Opposition swells over HDs
Drilling proposal blasted from all sides

SideStory: Public still can weigh in at Monday meeting

A stand of ponderosas grace the view in the HD Mountains, east of Bayfield. The recent release of the Forest Service’s preferred alternative for drilling in the mostly roadless area has stirred local residents as well as county officials, who would rather see no new wells in the pristine area./Photo by Jared Boyd

by Will Sands

Opposition to drilling in the HD Mountains Roadless Area is heating up all over Southwest Colorado. In the wake of a recent San Juan Public Lands Center announcement, area officials and conservationists are restating their concerns about natural gas exploration in the HDs and along the Fruitland outcrop.

The San Juan Public Lands Center recently released its preferred alternative for natural gas exploration in southeastern La Plata County, an area encompassing 125,000 acres and including the 28,000-acre HD Mountains Roadless Area. Calling it a balance of public concerns with the property rights of oil and gas companies, the Forest Service selected “Alternative 7” for its final Environmental Impact Statement. The alternative would allow 130 new gas wells and 70 miles of new road in southeastern La Plata County. It would also open up 20,000 acres of the HD Mountains Roadless Area to natural gas development, including 57 well pads and 38 miles of new roads.

Walt Brown, the San Juan Public Lands Center’s team leader for the project, commented, “We think Alternative 7 best balances the complex social and environmental issues with the valid and existing gas lease rights.”

The Forest Service and BLM also counter that Alternative 7 would prohibit drilling in “unstable areas” of the roadless area, as well as approximately 8,000 acres that include the Ignacio Creek ecological research area. The alternative also calls for test wells prior to drilling in the 1½-mile Fruitland Outcrop buffer zone in an effort to allay concerns about threats to public health and safety.

Conservationists, residents and elected officials view Alternative 7 in a different light. This week, a consortium of public interests called on the Forest Service to heed concerns and amend its decision on drilling in the HD Mountains. Citing threats to public health and safety as well as damage to environmental health, groups asked the Forest Service to reconsider and choose Alternative 6. That alternative would allow a total of 78 wells and no drilling in the HDs or near the outcrop.

“There is so much threat to human health and danger to one of the county’s only roadless areas, that the best way to deal with it is by not drilling in certain areas,” explained Amber Clark, public lands coordinator for San Juan Citizens Alliance. “We’re hoping that the Forest Service will hear that the public and local governments are not happy with the decision. There’s still room for the agency to address these concerns.”

The danger of drilling in the Fruitland outcrop, the volatile northern edge of the San Juan Basin, tops public concerns. The Forest Service’s own Environmental Impact Statement reveals that drilling along the outcrop could lead to the contamination of homes and wells as well as underground fires.

Bill Vance, who owns a ranch along the north edge of the HD Mountains, commented, “My home is just a half mile from the outcrop. I don’t feel protected by vague Forest Service promises that they can make the gas companies stop drilling if methane seepage problems start to occur. Once the genie is out of the bottle, there is no 4 way the Forest Service can put it back.”

Bob Delzell, a San Juan Citizens Alliance board member and resident along the outcrop, agreed, adding that he feels like the agency is simply ignoring the dangers and public concerns.

“Despite the unanimous opposition of affected local governments, the Forest Service is poised to approve almost 50 additional coalbed methane wells near the Fruitland formation outcrop,” he said.

During the public comment period in 2004, county commissioners from La Plata County and Archuleta County also expressed unanimous opposition to drilling along the outcrop because of the potential danger. La Plata County reaffirmed its concerns last week, when the commissioners sent another letter to the Forest Service reminding the agency that the county still opposed drilling in the HDs.

“We sent the letter as a reminder,” said Wally White, La Plata County commissioner. “We wanted to remind them that the Board of County Commissioners passed a resolution opposing drilling in the HDs as did all of the other affected municipalities. We still oppose drilling the HDs and along the outcrop in particular.”

The Town of Bayfield is among the other municipalities that opposed drilling, and Mayor Jim Harrmann commented that he feels shut out by the public agencies.

“I feel like the Forest Service and BLM already had this figured out two years ago,” he said. “They went through the formalities, but didn’t have any intention of doing anything but what they wanted. They didn’t listen to the local governments or the thousands of letters. I think they are more afraid of being sued by the oil and gas companies.”

Drilling inside the HDs would threaten stands of old-growth ponderosa pine and abundant wildlife. It would also denude the majority of the designated roadless area with new roads. This would be an extremely high price to pay for a relatively small amount of natural gas, according to White.

“I think it’s a travesty to ruin an irreplaceable area for what amounts to a drop in the bucket in terms of natural gas,” he said. “As far as the entire nation is concerned, the HDs would provide only enough gas for two days.”

Nonetheless, concerned parties are still holding out hope. The Forest Service has yet to release its final decision. In addition, the Colorado Roadless Area Task Force, convened by Governor Owens and the Colorado Legislature, recently recommended that no road building take place inside any of Colorado’s designated roadless areas.

“The final Environmental Impact Statement is not the final decision,” Clark concluded. “I don’t think people should come away from this with the feeling that drilling is imminent. We think the agencies are listening and that people should continue to voice their concerns.”

Brown said that the San Juan Public Lands Center is indeed listening.

“There are a lot of really tough issues associated with this project,” he noted. “We’ve done the best we can to balance those. But it’s also really difficult to make everyone happy. We haven’t made any final decisions yet, and we are listening and could possibly tweak some things before it’s all said and done.”

The San Juan Public Lands Center is expected to release the final decision later this summer. •