple to brown ourfire danger will increase significantly, so folks really need to be careful with their campfires and other activities that could spark a fire."

DMR dedicates open space easement

Durango Mountain Resort made the first of many open space dedications as it pursues development of its master plan. While the first donation was small in size, the resort plans to permanently protect as many as 240 acres as it builds out.

DMR donated a 6.98 acre conservation easement to the Animas Conservancy, a local land trust, to provide scenic corridors between areas of development and the roadways.The acreage is in the new Tacoma and Engineer villages along Highway 550, just across from DMR's main entrance. A low-impact walking trail will be built within the forested areas to allow public access.

Jeanne Trupiano, executive director with the Animas Conservancy, said "We look forward to an on-going relationship with DMR, to ensure the proper stewardship of the scenic corridors and natural area buffers.Animas Conservancy applauds DMR for taking the opportunity to include the protection of natural values as part of the planning process for the new development."

In total, 80 to 100 acres will be permanently protected at the Engineer and Tacoma villages and more than twice that amount in the total development. Homeowners may also elect to donate land on their properties. At build out, more then 40 percent of the 612-acre development will remain as open space.

"We would like to thank the Animas Conservancy for their efforts in helping us protect this beautiful area," said DMR CEO Gary Derck. "From the initial land swap in 1991 designed to protect the Hermosa Park area, bringing the land along Highway 550 to the resort, to our current Master Plan that is among the most environmentally progressive in Colorado, we are setting the standard for responsible growth."

DMR's master plan calls for the development of 1,649 units and 410,000 square feet of commercial space on 612 acres surrounding the resort. The plan is scheduled to unfold over the next 25 years.

Smelter Mountain closed to cars

In response to continued vandalism of the radio towers atop Smelter Mountain, La Plata County is taking proactive steps. Effective June 25, portions of County Road 212, the access road that is popular among pedestrians, cyclists and automobiles, will be closed to vehicular access. Hikers and cyclists will not be affected.

Three gates will restrict vehicular access. The lower gate, approximately 1.2 miles up County Road 212, will be closed seasonally from Dec. 1 Aug. 14 each year. The gate will be open from Aug. 15 Nov. 30 to allow for authorized hunting access on the Colorado Division of Wildlife property. Two additional gates near the summit of Smelter Mountain will be closed year round.

This closure was requested by several tower-site users who expressed serious concerns about vandalism and damage to sensitive communications equipment. At a public hearing held in February, the La Plata County commissioners found it is in the best interest of the public to close the road and authorized the closure for public health, safety and welfare reasons.

compiled by Will Sands





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