Look Out Below!

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

Over the past decade, it's become increasingly common for companies being challenged by citizens' groups to sue for slander. A corporate attorney coined the term SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) for such cases. Although these suits are usually thrown out of court since Americans have a constitutional right to criticize others, defendants still have to spend their own funds to hire a lawyer, and that can have a chilling effect.

"There's been an immense personal cost," says Bieber. "The SLAPP suit is the scariest thing that's happened, because it's personally directed and costly. They're designed to financially cripple you."

In September, Evergreen and the suit's other plaintiffs asked Pueblo District Court Judge John Tracey to require SoCURE to provide them with a list of its members. That's a blatant attempt to frighten people out of supporting them, the defendants say.

"For what reason would they need a membership list?" asks Beck. "All of our names are well-known. Now people are afraid to contribute to SoCURE because of the SLAPP suit. People are so afraid, they make contributions anonymously."

Like Evergreen officials, rancher Taylor says he can't talk about the suit because it's in litigation. He makes it clear, however, that he thinks the Bon Carbo residents are troublemakers harassing a natural-gas company that's done nothing wrong.

"The biggest problem is the lies they're telling," says Taylor.
A Las Animas County native, the eighty-something Taylor owns 5,000 acres near Bon Carbo. Although he now lives in Trinidad, he comes from a long line of ranchers and believes natural-gas production can help the county economy recover from the shutdown of the mines.

"This has quite a future here for the next twenty or thirty years," he says.
Taylor makes no secret of his disdain for the subdivisions that dot the foothills west of town. "Natural gas may do some little damage, but no more than all this subdividing," he says. "It's been way overdone. It's brought a lot of people in here and created a lot of damage.

"They've subdivided the ranches, and all this development is ruining the place. The traffic and vandalism and pollution have tripled. Those are the things I have against the growth."

He has a few things against several of his new neighbors as well. "We've had a lot of good people come in, but also some I don't think highly of," Taylor notes tartly. "They're people who came in when the subdividing started. They're not natives; they've come from every state in the union."

County commissioner Ossola sees the conflict as part of the stress that comes with population growth. For years Las Animas tried to attract new industries and residents, usually unsuccessfully. Now that they've finally come, however, many old-timers are bitter about the ensuing change.

"We've always wanted growth," says Ossola. "Now we're getting it with all the problems."

For much of the past forty years, Las Animas County has been economically depressed, and young people often left to seek work elsewhere. Now the population influx has brought new jobs in construction and retail. A lot of these jobs are low-paying, though, and Ossola says the county is still struggling to lure high-paying employers. While natural gas isn't a major employer--about a hundred people work for three different gas companies in the county--those jobs are relatively well-paying.

"That's why this is such a divisive issue," says Beck. "A lot of people think this helps put food on the table."

Bieber knows that old-timers like Taylor will always see her as a newcomer, even though she's lived in Bon Carbo for two decades. But that's enough time in the area to convince her that laws governing oil and gas extraction simply haven't kept up with the changing nature of rural Colorado.

"When somebody has 60,000 acres, they might have fifty gas wells and it doesn't impact their lifestyle," says Bieber. "But now you have all these people living on 35-acre pieces of land, and it has a huge impact."

Bieber laughs as she recalls the naivete of the back-to-the-land movement that brought her and husband, Tom, to Bon Carbo in the mid-Seventies. "We moved here 21 years ago to do the self-sufficiency thing," she says with a wry smile. "We built our own house and got goats and chickens."

Making a living in Las Animas County was a constant struggle, and the couple frequently considered leaving. "There were a number of times we came right to the edge," adds Bieber. "But it was worth putting up with financial insecurity to live out our dream."

The tribulations of life in a remote valley are many; when Bieber went into labor during a snowstorm, she had to be driven out on a snowmobile. But she's grown to love living in a place where the Sangre de Cristo mountains sparkle on the horizon and herds of elk wander through meadows.

"In twenty years, I've never taken it for granted," she says. "It gets into your blood. It's something you don't want to give up."

Like several other members of SoCURE, Bieber owns a minority portion of the mineral rights under her land. That's not enough for her to have a say in whether wells are drilled there, although it does mean she gets a check for $25 from Evergreen every quarter. But she says no amount of money could convince her to look the other way while the area she loves is sullied.

"We're getting nothing but grief out of this," Bieber says. "We're only asking for people to play by the rules.

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