Conservation groups urge BLM to provide "Crown Jewel" Roan Plateau new lease on life

A coalition of conservation and sportsmen’s groups has offered a range of management proposals intended to protect the fish, wildlife, backcountry and other natural riches that make the Roan Plateau a "crown jewel of Colorado’s landscape."

04-01-2013 // Judith Kohler
Greater Sage Grouse

A coalition of conservation and sportsmen’s groups has offered a range of management proposals intended to protect the fish, wildlife, backcountry and other natural riches that make the Roan Plateau a "crown jewel of Colorado’s landscape.’’

The 12 groups submitted the proposals to the Bureau of Land Management, which is writing a new Environmental Impact Statement after a federal court ruled that an EIS and 2008 plan failed to consider a more protective development option. The court also said the BLM’s analysis of the cumulative impacts of oil and gas drilling on the region’s air quality was faulty.

The groups’ comments submitted to the BLM Friday include a "Conservation Alternative,’" which would require companies to access gas atop the Roan from private land on the plateau’s southern edge. No new well pads, roads or infrastructure would be allowed on federal land. The proposal also would prohibit disturbance of the surface in important wildlife habitat and migration corridors at the base of the plateau. Provisions in the earlier plan intended to protect sensitive wildlife areas had built-in waivers that could have opened the land to construction.

The comments also call for BLM to cancel the leases, which are invalid in light of last year’s court ruling, said Earthjustice attorney Michael Freeman, who represents the conservation groups that successfully challenged the 2006 plan.

"We’re glad the BLM is going back to the drawing board. The agency now has a fresh chance to get this right and protect a unique Colorado landscape," Freeman said.

Much of the Roan Plateau consists of pristine lands that BLM has concluded could qualify as wilderness. In addition, the top of the Roan Plateau is home to genetically pure cutthroat trout, several of North America’s rarest plants and key summer and winter range for some of the country’s largest mule deer and elk herds. The BLM and Colorado Natural Heritage Program have observed that there are only three other areas in Colorado of similar size that are as biologically rich as the Roan. The other three locations are part of the National Park System, and the Roan is the only one that has not yet received protective status.

The Roan’s remote backcountry, fish and wildlife habitat become more critical as the BLM develops management plans that project thousands of new oil and gas wells in the surrounding Piceance Basin, said Michael Saul, attorney for the National Wildlife Federation.

"The proposals detailed by the conservation community allow companies access to significant natural gas deposits without sacrificing important habitats that offer their own key economic contributions through hunting, fishing and recreation,'' Saul added.

Continuing advances in drilling technology will make it increasingly easier for companies to reach gas from greater distances, Freeman said.

"Just over the last 10 years in Colorado, we’ve seen the industry reach farther and farther using horizontal and directional drilling," Freeman added. "There’s no reason to believe those advances won’t continue during the 20-year life of this new plan."

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