Updated: September 16, 2015 at 9:52 am
ABOVE SOUTH PARK - In a small plane soaring thousands of feet above the expanse of South Park, Jara Johnson surveyed one of the richest landscapes in the state, an area home to endangered wildlife, water, natural gas and uranium.
Although South Park has long been prized as the home of South Platte River and for its native elk herds, its energy prospects are what has put it on the radar of the Bureau of Land Management. The federal agency has begun putting together a master leasing plan for South Park to evaluate the risks of drilling for oil and natural gas in what Johnson considers one of the state's unparalleled playgrounds.
But for those who make their living off the wildlife and water in South Park, the area's potential for energy development poses a serious economic threat, said David Leinweber, who owns the Angler's Covey in Colorado Springs.
Leinweber's business has one of the largest guiding permits for the South Platte and habitually fishes the "Dream Stream," a state-designated Gold Medal fishery at the southern edge of the BLM's proposed leasing site. Leinweber foresees disaster if oil and gas development were to harm the river and its tributaries.
"In South Park our big concern is not very much different from what just happened on the Animas (River)," said Leinweber, referring to the acid-mine drainage that polluted the southwestern Colorado river last month. "It's the what-if story."
For Johnson, the director of operations for the environmental nonprofit Coalition for the Upper South Platte, there is much more at stake than South Park's rich fishing economy.
Last week, Johnson served as guide for a National Wildlife Federation-organized flight tour over South Park to highlight the area's mix of crucial water resources and wildlife habitats.
To the uneducated eye, South Park is a treeless expanse that stretches between the Front Range to the east and the Mosquito Range to the northwest. But Johnson sees the 980-square-mile area as a complex ecosystem with rare high-elevation wetlands, agricultural fields and winter refuges for elk and pronghorn. The South Platte meanders through the heart of the park - so named because white settlers thought it was like a natural game preserve - and delivers most of the water for the Denver metro area.
While less than an hour by plane from southeast Denver, South Park might as well be an exotic high-mountain paradise for animals, microbes and plants.
"There are plants in the Mosquito Range that are found nowhere else in the world," Johnson said.
South Park's uniqueness comes in part from its geology - a mixture of ancient volcanoes, glaciers and lakes, which make the area precious to the Front Range for its connection to water. Denver, Aurora and Centennial get water from South Park's rivers, streams and reservoirs. While Colorado Springs gets its water from the Homestake system west of Leadville, two pipelines shuttle water east through the park, right through the BLM's proposed leasing site.
With 28 abandoned wells and no active permits for the area, South Park has seen minimal drilling, said BLM spokeswoman Vanessa Lacayo. Areas around Lake George are "prime for uranium development," although none has happened, Johnson said.
Nonetheless, potential for oil and gas development has raised the alarm in Park County, which gets most of its water from aquifers beneath South Park. While locals are anxious to see how leasing will play out, they are getting what many consider an unprecedented opportunity to plan with the BLM.
In years past, environmental reviews of areas were done once energy companies expressed interest in drilling on BLM lands. But in 2010, BLM reformed the process by creating master leasing plans to be put together before areas are made available for lease, Lacayo said.
"The concept of the leasing reform (is) it doesn't wait for someone to submit an expression of interest," she said.
Instead, the BLM triggered the process without active interest in energy development in South Park. And the BLM is seeking the input of people like Leinweber.
"I think that when we initiated the master leasing plans, it was to provide the public with more opportunities to take a closer look at oil and gas leasing," Lacayo said.
Before 2010, the first time locals learned of plans to drill on BLM lands was when mineral rights were sold, Lacayo said. Now, residents and others impacted will know about the area's potential for oil and gas development long before leases are made available. The BLM has placed a moratorium on energy development in MLP areas around the state until several leasing plans are completed, Lacayo said. The BLM is still offering leases in other areas not part of MLPs, said Lacayo.
Lacking funds, the agency has relied on CUSP to jump-start conversations about the impacts of oil and gas development. The nonprofit received a grant, and together with the the Keystone Policy Center, hosted three public meetings from October to February to give Park County officials, residents and business owners a chance to express concerns.
In a report submitted in March, CUSP found that South Park's cattle owners welcome oil and gas development, while others want limited or strict restrictions.
Park County residents are afraid oil and gas wells will pollute their vulnerable aquifers. Various wildlife groups proposed that drilling be prohibited in known wildlife areas, such as portions of the James Mark Jones State Wildlife Area. Water providers, such as Denver Water and Colorado Springs Utilities, lobbied for mandatory setbacks for oil and gas development from water sources.
The BLM will take all the input into consideration for an environmental review, which will be released for another round of public comment after a draft is done, Lacayo said.
Although research has begun, the BLM is possibly years from opening the leasing process in South Park. The area's leasing plan is but a sliver of the BLM's Eastern Colorado Resource Management Plan, which will take years and millions of dollars to complete.
South Park, meanwhile, will continue to be the recreational and wildlife mecca it has always been. But even if it doesn't become the home to Colorado's next natural gas boom, Leinweber believes that even the smallest amount of drilling could have devastating impact on the area if it goes wrong.
"What people don't often recognize with some of the oil and gas things is that it often isn't the big company that goes in and does the exploration," he said.
"It's these small guys that don't really have the backing of something. If they were to make a mistake, it can be pretty impactful for a long time. My concern is containing any byproducts that come out of the these (drilling) processes that could jeopardize our industry as a business."
Contact Ryan Maye Handy: 636-0198