A Hot Summer on the Roan Plateau

It's official. The Bureau of Land Management announced Monday that it will auction gas leases on 55,000 acres on top of the Roan Plateau on August 14. And Governor Bill Ritter and Senator Ken Salazar, who've been battling the BLM plan for years, are more than a little exercised over the move.

Although it doesn't enjoy the protection of a national park or even a designated wilderness area, the Roan is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the state — a haven for black bears, mountain lions, peregrine falcons, 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.

The BLM contends that, after years of review and thousands of written comments from locals — not to mention a lot of arm-twisting from energy companies — the agency has arrived at an environmentally sound way to lease all the parcels at once but develop only one ridge at a time. In an effort to soften the blow of the lease announcement, over the weekend U.S. Department of Interior assistant secretary C. Stephen Allred trotted out arguments in favor of the plan in a "guest commentary" in the Denver Post.

But the lease plan is a clear rebuke to Ritter and Salazar, who've been stalling for time while Salazar tries to move ahead with legislation that would require a phased leasing plan both leaders favor. Salazar has ripped the BLM plan as "fiscally irresponsible," while Ritter is muttering about "a formal protest" of some kind.

None of this is likely to silence the lip-smacking among the energy giants now carving up drilling pad after pad on the Western Slope. Developing the Roan's reserves, vast as they are, won't make a nickel's difference at the gas pump, but that hasn't curbed any of the rhetoric about "energy independence" that's being used to justify sacrificing one of Colorado's last great untamed places. And the Ritter-Salazar dissent is not really about saving the plateau — that it's going to get tapped one way or another seems to be a given to everyone but the pesky local hunters, enviros and tourism types — but about maximizing the revenue to be generated for state coffers. Under the BLM plan, Colorado stands to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in lease bonus payments that could become available under a phased approach.

The plateau is far from pristine — there's already some drilling on the top, on private land — but it's too bad nobody is paying much attention to what the locals want, which is to keep the impact of new roads and habitat degradation (inevitable in even the most environmentally "sensitive" forms of commercial exploitation) to a minimum. For more about what's at stake, see "Raiding the Roan" in our 2004 series, "Places Worth Saving." -- Alan Prendergast

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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes