Drilling on hold at southern Colo. refuge | VailDaily.com

Drilling on hold at southern Colo. refuge

DENVER, Colorado ” A national wildlife refuge in the San Luis Valley should be off-limits to energy development, say environmental groups and residents opposed to a Canandian company’s plans to drill for natural gas.

“We are looking at the devastation of one of the last pristine areas in our state,” Aurielle Andhara, executive director of the San Luis Valley Citizens Alliance, told The Denver Post.

Lexam Energy Exploration of Toronto, Canada, is part owner of minerals under the Baca National Wildlife Refuge. It has done seismic testing in the area and won state approval to drill two natural gas wells.

But work is on hold while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge, completes an environmental assessment. A draft is expected in a couple weeks.

The San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, a conservation group, sued earlier this year to stop the energy exploration, saying the Fish and Wildlife Service violated federal law by failing to conduct an environmental review of the proposed drilling.

The agency started the review in August. In November, a federal judge ruled that Lexam can’t do any more work while the review is under way.

Christine Canaly of the Alamosa-based San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council said a coalition of groups and area residents wants to buy the mineral rights under the refuge. “That’s probably going to take an enormous amount of public-private partnership,” she said.

A major concern is the development’s effects on groundwater, vital to the south-central Colorado valley that gets only about 10 inches of preciptation a year.

Steffan Spears, Lexam’s vice president of strategic development, said the company doesn’t know how much natural gas may be extracted until test wells are drilled.

“You really can’t tell because this area has not been tested before,” Spears said.

The wildlife refuge was created in 2004 with the acquisition of the 97,000-acre Baca Ranch. Some 31,000 acres of that ranch became part of the Great Sand Dunes National Park, previously a national monument, and the rest became the wildlife refuge.

The national park, about 160 miles southwest of Denver, includes 750-foot dunes, North America’s tallest.

The area’s landscape changes from 8,200-foot-high grasslands, to the dunes, to 13,000-plus-foot mountains and alpine lakes ” all within four miles. The dunes hug the bottom of the snowy Sangre de Cristo Mountains that tower over the San Luis Valley.

The area is home to seven species ” six insects and a mouse ” not found anywhere else in the world. The wildlife includes deer, elk, foxes, coyotes, mountain lions and bighorn sheep.

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