The fight for the HD Mountains
Lawsuit objecting to Forest Service decision imminent

What is known as a “progressive cavity pump” drills for natural gas in southern La Plata County. A coalition of landowners, officals and environmental groups has banded together to file a lawsuit against a recent Forest Service decision to allow the drilling of dozens of wells in the HD roadless area, near Bayfield./Photo by David Halterman.

by Missy Votel

It appears the fight over gas drilling in the HD Mountains is not over.

Despite the go-ahead from the United States Forest Service, a broad group that includes landowners, Archuleta County commissioners, and local and national environmental organizations is following through on threats to fight the decision in court. Attorney Keith Baurele, with Earthjustice, a public interest environmental law firm, is currently drawing up the papers to be filed in federal court on behalf of the group, Save the HD Mountains Coalition. Janine Fitzgerald, a representative for the coalition, said she expects the lawsuit to be filed sometime over the next few days. She said among other things, the suit will seek an injunction on drilling in the sensitive roadless area until a final court ruling can be reached.

“Time is of the essence,” she said. “Once you start drilling one well, you open the door to more wells.”

The group recently lost an appeal over the San Juan National Forest’s Record of Decision on drilling in the HDs, which allows for up to 127 new wells east of Bayfield including dozens of new wells and 8 miles of new roads inside the designated roadless area. Beginning July 21, the Bureau of Land Management will be able to begin processing permits for drilling.

However, according to opponents of the plan, it will cause irreparable damage to some of the last stands of old-growth ponderosa pine in the HDs, including some more than 400 years old. In addition, they argue, drilling would cause harm to wildlife and the area’s unique ecosystem while depleting groundwater supplies.

“The Forest Service failed to protect old growth or wildlife,” said Fitzgerald. “When you start carving the HDs up, it loses its integrity as an ecological unit. Basically, they’re turning it into a single-use area.”

Another major concern is the impact of drilling where the coal seam comes to the surface at the Fruitland formation outcrop. Drilling along the outcrop in La Plata County led to hazardous levels of methane gas in homes in the Pine River Valley, north of Bayfield, in the early 1990s and resulted in demolition of at least four homes. Because of these and other problems, the Forest Service banned drilling within 1½ miles of the outcrop in La Plata County but approved similar drilling along the outcrop in Archuleta County despite concerns over health and safety.

“We are concerned that the Forest Service’s decision will not protect the health, safety and welfare of Archuleta County residents from potentially adverse impacts of gas development near the Fruitland outcrop,” said Archuleta County Commission Chairman Bob Moomaw.

Among other things, the lawsuit will charge that the Forest Service decision violates not only the agency’s own regulations but the National Environmental Policy Act as well as the National Forest Protection Plan, said Fitzgerald.

“According to NEPA, they have to look at the community impacts, and the (environmental impact statement) revealed tremendous impacts – like people’s houses blowing up, and gas wells depleting people’s water and taking water out of the river,” she said.

However, the Rocky Mountain Regional Forester office in Denver backed the decision of San Juan Public Lands Supervisor and BLM Manager Mark Stiles, saying it was a thoughtful response to more than 68,000 public comments and several years of negotiations.

“Deputy Regional Forester Richard Stern reviewed the Record of Decision, and he was satisfied that Mark Stiles has made a sound decision,” said Janelle Smith, a spokeswoman for Stern, who was on the road and unavailable for comment. “It complied with Forest Service provisions and followed NEPA guidelines.”

She said Stern was impressed with the high level of public participation, which helped inform Stiles’ decision. As for the pending lawsuit, she said she couldn’t comment until it had been officially filed. “It would be speculative at this point,” she said.

However, Christi Zeller, executive director for the La Plata County Energy Council, an advocacy group for the oil and gas industry, said she was disappointed that drilling in the HDs, which took nearly seven years to get approval, could be delayed even further.

“I was hoping the appeal process would end so gas companies could fulfill their leases to produce gas for an ever-hungry America,” said Zeller. “What a shame.”

Zeller said the HD Environmental Impact Statement and resulting Record of Decision was a thoughtful process, which made many concessions to limit impacts. “This was a very complicated document that protects the environment. You’d think environmentalists would embrace this decision; this is a very good thing.”

She said the EIS is strict on drilling regulations, stipulating, among other things, when and where well pads can be built, and when and how roads can be built. “People think all these wells will go in at once, but it will be years until we can get 127 wells. None of this can be done in a short period of time,” she said.

Stiles, with San Juan Public Lands, agreed. He said once the 15-day appeal “cooling-off” period ends July 20, there are only six well applications that comply with the analysis requirements and can go forward with the permitting process. He said he estimates there are another 40 or so that need to address specific concerns before they can be submitted for approval.

“There are only a handful that the BLM can start finalizing the process for,” he said. “I expect the applications will come trickling in.”

From there, it takes a minimum of 30 days for the approval process, but he said some applications can stretch “into a year.”

However, Fitzgerald, with the HDs coalition, reiterated the urgency to address the issue sooner than later, pointing to problems that are already arising from drilling on the Roan Plateau, near Rifle.

“It’s a mess, people are getting sick,” she said, referring to the practice of hydraulic fracturing, which uses a mixture of liquids injected into the ground to extract gas. “The substances they’re using are getting into people’s water wells, not to mention the fumes, noise and dust.

“Pretty soon, we’re going to have to make a choice of natural gas vs. water,” she said in closing. “Are we going to make that choice now or later? Who wins?” •