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Draft Environmental Assessment For Potential Oil Drilling Near Colorado Sand Dunes Doesn’t Say Much

Patrick Myers
National Park Service
The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve on a snowy December night in 2014.

The Bureau of Land Management plans to put up more than 20,000 acres of Colorado land for lease by oil and gas drilling companies. Much of that land sits near the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.

The bureau recently released adraft environmental assessment report. But it doesn’t assess what might happen to the area if drilling started there. It just goes into the potential impact of leasing the land, which is essentially no impact at all — sort of like how putting a house up for rent doesn’t come with potential damage; that happens when the renters actually move in.

“The act of leasing itself does not disturb the ground, does not have any impacts to the resources,” says Jayson Barangan, lead public affairs specialist with the BLM Colorado State Office.

Barangan says the public won’t have answers about the actual drilling impacts until companies propose drilling on the parcels. At that point, individual environmental assessments will be done for each parcel of interest.

“When and if a company decides to submit a proposal to drill, we will engage the public again and ask for their perspectives,” says Barangan. “Some parcels may sell, some may not.”

As it stands, the draft environmental assessment is a 115-page snapshot of the resources in the area, from grouse habitat to dark nighttime skies.

It does include a map showing the 11 parcels in Huerfano County. Importantly, the parcels are not upstream of the Sand Dunes. They’re just over a ridge in a watershed that flows east, away from the Sand Dunes.

Credit Royal Gorge Field Office / Bureau of Land Management
Bureau of Land Management
The parcels that could become available for drilling are just east of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve (at left, in grey-purple).

Vanessa Mazal of the National Parks Conservation Association says it’s “heartening” that the report addressed protections for the dancing grounds of a bird called the sharp-tailed grouse and that the BLM consulted the National Park Service. But there are three things she’s still worried about.

“The proximity of the leases to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve are still very much a concern for our organization,” says Mazal. The closest one comes within a mile of the preserve.

Second, the BLM consulted with 16 tribes, but that list did not include the Navajo Nation.

“The parcels in Huerfano County are very close, adjacent to, and possibly overlapping a parcel that waspurchased by the Navajo Nation,” says Mazal.

Finally, she says, this is all happening too quickly.

“The underlying concern here is that the Trump administration is really accelerating the pace of these leases and really putting pressure on the agencies within the Department of the Interior to streamline decision-making on oil and gas exploration and leasing. That's a problem,” she says. “This is not a question of whether or not the BLM is doing an evil duty here. It's really more about recognizing that neither the BLM nor the public have conducted -- or will have the opportunity to conduct -- the level of analysis that should be taking place for this sensitive and remote of an area.”

A collection of conservation groups appears to agree with Mazal. Ajoint statement released April 9 said, “Once BLM leases these lands, it cannot close the door to noise pollution, light pollution, and threats to our clean air and water. Yet, the BLM failed to conduct a meaningful analysis of these impacts.”  

The conservation group Rocky Mountain Wild has expressed concern about the possible impact drilling could have on big game. Maps created by the group show the parcels the BLM plans to lease overlap extensively with the habitat and migration routes of deer and elk.

Credit Alison Gallensky / Rocky Mountain Wild
Rocky Mountain Wild
Areas shaded in purple indicate the winter habitat of deer and elk. The numbered plots outlined in black (at center) are the sites where drilling could occur.
Credit Alison Gallensky / Rocky Mountain Wild
Rocky Mountain Wild
Red-brown lines indicate elk migration routes in 2017. The plots outlined in black, at center, indicate parcels of land where drilling could occur.

The next opportunity for public involvement will be in July, when the BLM will issue a sale notice and hold a 10-day protest period on the proposal. The parcels are scheduled to become available for lease by energy companies the first week of September.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado. 

Rae Ellen Bichell was a reporter for KUNC and the Mountain West News Bureau from 2018 to 2020.