Jim Mimiaga/The Journal
By Jonathan Romeo Herald staff writer
Article Last Updated: Thursday, March 17, 2016 10:18pm
From the vantage of a lofty aerial view, the entrance into Mesa Verde National Park largely remains an untouched gateway into the past where visitors can immerse themselves in some of the best-preserved ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings in the country.
However, conservationists and recreationists say that corridor is threatened by a proposal to lease new gas wells and has put them at odds with the industry and Montezuma County elected officials whose tax base is dependent on oil and gas development.
On Thursday, EcoFlight, the environmental advocacy group that uses small aircraft to educate people about the protection of wild lands, gave 12 passengers an aerial view of what is at risk.
“This flight just helped me see the importance of protecting the viewshed for Mesa Verde,” said Dale Davidson, a Cortez resident and archeologist. “The more and more the viewshed deteriorates, the less value people place on a trip to the park. It’s (the flight) the only way to get that kind of perspective.”
In February 2015, the Bureau of Land Management’s Tres Rios office released a Resource Management Plan that outlined guidelines for land use – including the future development of an estimated 1,000 new wells – in select areas around Mesa Verde, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, Phil’s World and on the edge of two wilderness areas.
Environmentalists and recreationists, as well as ranchers tied to the land, felt the plan left too many areas of discretion and loopholes that would allow over-development. They have urged for a more intensive study, called a Master Leasing Plan.
Cortez resident M.B. McAfee, disembarking the Cessna 210, likened the up-close and personal aerial view of Southwest Colorado to the difference between a Resource Management Plan and a Master Leasing Plan.
“A Master Leasing Plan is like a 3,000-foot up-close view, whereas a Resource Management Plan is a larger picture, 30,000-foot look,” she said. “A Master Leasing Plan allows you to see the details that make it possible to see what needs to be protected.”
Grant Coffey, a GIS archeologist for Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Cortez, said his support for a Master Leasing Plan is not to outright obstruct oil and gas development. Rather, he’s concerned about artifacts left from 13th century tribes, which once roamed the entire Four Corners.
“There’s ancestral features that connect the landscape to a bigger cultural unit,” Coffey said. “So my major concern is the cumulative effect over the entire area. When you start drilling multiple wells, it doesn’t take too long to see those effects.
“It’s a cultural landscape, not just one site.”
Indeed, in a previous interview, Mesa Verde’s natural resource manager George San Miguel said the Park Service’s main goal is to protect the day and night viewshed of the 52,485-acre site, designated a National Park in 1906.
“The visitor experience could be affected by changing the scenic quality coming into, and looking out of, the park,” Miguel said. “Industrial operations could reduce the visibility in the area. A Master Leasing Plan could improve the nature of some of those mitigations by making them less discretionary and more mandatory.”
Those opposed to a Master Leasing Plan argue further regulations would make it more burdensome for oil and gas development, and they maintain that restrictions laid out in the Resource Management Plan sufficiently protect environmental and cultural areas of importance.
To help decide, the BLM directed a Resource Advisory Council to come up with a recommendation to the federal agency whether to pursue a master plan. That council created a subgroup, which in turn created its own “Oil & Gas Subgroup” that has held public meetings the past few months.
At 9:30 a.m. Friday, the Oil & Gas Subgroup will present its findings to the Resource Advisory Council at the Ouray County Fairgrounds building in Ridgway.
Connie Clementson, the Tres Rios office field manager, said that although the decision whether to conduct a master plan is ultimately up to the BLM, the Resource Advisory Council’s recommendation is important.
The subgroup is expected formulate its recommendation by late summer. Clementson said a date has not been set for when the full Resource Advisory Council will vote.
Jimbo Buickerood, public lands coordination for the San Juan Citizens Alliance who helped explain issues raised during Thursday’s flight, stressed from 9,500-feet the importance of meticulously plotting where new wells should be drilled.
“That way, when people come into the park they don’t see a bunch of pump jacks.”