Historic Before and After

State: Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Wyoming
Region: Western US

Shiprock, New Mexico - Oil and Gas, Coal

The bellwether for air quality in the Four Corners has always been the Shiprock spire in New Mexico. The lefthand photo of Shiprock, taken in 2006, has been widely used in the fight against dirty coal plants in general, and Four Corners air quality. This righthand photo of Shiprock, taken in (2015), shows a markedly improved air quality situation.

The San Juan basin in Southwest Colorado and Northwest New Mexico is home to a vast fossil fuels complex, anchored by two of the country’s oldest and most polluting coal-fired power plants, the San Juan Generating Station and the Four Corners Power Plant. The two power plants are New Mexico’s top two sources of air pollution. Additionally, the pollution in the San Juan Basin is aggravated by the vast amount of natural gas drilling, where the common practice of venting and flaring methane releases large quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In 2014, tougher air-quality rules were passed for the gas-and-oil industry in Colorado, together with stricter emission controls for New Mexico power plants. In 2015, the San Juan Generating Station permanently shut down two of its four units and the plant is scheduled to close completely in 2022, reducing its emissions by 50% and the Four Corners Power Plant emissions by 25%. Additionally, in 2016 the BLM instituted the Methane Waste Reduction Rule, aimed at reducing venting and flaring of methane on BLM land. All these measures have created significant reductions in the smog and pollution in the area.


Roan Plateau, Colorado - Oil and Gas

Ranked as one of the four most biologically diverse areas in Colorado, the Roan Plateau provides critical habitat for wildlife, including one of the largest mule deer herds in Colorado. Most of this herd’s habitat has already been leased for energy development, making the few remaining areas of critical range all the more critical. Under President George W. Bush, 65 leases were granted illegally without the required environmental review. After lawsuits filed by our partners, the BLM reviewed the leases. In January 2015, the Obama administration formally withdrew the contested leases from the Roan; a total of 90% of the Plateau’s public land is now protected. However, over half of the Roan Plateau Planning Area is either owned outright or leased by oil and gas companies, and intensive oil and gas development is already taking place at the base and on the western third of the top of the plateau.

The large photo, taken in 2005, shows the top of the Roan before any natural gas development took place. The insert 2010 photo shows the compromised landscape on private land on the top of the Roan during the natural gas boom in the Piceance Basin.

Pinedale Anticline/Jonah Field, Wyoming - Oil and Gas

The Pinedale Anticline and Jonah Fields are part of the vast natural gas reserves in the Green River Basin, containing gas reserves that have proven to be some of the most productive and lucrative in the nation. The Anticline consists of 197,345 acres with gas reserves estimated at up to 40 trillion cubic feet. The Jonah has a productive area of 21,000 acres and is estimated to contain 10.5 trillion cubic feet. Drilling started in the late 1990s and rapidly expanded from the 500 wells first estimated to many thousands of wells. The BLM adjusted density of well spaces from 40 acres, to 20 acres to 10 acres, down to the current 5 acres per pad. Rapid expansion ensued. Up to 50 wells can be drilled on an individual pad with the current regulations. While development brings increased revenue to the state, air quality is markedly poorer than it was before large-scale gas development appeared. Furthermore, the Anticline and Jonah Fields are along the migration route of the mule deer – the longest recorded ungulate migration in the lower 48 - and pronghorn deer. The health of the herds have steadily decreased as energy development as increased.

The 2004 photo highlights density when natural gas drilling was just getting started in the area, and the 2013 and 2015 photos show the growth in density of well pads on either side of the Green River. Production growth in the Green River Basin grew from just 14.2% of its total production in 2000 to a high of 55.5% in 2011, before slipping back to 52.1% in 2013.


Gold King Mine Animas River, Colorado – mine spill, watershed

Gold mining was a major economic driver in the Silverton area in Colorado for almost a hundred years, ending in 1991, when the last mine closed. Many of Colorado’s estimated 22,000 closed mines, including the Gold King mine, were shuttered before mine waste laws were implemented in the 1977. A reported 3 million gallons of acidic wastewater from the Gold King Mine was released into the Animas River on August 5th, 2015. The Environmental Protection Agency was working with heavy equipment to find a leak at the mine, which has been releasing toxic water into the river for years. Workers instead accidentally caused the wastewater to spill into Cement Creek, which flows into the Animas. Pollutants will settle out over time and will get kicked up again as water levels fluctuate, and potentially cause future problems. Continued monitoring and analysis of the river and the wildlife that uses the river will be required to understand the long-term impacts. The Animas watershed is littered with abandoned mines that still need reclamation, and it will take sustained community engagement, watershed advocacy and co-ordination with elected officials to clean up old mines to protect the region from any more disasters. The photo on the left, taken in 2014, a year before the spill, shows clear water flowing through the Animas River.  The photo on right was taken on Aug, 9, 2015, four days after the spill. The River turned yellow from the oxidization of dissolved iron in the escaped waste water. EcoFlight flew Colorado’s Senator Bennet the day after the spill to evaluate the scene.



Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem - Whitebark Pinebeetle & Climate Change

As the keystone species in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, the whitebark pine is the source of survival for many wildlife species. Whitebark pine nuts are a critical food source for grizzly bears, attracting the bears to remote high-elevation areas and thus, away from people. A symbiotic relationship exists between the grizzlies and Clark’s nutcracker that steal the squirrel middens of whitebark pine tree nuts, in the fall and the winter, keep the tree and the wildlife alive. Warming winter temperatures have allowed the mountain pine beetle to thrive in previously inhospitable, high-elevation white bark pine forests. Before the pine beetle epidemic swept across the Rocky Mountain region in the early 2000s, the whitebark pine forests of the greater Yellowstone Ecosystem were pristine habitat for a vast array of wildlife, flora and fauna.  More than 95 percent of the large trees in the region have succumbed to pine beetles. This tightly woven community of animals and trees faces a serious threat, made worse by global warming. Fewer whitebark pines means fewer whitebark pine nuts. And fewer nuts means bears, squirrels, and the nutcracker must scramble to find another source of calories - or starve.

In the 2007 photo, the pine bark beetle has decimated the whitebark pine in the Greater Yellowstone Area, threatening the existence of not only the pine tree but many other species that depend on it. A full ecosystem aerial climate change baseline study was ordered by the USFS based on this photo, and conducted by EcoFlight and NRDC to scientifically document this critical landscape. The 2005 photo predates the infestation.


Clark Fork River, Montana – Watershed Restoration

The Clark Fork River basin is one of the largest river systems in the Columbia River basin. Millions of dollars have already been spent removing toxic materials and replacing lost habitat. A current plan to invest in cleaning up mining pollution and restoring the top 120 miles of the Upper Clark Fork River corridor is underway and long-range planning is being finalized for a $100 million state Natural Resource Damage Program (NRDP) fund to restore the upper Clark Fork River drainage. Future plans include increasing the amount of water in Clark Fork tributary streams to improve trout breeding areas and boost water quality in the main river.  The NRDP money comes from the state's court settlement with mining companies that dumped millions of tons of contaminated tailings into Silver Bow and Warm Springs creeks during the 20th century. Over the years, those heavy-metal laden soils have flushed into the Clark Fork, killing fish and vegetation along riverbanks and poisoning drinking water aquifers.

The 2016 photo shows the initial efforts in removing mining pollution from the banks of the river. 2017 photo shows the continued effort to restore the banks of the river by removing mining waste.


Hermosa Creek Wilderness, Colorado – 416 Fire

The pairing of a low snowpack winter and high fire danger summer, that is exacerbated by climate change, is becoming the new norm. The 416 Fire in June 2018 burned much of the 37,400-acre Hermosa Creek Wilderness, and closed the San Juan National Forest to the public. This area has been a posterchild for protection for bipartisan grassroots communities coming together who care about a landscape and saw fruition when the Hermosa Creek Watershed was protected by President Obama in 2014. The management plan for the watershed was finally released in January 2018 to allow for recreational and historical uses of the Hermosa Creek drainage and still protect the environment.