When sportsmen think of Colorado, they often envision majestic landscapes of Rocky Mountain peaks, isolated lakes and lush stream valleys. That idyllic picture does not describe western Colorado's Roan Plateau, but that in no way diminishes the importance of protecting this unique area, which has long served as a destination for hunters and anglers. And for good reason. The Roan provides excellent habitat for big game herds and a rare, genetically pure strain of Colorado River cutthroat trout that thrives in the small streams that cut through the plateau's distinct shale formations.
Unfortunately, the Roan Plateau is an island of trout and big game habitat surrounded by a sea of natural gas development – 90% of this region, part of Colorado's productive Piceance Basin, is available for energy leasing – and half of the BLM's Roan Plateau Planning Area is leased or owned by the energy industry. While some drilling has taken place on public lands surrounding the Roan Plateau, the top of the plateau has remained generally wild. It is this area, which accounts for less than 1.5 percent of the Piceance Basin, that the Sportsmen's Conservation Project wants to protect from development.
Energy development on the top of the Roan has been a galvanizing issue in Colorado. Oil and gas corporations envision as many as 3,000 new wells in the area in the coming years, the result of natural gas leases sold by the BLM in August, 2008. Currently, due to a lawsuit filed by a consortium of conservation groups, including Trout Unlimited and the National Wildlife Federation, energy development on the Roan Plateau is on hold, with all interested parties awaiting a ruling in the lawsuit or significant progress in working toward a settlement agreement. Regardless of the ruling in court, the SCP and Trout Unlimited would like to see this refuge of prime big game and Colorado River cutthroat habitat protected for future generations with a National Conservation Area designation.
Why is the BLM's plan for energy development on the Roan Plateau so bad for native trout and wildlife?
In short, the BLM's plan is not balanced; fish, wildlife and sportsmen do not get due consideration, even though the BLM operates under a mandate to consider all uses of the public lands under its management. The agency's own analysis indicates the plan could result in "impacts [that] could never be reversed, especially those that eliminate genetically unique resources represented by populations of rare or disjunct species such as genetically pure Colorado River cutthroat trout."
Drilling on the Roan Plateau would threaten the native trout through decreased water quality due to increases in runoff and sediment. In addition, accidents have happened in the area, and with intensive development, are likely to occur again. A spill of toxic drilling fluids or contaminated water into any of the small trout streams on the plateau could wipe out populations of native trout that have existed there since the last ice age.
Under the BLM's plan, what could be in store for the Roan Plateau?
Drilling, and lots of it, with an estimated 1,500 to 3,000 new natural gas wells over the course of 20 years. The BLM's plan does not place numerical limits on the amount of drilling that would be allowed, nor does it permanently place off limits the most sensitive parts of the Plateau. That's terrible news for the deer and elk herds that thrive on the Roan, and for the sportsmen whose families have hunted on the plateau for generations.
How can a lawsuit protect the heart of the Roan Plateau from being damaged by energy development?
If a judge rules in favor of the plaintiffs, the BLM can cancel the 2008 leases and work to put in place a truly protective plan for the Roan Plateau. Such a plan could still allow for drilling and access to the majority of the natural gas under the Roan while protecting native trout watersheds and big game habitat. Alternately, a settlement between plaintiffs and the BLM could be reached that will ensure reasonable, long-term protection for the Roan Plateau's sensitive trout, its big game and our sporting values. As of December, 2011, all interested parties are still waiting for the court's decision.