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Look Out Below!

When a Denver gas company started drilling wells in Las Animas County, it brought bad feelings to the surface.

The Sunday worship service at Christ of the Canyons church in the small southern

Colorado town of Cokedale took a decidedly secular turn one morning this past August. A process server came into the church and tried to deliver papers to Dave Groubert, a church elder who also runs a Christian school in the same building.

"The server came up the stairs to the area where we have our worship services," remembers Groubert. A church member managed to intercept the man and asked him to wait until after worship was concluded. He did--and then served Groubert with papers informing him that he was being sued for slander and trespassing by a gas company and three of his neighbors.

The lawsuit claimed that Groubert, along with several friends, had trespassed on property near their homes to take pictures of some of the natural-gas wells and adjacent ponds that dot the hillsides near Cokedale; it also charged that Groubert and his co-defendants had slandered the gas company, Evergreen Resources Inc., by alleging that the wells were operating without required permits and by questioning the safety of thousands of gallons of wastewater generated daily by those wells.

Groubert is an unlikely activist. A conservative Christian and father of three, he speaks in carefully parsed sentences and has the stern demeanor of a New England pastor; it's not likely he tolerates spitball contests or foul language from his grade-school pupils. But now he finds himself in an unexpected nasty war with a Denver-based gas firm that insists Groubert and his allies are troublemakers and environmental radicals who want to shut down gas production in Las Animas County.

Like many of his neighbors, Groubert moved into the pinon- and juniper-studded Huajatolla foothills west of Trinidad for peace and quiet back in 1976. "You don't move to a remote, rural area like this because you thrive on strife," he says.

But today, strife is the major landmark of an area just north of Cokedale, the former mining outpost of Bon Carbo. (A coal company named the town "good coal" in French, dropping the final "n" so people wouldn't mispronounce the name.) Much of the land here was subdivided into 35-acre ranchettes in the 1970s, attracting an eclectic mix of back-to-the-garden hippies, conservatives unhappy with the social upheaval in urban areas, and retirees who simply wanted a quiet place to enjoy life.

Over the past few years, transplants like Groubert have discovered that the pastoral ideal can become far more complicated than they ever imagined. Many of them bought their small spreads without realizing that someone else might own the rights to minerals, gas and oil underlying their property--and that whoever owns the rights can drill a well at any time, without the landowner's permission. They love the romance of listening to coyotes wail across the valley, but they never thought that sound would be drowned out by the loud hum of pumps sucking up natural gas 24 hours a day.

And they certainly never dreamed they'd be spending thousands of dollars on attorney's fees, doing battle with a highly profitable gas company in a legal and public-relations fight that's polarized Las Animas County. While some locals view Groubert and his group, Southern Colorado Citizens United for Responsibility to the Environment (SoCURE), as heroes who've taken on a greedy and irresponsible corporation, others see them as privileged newcomers who don't appreciate the jobs and income Evergreen brings to a poor county.

"They seem to think because they've bought a little piece of property, things should be the way they want," says Paul Warren Taylor, a longtime rancher in the area who has several Evergreen wells on his property and who joined the slander suit against SoCURE. "There's a few special-interest groups that want everything their way."

With a population of about 16,000, there aren't many strangers in Las Animas County. That means people on both sides of the fight, who may be suing each other in court, often find themselves thrown together at odd moments.

"It could be the same person you're standing in line behind at the Safeway," says Groubert.

The hills around Bon Carbo are arid stepping-stones to the Spanish Peaks, which loom to the west. Juniper bushes and scrub oak straddle empty creek beds, while ponderosa pine cluster at the tops of the hills. Deserted miners' cabins attest to the area's history as an important coal-producing region. Before World War II, hundreds of men worked in dozens of mines in the area, but mining in Las Animas County went into a decline in the 1940s and has never recovered.

Much of this land was once part of huge ranches--huge not because they were profitable, but because it takes a lot of area in this dry climate to feed a few cows. In the mid-Seventies, several ranchers decided to get out of the business and subdivided their property, and human residents started replacing cattle in the scrub around Bon Carbo. While the town itself consists of little more than a post office, the hills are dotted with houses, and a steady stream of four-wheel-drive vehicles runs up and down the dirt roads.

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