Raiding the Roan

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

"I think you're going to see vast areas of canyons that are off-limits, and other areas where forty-acre density may be appropriate," says Dave Cesark, principal environmental specialist for Williams Production, an Oklahoma-based gas company that operates hundreds of wells at the base of the plateau and five already drilled on private land on top.

Environmental activists insist that the scale of development contemplated by the BLM would be devastating to wildlife, forever altering the character of the plateau. They're pushing for the agency to explore ways to get at the gas from the base, using cutting-edge technology in directional drilling, a costly but less damaging way of tapping into oil and gas in ecologically sensitive areas.

"The markets are going to change, and things that aren't necessarily economical now are going to become so," says Steve Smith of the Colorado Environmental Coalition. "We shouldn't be in a big rush to drill from the top when someday we may be able to get that gas without wrecking the dense forests, critical habitat and amazing scenery that's up there."

Ex-BLM man Bob Elderkin
Ex-BLM man Bob Elderkin
Outfitter Keith Goddard has seen deer herds diminish 
in the wake of the gas rigs.
Mark Manger
Outfitter Keith Goddard has seen deer herds diminish in the wake of the gas rigs.

Concerns about drilling the plateau aren't confined to the usual environmental groups. The most vocal opposition to the drilling proposal has come from a broad range of community interests -- from ranchers, outfitters and other locals who have a direct stake in the future of the plateau, as well as town officials and business leaders who fear the drilling will puncture a local economy that relies heavily on agriculture, hunting and tourism. Citizens' groups have also questioned what drilling on the Roan will do to air quality, water quality and the general quality of life in the Grand Valley.

At hearings that the BLM conducted last year, more than 90 percent of the public comments and the leadership of six towns in Garfield County opposed large-scale drilling on top of the plateau. "I have never seen unified support from all the municipalities in our county before," says Trési Houpt, a county commissioner. "There's an implication that they're actually going to listen to our comments and recommendations. But I'm not a true believer that will actually happen."

Houpt has reason to be skeptical. A few months ago, the BLM quietly abandoned the most popular alternative discussed at those meetings, which would have called for stringent measures to protect the wilderness character of the plateau. Although Gale Norton, the Coloradan who heads the U.S. Department of the Interior, has pledged to follow "the four Cs" approach to public lands policy -- consultation, communication and cooperation, all in the cause of conservation -- that doesn't seem to apply to the administration's designs on the Roan.

"This is a top-down approach to public-lands management that ignores the public, despite their mantra about the four Cs," says Suzanne Jones, a regional coordinator for the Wilderness Society.

The battle over the Roan Plateau is shaping up as a critical test case for the Bush administration's high-octane energy policy, which calls for subsidizing risky drilling ventures, unlocking previously untouchable resources and stalling legislative efforts to extend wilderness protection to more public lands. The policy draws heavily on the rhetoric of achieving energy independence, for the sake of national security as well as for boosting the economy. But critics say that drilling on the Roan will do nothing to lower gas prices or boost reserves and may not recover nearly as much gas as anticipated. What it will do, they predict, is make a national sacrifice zone out of a unique wild place while adding to the burdens of a community already besieged by widespread gas drilling and its consequences.

"We just believe that you don't have to drill every last inch of this country to get every last drop of gas out," says Peggy Utesch, president of the Grand Valley Citizens' Alliance, which has dueled with state officials and gas companies over the wells in Garfield County. "There are places where it's simply not appropriate to drill, and this is one of them."

According to Clugston, the Roan in its present state is already "an industry for the town" -- one that, unlike an energy boom, has sustainability. "It's a natural wilderness area, and I don't use that term the way politicians use it," he says. "It's a resource I don't want to lose."

It's a crisp November day in Rifle, and the town seems to be hosting twice as many people as its stated population of 7,000. The restaurants are packed. The motels have their NO VACANCY lights on. A massive new Wal-Mart on the east side of town is advertising a grand opening. Orange-suited men cruise the main drag in muddy pickups, past knickknack shacks, liquor stores plastered with "Welcome Hunters" Budweiser posters and special deals on twelve-packs, Rifle Middle School (home of the Cubs) and a sign announcing "last chance team roping" at the Garfield County Fairgrounds.

Not all of the bustle belongs to the hunting season. Not every truck sports a gun rack and orange jumpsuits. Some are high-mileage beaters from Utah and Wyoming -- roughneck crews from Vernal, from Gillette, from God knows where, following the march of the gas rigs across the valley floor.

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