Raiding the Roan

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

Sipping coffee in the Base Camp Cafe, Bob Elderkin surveys the traffic outside with more than a hint of distaste. "There are Gillette license plates all over this place," he says. "This gas play, it boggles your mind. They're already drilling from Parachute to the top of Uncle Bob Mountain -- that's at least thirty miles."

Elderkin waits patiently for the waitress to notice his drained cup. "A lot of these motel and cafe owners think this is great right now," he says. "But if they go up to the plateau and destroy that, business ain't gonna be so great. Once these roughnecks leave town, there ain't gonna be nobody behind them. Hunting? Ain't gonna be any. Grazing? That'll be history."

Folksy and soft-spoken, with more than a trace of the late actor Richard Farnsworth in his manner and mustache, Elderkin is a hunter, outdoorsman -- and nobody's idea of a tree-hugging alarmist. In 2000, he retired from the BLM's Glenwood Springs office after eighteen years of service. Before that, he worked in the U.S. Geological Survey's oil-shale division, and before that for the U.S. Forest Service -- in all, nearly forty years working as a steward of federal lands.

The well pads now stretch to the base of the Roan 
Plateau.
The well pads now stretch to the base of the Roan Plateau.
Peggy Utesch of the Grand Valley Citizens' Alliance 
questions the need for more drilling in Garfield County, 
which has the highest density of wells in the country.
Mark Manger
Peggy Utesch of the Grand Valley Citizens' Alliance questions the need for more drilling in Garfield County, which has the highest density of wells in the country.

Elderkin's relationship with the BLM is of much longer duration than the agency's ties to the Roan Plateau. The area was home for centuries to the Utes, who raised roan horses there, before white settlers began using the land as summer pasturage for sheep and cattle. Except for grazing, it was a neglected part of the federal inventory until the Navy took it over in 1935, designating it as a strategic energy stockpile -- not for gas, but for the oil shale buried in its cliffs.

The Naval Oil Shale Reserve never became a going concern, largely because the technology involved in extracting oil from shale -- crushing tons of rock and heating it to extreme temperatures to produce driblets of oil -- proved to be messy, expensive and entirely unworkable. A retort plant on the cliffs operated sporadically but closed more than twenty years ago -- around the same time that Exxon's grander scheme to turn much of western Colorado upside down and cook it proved unfeasible and collapsed, sending the local economy into a tailspin. By that time, the Navy had handed the public lands on the plateau over to the Department of Energy, which transferred them to the BLM in 1997.

The management plan now being drafted for the plateau is its first under BLM control. It comes at a time when the agency is under fire not only from energy interests eager to boost production from public lands, but from the green lobby, which charges that the BLM is no longer doing what it should to protect wilderness areas.

The wilderness potential of the Roan has been discovered by increasing legions of hikers since its transfer to the BLM six years ago. Doug DeNio, who lives in Battlement Mesa, recalls a trip that his hiking club took to the East Fork Falls last summer. "People in my group hike all over the West, and they were just amazed," he says. "They couldn't believe that something that scenic and pristine is that close to these population centers. It really is a hidden jewel."

Various proposals to designate much of the plateau as a wilderness area have been advanced in recent years, only to be stalled in red tape. (One bill sponsored by Representative Diana DeGette, a Democrat, which would have protected 1.6 million acres of federal land in Colorado, remains in limbo in the Republican Congress.) Last April, Interior Secretary Norton cut a back-room deal to settle a lawsuit brought by the State of Utah; under the settlement, the BLM is prohibited from making further recommendations for wilderness designation of any of its lands. Loudly denounced by environmentalists, the maneuver made hash of years of wilderness studies and opened up millions of acres in the West, including the Roan Plateau, to possible development.

Even before Norton's pre-emptive strike, many locals were wary of the effort to label the plateau as wilderness. They point out that the area has more than 200 miles of roads, well-established grazing permits, a handful of gas wells on private land, and a growing influx of visitors, from hunters to shutterbugs to off-road motoring enthusiasts.

"That ain't a wilderness area to me," says Elderkin. "To a lot of other people, it is. That's a matter of opinion. But it is a good area for multiple use. There are a lot of valuable things up there besides oil and gas, and we ought to be thinking about how we can get that gas out of there without destroying the place."

The most obvious disturbance more drilling would bring is the infrastructure that goes with the rigs: roads, pipelines, generators, trucks -- all the incessant activity now visible on the valley floor. If the industry is allowed to drill hundreds of wells a year on the plateau, Elderkin muses, the operation will require a vast network of new roads, leading to a fragmentation of habitat for wildlife. And unless there are tight restrictions on access, more roads mean more people.

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