Groups expect decision soon on Roan Plateau
Energy development on private land creeps south of the Roan Plateau toward the Colorado River and Mamm Peak in the distance. As the best places on private land are developed, energy companies are looking more and more at energy resources on public lands.
Story and photo by DAVE BUCHANAN
The other shoe is about to fall on the Roan Plateau.
A much-awaited decision on the legality of the energy leases on the island-like plateau northwest of Rifle is expected to come any day,according to the conservation groups suing the Bureau of Land Management.
"We're not really sure when it's going to happen, but this week the judge referred to an order being forthcoming," said Mike Saul of the National Wildlife Federation.
The wildlife federation is one of 10 organizations challenging the BLM's2008 leasing of 55,000 acres for oil and gas development on and around the Roan Plateau.
Colorado U.S. District Court Judge Marcia Krieger is presiding over thecase.
Conservationists claim that any development on the approximately 35,000acres of public land atop the Roan Plateau would irrevocably harm deer and elk herds, threaten fragile populations of native Colorado River cutthroat trout and deface a popular recreation area.
"Most important is protecting this place as a refuge of undeveloped public land in an area already intensively drilled on all sides," said Pete Kolbenshchlag, spokesman for the coalition of conservation groups.
The plateau, which reaches far north of the abrupt wall of buff-colored cliffs seen from the Interstate 70 corridor, has deep spruce and aspen forests interspersed with rolling sage-brush hills, perfect summer havens for elk and deer.
The steep sides of the plateau falling away to the Colorado River on the south are considered vital winter range for mule deer.
Only a handful of roads cross the ridge tops in the public sector, unlike the nearby private land that in the last decade or so has seen extensive development.
Separated from the public land by nothing more than a few strands of barbed wire, the private land appears as a spider's web of dusty roads leading to countless well pads and broad pipeline rights of way snaking to the horizon.
Conservationists point to the breath-taking level of development and warn something similar may happen under proposed plans for the largely untouched public land on and around the Roan Plateau.
"The predictions (for development) in the BLM's draft (Resource Management Plan) accentuates how much more important the Roan Plateau's top and sides are becoming," said the wildlife federation's Mike Saul. "We are looking at unprecedented levels of industrial activity throughout this area, which is such an important deer and elk factory as well as an important recreational destination."
Hunters and biologists have long accepted the role played by the Roan in affording summer habitat for deer and elk but only recently has research by Colorado Parks and Wildlife started to reveal the level to which deer rely year-round on the Roan's various environments.
"When you talk about the Roan Plateau, you're really talking about the Roan and the entire Piceance Basin," said Dean Riggs, Northwest Region assistant manager for Parks and Wildlife. "It all runs together and works together as an entire ecosystem."
Impacts on one part of the ecosystem, whether it's drilling in summerhabitat on top or on winter habitat down the sides, affect the entire system, Riggs said.
Increased energy development could push the deer away from the historic wintering areas to less-favorable habitat.
Something similar happened near Pinedale, Wyo., where biologists say development has caused once-plentiful deer herds to decline by 40 percent.
"If we continue to see development and do push the deer to (less-favorable) winter range, then we could see adverse population effects" on Roan Plateau herds, Riggs said. "It happens over time, depending on the level of development."