Drilling halted in nearby wildlife refuge

Efforts to drill in Colorado’s newest and largest wildlife refuge have moved to the back burner. A push to explore the Baca National Wildlife Refuge, located east of Durango in the San Luis Valley, will wait at least until August of this year, according to a recent agreement.

The Canadian firm, Lexam Inc., has been trying to drill exploratory wells in the Baca National Wildlife Refuge, a 92,500-acre sanctuary near Crestone that is so new members of the public are not even allowed to visit it. In the fight against the bid to drill the protected acreage, the Citizens for San Luis Valley Protection Coalition filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in 2008. The suit turned up what opponents deemed an improper connection between Lexam and Bush Administration officials.

The suit revealed e-mails, memos and other records that point to collusion between industry lobbyists and lawyers in the U.S. Department of Interior’s Office of the Solicitor. Opponents of the drilling allege that revisions by industry attorney and officials significantly misrepresented the likely impact of drilling in the Baca NWR.

Earlier this month, the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, Lexam Exploration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reached an agreement to “cease all construction activities” for at least six months. Conservation groups are asking that the Fish and Wildlife Service conduct an open and rigorous evaluation of the impacts of drilling on the refuge and the San Luis Valley’s aquifer systems, wetlands, wildlife, endangered species, local economies and cultural resources. There are also concerns that the project could affect the visual and air quality in the nearby Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Travis Stills, an attorney with the Durango-based Energy Minerals Law Center, is handling this case. “The unique conditions and special sense of place in the San Luis Valley deserve consideration,” he said. “This agreement moves one step closer to an open and transparent examination of the impacts which oil and gas development could have on the refuge and the valley.”

The federal government purchased the refuge for $33 million in 2000 to protect its “unique hydrological, biological, educational and recreational values.” However, the Baca mineral interests were not secured in the purchase agreement. Stills shared his hope that the forthcoming process would include a broader analysis. “The agreement will allow a more deliberate examination of the extent to which the FWS must act to protect the surface rights,” he said.

The recent delay resembles the controversy surrounding disputed oil and gas leases in Southeast Utah. In that case, the Bush Administration had opened public land on the edge of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, Dinosaur National Monument, Desolation and Nine Mile Canyons, and Porcupine Rim to drilling. Earlier this month, Interior Sec. Ken Salazar, a San Luis Valley resident, pulled the plug on those disputed leases.

Mining company fined for illegal road

A Denver mining company is coughing up thousands to rehabilitate a trail it bladed last summer. Colorado Goldfields Inc. will pay upwards of $4,000 for damages from illegal road construction in Ross Basin, northeast of Silverton.

Last August, the Bureau of Land Management discovered that almost a mile of the Whitehead Gulch Trail had been illegally constructed into a road. The trail led to a cabin at the Mabel Mine, a patented mining claim, and had been a foot and horse trail used primarily by hikers, horseback riders and hunters.

In mid-August, BLM employees discovered that the narrow trail had been bladed with heavy equipment to create an 8- to 12-foot wide road. In addition, hundreds of trees were cut, and a gate was constructed at the trailhead and locked, preventing horse access to a public trail. In addition, Colorado Goldfields contractors drove motor vehicles cross-country, severely rutting the tundra for about 200 feet. No permits had been issued by the federal agency for this activity, and any road or trail construction on/across BLM or national forest lands must be approved in writing prior to construction.

This week, the BLM and Colorado Goldfields reached an agreement to reclaim the trail.

The mining company has placed a sign on their private road

to keep the public from venturing onto the reclaimed area. They have also applied for a legal right-of-way to cross federal lands to the patented claims.

Colorado Goldfields purchased the Pride of the West Mill, located 4 miles from Silverton, for $900,000 in 2007. Following the purchase, the company announced that there is untapped potential in the Gold King, Mogul and Echo mines and that the mill is expected to operate for 20 years.

Colorado foreclosures tumble in ’08

Colorado and La Plata County are once again standing out as bright spots on the national economic map. New numbers from the Colorado Division of Housing reveal that completed home foreclosures actually fell in 2008.

In fact, annual foreclosure activity in Colorado fell for the first time since statewide data was first collected in 2003. According to a report released Monday, there were 16 percent fewer completed foreclosures during 2008 than during 2007 and 20 percent fewer completed foreclosures during the fourth quarter of the year. The fact that more people are keeping their homes despite tough economic times is good news for Coloradoans, according to Kathi Williams, director of the Colorado Division of Housing.

“This drop in foreclosure activity provides a little breathing room,” she said. “We still don’t know what effect the recession will have on foreclosure numbers here in Colorado, but we’d rather start the year with some falling numbers than with big increases.”

Front Range counties were largely responsible for reversing the trend. Adams, Denver and Arapahoe Counties saw sharp drops in home foreclosures compared with significant growth in numbers between 2006-07.

Nonetheless, foreclosure rates are still relatively high on the Front Range. In Denver County, there was 1 filing for every 59 households, and 1 for every 55 households in Weld County.  

Western Colorado is much more stable by comparison. La Plata County reported only 1 foreclosure for every 763 households in 2008. Mesa County was close behind with 1 foreclosure filing for every 500 households.  

Chicken Creek cracks down on dogs

Strict enforcement is coming to one of the region’s “poop loops.” Last week, the leash tightened on dogs at the Chicken Creek Cross-County Ski Area, located near Mancos.  

On Feb. 19, the San Juan Public Lands Center announced it would enforce an existing prohibition on much of the Nordic ski system. There have been incidents involving dogs chasing and biting other skiers this season.  

As a result, users are reminded that dogs are not allowed on the Dolph Kuss Loop, Hamlin Loop, Rush Spur or Turkey Creek Loop anytime between Nov. 15 and March 15. Because members of the public have expressed a desire to have a portion of the area open to dogs, the decision was made to keep the Little Bauer Trail dog friendly. In the future, a new trailhead will be constructed that will service only those trails closed to dogs.

– Will Sands