One of Western Colorado's most coveted wild places got a stay of execution from the Bush administration two weeks ago. But locals say the action falls short of the full pardon they'd hoped for -- and nobody is sure how long the reprieve will last.
Rising 3,500 feet above the town of Rifle, the Roan Plateau is one of the four most biologically diverse areas on the Western Slope, a haven for black bears and mountain lions, peregrine falcons and deer, rare plants and the world's purest strain of Colorado River cutthroat trout. But the plateau also sits on an estimated $22 billion worth of natural gas -- enough, industry sources say, to heat 2.5 million homes for more than two decades. As energy prices have soared and the pace of drilling in the state has intensified, so has the pressure on the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to open up thousands of acres on top of the plateau to gas wells ("Raiding the Roan," January 1).
On November 19, after months of delays, the BLM released its long-awaited draft plan for managing 73,000 acres of federal land located on the flanks and top of the plateau. Among five proposed alternatives, the agency's "preferred" plan involves making areas below the rim available for wide-scale gas leasing while postponing gas rigs on top of the plateau for several years.
At first glance, the preferred plan seems to offer at least some respite for locals enamored of the Roan. The plan defers gas development on the rim until 80 percent of the anticipated wells below have already been drilled. The BLM says that process could take sixteen years and calculates that only 51 wells -- not the hundreds some had feared -- would be placed on top over the twenty-year span of the management plan.
But the preferred alternative has been criticized by an unusually broad coalition of community interests in Garfield County, which oppose drilling on top of the plateau for various reasons. Environmental groups say that drill rigs and new roads would imperil wildlife and watersheds, while business and government leaders have expressed concern about the effects on air quality, traffic, tourism, hunting and recreational opportunities. And the assumptions behind the BLM's lowball estimates have come under sharp attack.
"A deferred death sentence is still a death sentence," says Pete Kolbenschlag, Western Slope director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition. "The preferred alternative is primarily smoke and mirrors. We don't feel it offers anything near the protection people think it does."
Kolbenschlag points out that the sixteen-year "moratorium" relies on 2001 data to predict the pace of future gas drilling. But the march of gas rigs across the county has sped up significantly in the past three years; if it continues at its current rate, the 80 percent threshold could be reached in eight years or less, leading to more rapid and widespread drilling on top of the plateau.
"Fifty-one wells isn't going to get the resource out," Kolbenschlag says. "We're likely to see extensive development on top of the plateau during the life of this plan or immediately after."
And once the BLM land is open for leasing on top, the entire character of the Roan changes, contends Steve Smith, assistant regional director for the Wilderness Society. "Once you start, you're ultimately going to have thousands of wells up there," he says. "You end up with an industrial gas field, and you've lost the ecological values of the place."
During the critical ninety-day public-comment period before the BLM settles on a final plan for the Roan, community groups hope to galvanize support for a sixth alternative, one built around the feds' own concession that 86 percent of the gas recoverable from the area over the next two decades could be extracted without any drilling on top. They're pushing for the BLM to insist that gas companies use directional drilling from below the rim, a costly but less damaging way of tapping into gas fields in ecologically sensitive areas.
Among environmental activists, the battle over the Roan is regarded as a key test of the Bush administration's resolve to push energy exploration in potential wilderness areas. Kolbenschlag says that community groups will be going on the road to encourage attendance at public meetings and issuing frequent "action alerts" on the campaign's website (www.saveroanplateau.org). "A lot of people are paying attention," he says. "We expect there will be a lot of comment coming in from all over the country."
"This is the time when citizens get to participate directly," adds Smith, "and we're going to do our best to see that thousands do." -- Alan Prendergast
The Soft Cell
During his forced stay in Colorado, "shoe bomber" Richard Reid says he's been deprived of such niceties as Time magazine and other books and publications -- and he's sued the federal prison system over his treatment. But if he were incarcerated in one of Colorado's state prisons rather than the federal Supermax in Florence, he'd be up to his eyeballs in reading material.
That's because a lawsuit filed back in 2000 against the Colorado Department of Corrections by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of seven prisoners and eight publishers, including Westword, has finally been settled. "The DOC has agreed to virtually all the procedural safeguards we advocated during settlement negotiations," says ACLU legal director Mark Silverstein. "The DOC has also agreed to narrow substantially the worst of the overbroad criteria for censorship that we challenged."
The lawsuit had charged that the DOC's criteria for screening books and periodicals was not only overly broad, it was subjective and unconstitutionally vague. As a result, prisoners had been denied publications as varied as biker magazines, David Mamet's play The Spanish Prisoner, Vibe and Laura Esquivel's novel Like Water for Chocolate. Some entertainment magazines were prohibited because the musicians and artists in them might be making "gang hand signals," Silverman says. "The new regulation is designed to end that category of censorship." And assorted issues of Westword were unjustifiably censored under an old DOC regulation that authorized an article's being banned if it encouraged "hatred or contempt of any persons."
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But the Westword stories banned by the DOC weren't just articles focusing on gang and crime issues; they were also investigations into the state prison system itself -- including one 1997 article by Alan Prendergast describing how two prisoners had beaten a third to death in the state Supermax.
Language in the settlement agreement now affirms that prisoners "have a first amendment right to read materials that express a wide variety of religious, philosophical, political and social views, as well as material that may contain criticism of government policies or may be critical of governmental authority or department policy or practices," so long as those materials do not violate other standards, such as "actually advocating non-compliance," Silverstein suggests.
The settlement also redefines the criteria for censorship, mandates training for staff in those criteria, requires the DOC to notify publishers of any censorship decision, and gives publishers time to appeal the decision. So far, though, no censorship claims have been tested under the settlement agreement. "It will be a while before we know how it works," says Silverstein.
In the meantime, you can read some of the banned stories in our Crime and Punishment archive at www.westword.com. -- Patricia Calhoun