Raiding the Roan

Rich in wildlife and natural resources, the Roan Plateau survived the last energy boom. Will this one destroy it?

The stark shale cliffs rise north of the interstate, towering over the town of Rifle. From below, the 3,500-foot stone pillars look forbidding and lifeless, like books placed on a shelf for show. But to Joe Clugston, there's nothing dead about the geologic upheaval looming over his home -- not yet, anyway.

"We call them the Book Cliffs," says Clugston, a former Rifle city councilman. "They're part of the town. They are the town. I've been running that hill for sixty years. Hunting, hiking -- just being up and away."

Man and boy, Clugston has made the journey up the cliffs more times than he cares to count. There used to be three public-access roads. Now there are only two -- steep, switchback-happy affairs, all but impassable in winter. But the journey was always worth it. Above the rim is the Roan Plateau, a series of anvil-like mesas separated by steep red-rock canyons, one of the state's most scenic and least-known refuges from civilization.

Former Rifle councilman Joe Clugston a regular visitor 
to the Roan Plateau, says that widespread gas drilling 
will bring roads, people and pollution -- and drive 
wildlife from the area.
Mark Manger
Former Rifle councilman Joe Clugston a regular visitor to the Roan Plateau, says that widespread gas drilling will bring roads, people and pollution -- and drive wildlife from the area.

Sprawling over 53,000 acres to the north of the Colorado River, from Rifle to Parachute, with an average elevation of 8,000 feet, the plateau is a dramatic, rolling encounter with dense aspen groves and old-growth Douglas fir, juniper woodlands and meadows of wildflowers. The box canyons teem with timber, hanging garden seeps, black bears and mountain lions. Grouse, elk and mule deer roam the sagebrush. Peregrine falcons and bald eagles soar above the cliffs. The abundant springs and creeks feed roaring waterfalls, including the spectacular 200-foot falls on the East Fork of Parachute Creek. They also harbor rare plants and toads and the world's purest strain of Colorado River cutthroat trout.

Thirty years ago, Clugston brought a Navy buddy from Alabama home on leave and took him up to the plateau. While his friend stood speechless, Clugston pointed out the purple spine of the La Sal Mountains in Utah, the Continental Divide to the east, the Flat Tops to the north, the Grand Valley and Mount Sopris to the south.

"You know," the man from Alabama drawled at last, "all my life I heard this expression, 'The air sparkled.' I knew what that meant, I guess, but I've never seen it sparkle until now."

In his youth, Clugston used to wander the Roan for days without coming across another person -- but those times are over. In addition to ranchers with grazing permits, the plateau now attracts hikers, hunters, anglers and other fans of the backcountry. Yet the canyons still thrive with game, and the air still sparkles.

"I can get up there and see forever," Clugston says. "We still have many days like that, where you can see Utah or the lightning on the Divide."

But those days are numbered, too, Clugston fears. From his home on the valley floor, he can trace the clouds of dust raised by big trucks bringing fuel and equipment to the natural-gas rigs that have sprouted along both flanks of the Colorado River -- a noisy, relentless, earth-flattening march of extraction that, in recent years, has reached all the way to the base of the plateau. The Roan is now an island, with gas wells lapping at its shore. If the energy industry has its way, before long the plateau itself will be riddled with hundreds of wells, drilling into narrow pockets of gas trapped more than two miles below the rim.

According to the Colorado Natural Heritage Program, a non-profit organization sponsored by Colorado State University, the Roan Plateau is among the four most biologically diverse areas on the Western Slope. The other three are federally protected national parks or monuments. Not so the Roan: The top of the plateau is a mix of private land and 35,000 acres managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Although the BLM acknowledges that much of the plateau has "wilderness characteristics," the agency is also under mounting pressure from the Bush administration to open up more of its lands for energy development. The Roan is on a national list of 21 high-priority BLM properties slated for expedited management plans because, in addition to its other riches, the plateau happens to sit on top of an estimated 7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The Colorado Department of Natural Resources values the recoverable portion of that gas at $22 billion; industry sources say it's enough to heat 2.5 million homes for more than two decades.

The gas is part of an enormous field that stretches across northwest Colorado's Piceance Basin, sometimes referred to as the "Persian Gulf of natural gas." Over the past five years, rising prices and improving technology have triggered a frenzy of gas drilling on public and private lands across the Grand Valley. Garfield County now has more than 1,400 wells, operating at a higher average density than anywhere else in the country. Nearly 400 wells were permitted in 2003, double the number from two years earlier, with another 500 projected for the coming year.

But the industry wants more. This month, the BLM is expected to release a long-awaited draft management plan for the plateau that will propose leasing thousands of acres for drilling on top. Although the exact details aren't yet known, some of the more gung-ho alternatives under discussion have included drilling as many as 180 wells per year from multi-well pads located anywhere from 40 to 160 acres apart -- more than a thousand wells over the next twenty years, with all of the roads, noise, dust and pollution that go with them.

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