Newsletter Spring 2004

May 15, 2004

Coalbed Methane Development

Threatens the Valle Vidal


Oil and gas development. It’s the issue of the West these days, threatening the very idea of Wilderness and compromising the ecological integrity of our western lands. From southern New Mexico to the Canadian border, local communities are threatened by rampant energy development and the fragmentation of nearby wilderness. The Otero Mesa of New Mexico, the Roan Plateau of Colorado, Wyoming’s Red Desert, the Rocky Mountain Front of Montana and now, the Valle Vidal.

Located within the Raton Basin of eastern New Mexico, the Valle Vidal is a land of rolling, open meadows, lush conifer forests and abundant wildlife. A refuge for the state’s largest elk herd, the Valle Vidal is prized by sportsmen and outdoor enthusiasts and is a vital resource for agricultural and ranching communities.

Pennzoil Corporation donated the Valle Vidal to the American people in 1982 with the condition that the land be managed primarily for wildlife. At 100,000 acres, it’s a tiny but important portion of the Raton Basin, where Coalbed Methane (CBM) development is already occurring on nearly 6 million acres, virtually surrounding the Valle Vidal.

EcoFlight is working to protect this area by comparing habitat with recently impacted areas.

Our photographs are being used in collaboration with SkyTruth, whose satellite images of the same area complement the photo and other data being made available to elected officials.  Summer flights will provide senators and their staff, local press and other decision makers with a first hand view of the Raton Basin and Valle Vidal.


Flying down the Sangre De Cristo Mountains, one observes diverse terrain ranging from sand dunes to 14,000 ft. peaks.  Cross the Continental divide by the Spanish Peaks and this unmarred region is immediately transformed. Evergreen Resources, Inc. has inundated the majority of the Raton Basin with CBM operations, while to the south Ted Turner’s 558,000 Vermejo Park Ranch is also pockmarked by wells.  While trying to minimize the damage, Turner is unable to stop the drilling because industry owns the underlying mineral rights. Turn back towards the west and you return to the pristine remnant of the Valle Vidal.


CBM development is having devastating effects in the rest of the Raton Basin and throughout the American West, destroying rangeland habitat and dispersing wildlife populations,

contaminating soil and ground water, and seriously depleting aquifers, causing some residential wells to go dry. With so much of the West currently being developed, a few remaining places must be preserved for other values. The Valle Vidal is one such place.


Letter from the President


The word spin has many meanings. When flying airplanes, spin is something that you assiduously avoid. In debates about our environment and other important matters we should do likewise.


This past winter I traveled abroad and found my conversations with people both interesting and a bit disturbing. In fact, I haven’t felt this way since returning from armed service during Vietnam.  The way our country is now viewed is disconcerting and quite different than the spin we receive here at home. The problem is no less serious when the topic turns from war to our nation’s policies and their impact on the environment.

On a recent EcoFlight mission, reporters from the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post were flown over Wilderness areas of southern Utah, potential oil and gas development areas of Colorado’s Roan Plateau and over similar threats to the Green River Valley of Wyoming.  In each case these threatened areas are surrounded by an abundance of roads, compressor sites, drilling rigs and pads and holding ponds. Only from the air can you truly appreciate the fact that energy development now dominates much of the western landscape. Linking this valuable aerial perspective to the public’s eye via the press and direct images is what EcoFlight’s work is all about. Giving voice to the land is ultimately more powerful than any political spin offered by those who stand to profit from the destruction of our public lands. As one reporter stated, “after days of ground research and hearing everyone’s agendas, this aerial perspective helped me comprehend …the complex issues surrounding Utah Wilderness”.

According to the departments of Interior and Energy, 88% of our public lands are already open to energy extraction. Only 12% is off-limits and includes remarkable places such as national parks and wilderness areas. Opening remaining lands would produce only 1% more energy than already under production. Will we as a nation succumb to political spin or find the political will to protect these last remnants of wild nature? The answer will likely define our future.




Bruce Gordon


A Coalbed Methane Primer

What is Coalbed Methane? CBM is natural gas that is trapped within a coal formation or seam. When coal seams are saturated with water, the methane is attached or held to the coal by the pressure of the water.


How is Coalbed Methane extracted? Extraction involves pumping millions of gallons of water from the coal seam, in order to reduce the water pressure holding the gas to the coal seam. After the water is removed and the pressure is reduced, the methane is released from the coal, and can be extracted.

Why should we be concerned about CBM development? CBM wells are connected by a network of roads, pipelines, and compressor stations, that destroy the scenic quality of the landscape, fragment habitat, and displace local wildlife populations. Over time, wells are spaced more closely together in order to extract the remaining methane. Under current guidelines, CBM producers are not held liable for damages to public health and safety or to the environment. In addition, CBM drains away and pollutes scarce sub-surface fresh water supplies.

What is “Produced Water”? Water removed during CBM development is known as Produced Water and can contain dangerously high levels of toxins and carcinogens from chemicals used in the drilling process.


Flying to Restore the Colorado River Delta


EcoFlight recently completed flights with the Sonoran Institute over the Colorado River Delta. The Tucson-based Sonoran Institute is dedicated to conserving and restoring western natural landscapes and has made the Delta a priority. Because of the Delta’s great size, aerial observation is virtually the only way to assess the impacts that are taking a toll on this vital ecosystem.

The Colorado River once flowed unhindered from its headwaters in northern Colorado through Utah, the Grand Canyon, Arizona, and Mexico before pouring into the Gulf of California. Nourishing silt from throughout the river basin washed downstream, creating the vast Colorado River Delta. Covering 1,930,000 acres, the delta extended from just north of the U.S.-Mexican border to the Gulf supporting a wide diversity of plants and animals.

The Hoover and Glen Canyon dams, along with a series of storage reservoirs and canals, now trap most of the river's sediments and have drastically diminished both the size and quality of the Delta. Only about 10 percent of all the water that flows into the Colorado makes it into Mexico, with most of that volume being diverted for local agriculture. The Delta sustains itself on less than 0.1 percent of the river's water.

Even in its diminished state, the Delta remains one of the most important wetland areas in western North America. Part of the Pacific Flyway, it is critical habitat to over 300 species of resident and migratory birds, including the endangered Yuma Clapper Rail and Southwestern Willow Flycatcher.

The Colorado River also remains the most important source of freshwater for the Upper Gulf, where coastal marine habitats support the endangered Totoaba fish and Vaquita porpoise as well as many other species of commercial and ecological importance.  Local residents, including the Cucapá Indians, depend largely upon these natural resources.

In conjunction with ground tours and utilizing three aircraft, EcoFlight flew scientists, government officials, local experts and major donors over the Delta for study and education.

Other flights gathered photographs that will be used by press and public education campaigns.

The resilient Delta and its remaining native inhabitants have learned to sustain themselves on very little. For native species to survive, we must ensure that the remaining modest flows from the Colorado are not diverted elsewhere.


Pictures can be made to lie, but over time credible pictures, because they have a true story to tell, can trump the phonies. Try as politicians might to alter their meaning with spin, eventually there comes a point when the old Marx Brothers gag comes into play:  ‘who are you going to believe---me or your own eyes?”

– NY Times correspondent Frank Rick


Kestrel Project Examines Urban Sprawl


This May, EcoFlight’s first Kestrel Project of the season studied Urban Sprawl and Smart Growth.  The program was hosted by Aspen High School and attended by students and teachers from a number of different schools in the Roaring Fork Valley. Urban sprawl is considered one of the overriding concerns of the Valley and students were given the opportunity to hear from several guest presenters involved in local development issues. As with all Kestrel programs, presenters represented many sides of this multi faceted concern.

Local developer Michael Lipkin, a proponent of responsible growth in the valley, argued that a community is in trouble when a neighborhood becomes a “good investment”, rather than a community of people and recommended creating communities that are not dependent on cars.

Rocky Mountain Institute’s Michael Kinsley encouraged students to explore how to ensure a viable economy in the Valley without continually expanding the population and what that might imply for our local economy. Pitkin County planner Cindy Houben talked about smart growth and how compact development (as opposed to sprawl) is less expensive and better for the environment and communities. Jacque Whitsitt, the Director of Colorado Association of Ski Towns, advocated against any future growth in the valley and suggested that the towns in the Roaring Fork Valley (and the country as a whole) cannot keep growing forever.  She emphasized that all life is dependent on our ecosystems and that our economy and civilization are not exempt. Students and local press were then given the empowering “bird’s eye view” by flying over nearby controversial developments.  As EcoFlight’s Bruce Gordon said to the students “ a picture may be worth a thousand words, but a flight is worth a thousand pictures”.

The Kestrel Program was designed to help students become aware of the critical connections between their lives and the ecosystems that surround them, and the impacts our society as a whole has on those ecosystems.  The students grasped this concept well, as evident by comments after their flight. “You can see nothing from the highway”, stated one student, “but you can see everything from the air”.