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Lessons Learned from Colorado’s Roan Plateau

Less than a decade ago, an oil and gas boom in Colorado started to fire up... and with it came strong opinions on all sides. One of the first major controversies was over the Roan Plateau, a sweeping mesa in Garfield County. The discord centered on a Congressional mandate to drill-- and worries that doing so would destroy world class hunting and fishing, and the local economy. Colorado’s governor and two senators weighed in, and the Rifle area was featured in the documentary GasLand. Recently, the Sierra Club has brought attention to the Roan again, saying there are lessons for current oil and gas opponents.

“Ok, so I put the fuel in...” [Engine starts.]  

Bruce Gordon is talking with MichaelBrune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club. Gordon runsEcoFlight, a company that offers air tours of controversial places. This trip’s got a little extra instruction included... because, like Gordon,Bruneis a pilot too.

“We were flying overCanyonlandsthe other day, I think Bruce and I freaked everybody out by having me fly. I was told later that people prefer me at the helm of the Sierra Club than at the helm of a plane.”

The Sierra Club’s top guy is checking out the Roan from up high, because the group wants him to see what oil and gas drilling... andfracking... looks like. At least, what you can see from the air. The jokes stop as the Garfield County Airport falls away and the small craft banks right over the plateau.Brunecalls the view... sobering.

“Depressing, you drive through here on route I-70 and it’s a beautiful day...and then when you get a birds eye perspective you both get an appreciation for how beautiful and what we’re doing to it. Relatively short term profit is trumping long term preservation.”

Most drilling in Garfield County is on private land, but there are about two hundred wells on BLM land at the bottom at the Roan.  If not for a lawsuit, there would be many more drilling rigs here.  The suit forced government officials to go back and review the potential for environmental side effects--and to consider limiting the drilling more. Plaintiffs in the case are largely environmental groups.  The suit effectively hit a big pause button, halting nearly all oil and gas development on public land on or near the plateau.   At least for now.

Pete Kolbenschlag was a key player in organizing against drilling there. A key element in the strategy was reaching out to people who don’t identify themselves as environmentalists.

“Local governments here in Western Colorado, sportsmen's groups, businesses, and you kind of doing really specific organizing around places with people that are really connected to it.”

Searching for common interests is now a tactic used by the Thompson Divide Coalition in its campaign against oil and gas exploration near the Roaring Fork Valley. Kolbenschlag lives in Paonia, where earlier this year the BLM postponed the sale of some oil and gas leases. That result, he says, was based on what happened with the Roan Plateau.

“Not only working a lot with you know local community really closely and the agricultural community here, and the winemakers and irrigators and people like that, that have a very vested interest, but again we’ve set out to kind of develop a kind of community vision and a community alternative both as a tool for people to get behind and organize around, but also to provide very specific substantive information to BLM that they are required to consider.”

In other words...calling out the agency for not doing its job of managing drilling leases, exactly what tripped up BLM officials in the Roan lawsuit.

“Back in 2005...”

The Colorado Mule Deer Association is one of the groups that was drawn into the Roan Plateau debate.  Denny Behrens is a longtime wildlife advocate and met with oil and gas companies to talk about how wildlife would be protected if more drilling went ahead on the Roan. One of those companies was Denver-based Bill Barrett Corporation.  It had wildlife plan.

“They were talking fifty million dollars. To sit down and talk about the possibility once and for all, to have money available in grants to conservation organizations to do habitat restoration for mule deer, grouse, whatever wildlife’s out there will be affected-- was huge.”

The plan stalled along with the big pause for drilling. Denny Behrens thinks everyone missed out. He says... to avoid a repeat, drilling companies and opponents need to sit down together.

"And talk with people, listen to what they have to say, and then make a decision.”

The BLM is beefing up its environmental review for drilling on the Roan Plateau.  Details won’t be known for at least another year. In the meantime, interests on all sides of the drilling issue are jockeying for attention and a listening ear.

Copyright 2020 Aspen Public Radio . To see more, visit Aspen Public Radio .

Elise Thatcher /

Elise Thatcher /

Elise Thatcher /

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