The Crestone Eagle, January 2009:

Citizens take legal action to halt oil & gas drilling on Baca National Wildlife Refuge

In early December, two San Luis Valley citizens groups took legal action to halt the drilling of oil and gas wells on the Baca National Wildlife Refuge (Baca NWR). This move was in response to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) release in late October of a Final Environmental Assessment for the Planned Gas and Oil Exploration on Baca National Wildlife Refuge, Saguache County, Colorado (“Final EA”) authorizing the Canadian firm Lexam Explorations, Inc. to drill two wildcat oil and gas wells on the refuge.

The San Luis Valley Water Protection Coalition (WPC) joined the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council (SLVEC) in filing a motion in U.S. Federal District Court in Denver requesting a preliminary injunction enjoining any “ground disturbing activities” on the refuge and continuation of the lawsuit filed in 2007.

Set against the stunning backdrop of the Sangre de Cristo Range, the 92,500-acre Baca NWR protects the Closed Basin Aquifer System and the largest and most diverse concentration of wetlands in the Southwest—wetlands that support numerous unique and endangered species and thousands of migrating birds each year. The Baca NWR is next door to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve and the Baca Grande subdivision, home to more than two dozen spiritual retreat and practice centers. SLVEC and WPC believe that drilling for oil and gas will irreparably change and destroy the pristine character of the Refuge and unique sense of place values of the area.

“Ironically the surface owners of the Baca NWR—the American public—are not even allowed on the Refuge and won’t be until a management plan is in place,” said Christine Canaly, Executive Director of SLVEC. “Yet the Federal government welcomes the oil and gas industry onto the Refuge, allows them to construct miles of new roads through sensitive wetlands and wildlife habitat and drill 2.8 miles through a complex and poorly understood aquifer system into which they will inject thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals. It defies logic that the USFWS could find that there would be no significant impacts from this development,” said Canaly.

The USFWS’s Final EA concluded that Lexam’s drilling proposal would ‘not have a significant impact’ on the Baca NWR and that ‘further analysis would not be required’ before drilling commences.

Unlike most of Colorado, the San Luis Valley has not had any appreciable oil and gas development. The Valley is populated with rural farming and ranching communities that rely on water from the Valley’s complex aquifer system. The Valley also relies on a growing recreation, tourism and retreat center economy. “This pristine land is a magnificent refuge and should not be transformed into Colorado’s next oil and gas industrialized zone,” said Canaly. “Drilling on the Refuge will significantly impact the rural character of the Valley. As we have seen on Colorado’s Western Slope, oil and gas development has a profound impact on local economies, air and water quality and the special character of the region. Industry and the administration’s ‘drill anywhere and at any cost’ mentality is a real threat to lasting economic health and sustainability in our Valley. We are standing up to them.”

According to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, a record number of permits to drill were issued in Colorado in 2008.

“Drilling could have a catastrophic impact on an isolated, genetically unique population of the Rio Grande sucker (Catostomus plebeius),” said Ceal Smith, consultant for the San Luis Valley Water Protection Coalition (WPC) and a conservation biologist. “If Lexam is allowed to proceed, the cost could be no less than extinction of the population,” said Smith. The Rio Grande sucker is a state endangered fish discovered on the Baca NWR only 3 years ago.

That’s not the only endangered species that could be affected. “The main route for Lexam’s drilling operation goes right through the middle of a known Gunnison’s Prairie Dog colony,” says Smith. The Gunnison’s Prairie Dog was recently listed as a candidate species under the Endangered Species Act. “It doesn’t take a biologist to figure out”, says Smith, “that a continuous train of heavy construction vehicles passing through the colony 24 hours a day, 7 days a week will significantly impact foraging, hibernation and reproductive patterns and increase road fatalities of this prairie dog colony.

“There have been no biological assessments conducted to identify the absence or presence of sensitive species and their habitats in and around the areas proposed for drilling. The agency is literally flying in the dark,” said Smith.

Currently, the 97,500-acre refuge has no conservation management plan in place to inform and guide use of the refuge and is managed by only one government employee, Ron Garcia, who is also responsible for patroling other San Luis Valley Refuges.

Despite repeated efforts by the Saguache County Commissioners to participate as a cooperating agency, the USFWS imposed repeated obstacles to impede their involvement. “The agency appears to be more concerned with meeting directives from industry-friendly members of the Bush Administration than listening to the local community. The only option left is to press this matter in court,” said Smith. “That said, we always remain hopefully that the agency will consider a settlement of this matter.”

SLVEC originally filed a lawsuit in early 2007 after the USFWS claimed it was not required to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) before allowing the Canadian wildcat company, Lexam Explorations, Inc., to drill for oil and natural gas in the Baca NWR. At that time, the agency took the position that NEPA didn’t apply because the subsurface mineral holdings were severed before the refuge was created in 2000 and then later purchased by Lexam. When challenged by SLVEC in court, the agency reversed its position and initiated a public process as required by NEPA.

The USFWS was flooded with more than 48,000 letters opposing the drilling in the Refuge.

The federal government purchased the Refuge for $33 million in 2000 to protect its “unique hydrological, biological, educational and recreational values.” Although normally included in refuge protection, the Baca mineral interests were not secured in the purchase agreement. The broad coalition of concerned citizens represented by SLVEC and WPC include Valley ranchers and farmers, business owners, hunters, property owners, retreat centers, citizens and others. SLVEC and WPC continue to press for eventual purchase and retirement of the mineral interests lying beneath the Baca NWR and adjacent areas.

A response to the motion requesting a preliminary injunction on “no ground-breaking activities” is expected from the USFWS by the end of December. For more information contact the WPC at contact@slvwater.org or visit their website at slvwater.org or SLVEC at info@slvec.org or visit their website at slvec.org.

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