The Battle for the Roan Plateau
Posted By Bill Gifford On December 2, 2009 @ 11:00 am In Cover Stories,Features
Whatever ate this deer, it was really, really hungry. The bones are not just picked clean — they’re gone, most of them, except for about a dozen vertebrae and a few assorted ribs, scattered about in the weeds. “Mountain lion, prolly,” says my guide, Steve Torbit, nudging what’s left of the spinal column. The bones are nice and dried-out, I note with relief, meaning the mountain lion is probably not still nearby.
It had plenty of time to enjoy its venison meal, judging by the way it laid out the carcass on a broad, flat rock beside this stream, the East Fork of Parachute Creek, deep in a fold of Colorado’s spectacular and probably doomed Roan Plateau. We’re only about a dozen miles north of I-70, three hours west of Denver, but it took more than an hour to get here from the highway, bumping along narrow dirt roads that left our Yukon thoroughly scratched, then trudging down a rocky jeep track into this canyon.
“It’s one of those places you don’t accidentally visit,” says, Steve Torbit, Rocky Mountain regional director of the National Wildlife Federation. “You have to mean to get up here.”
Rising 3,500 feet above the Colorado River valley in a series of dramatic shale cliffs, the Roan is a refuge for legendary herds of elk and mule deer, which draw hunters from around the world (some with four legs instead of two, as we’ve seen). The creeks hold rare, pure strains of cutthroat trout that are extinct almost everywhere else in Colorado. “These fish have probably been here for 10,000 years,” said Ken Neubecker, president of Colorado Trout Unlimited, who had tagged along for the ride.
Just downstream from the deer kill, a waterfall spilled 200 feet down into a perfect hanging valley filled with aspen and spruce. Years ago, a friend of mine shot an elk down in a ravine like this. It took him nearly two days to drag it out. “It’s real backcountry up there,” he said. “You feel like you can walk all the way to Wyoming and not cross a road.”
Not for much longer. In August 2008, just months before leaving office, the Bush administration leased the last untouched public land on the Roan for natural gas drilling. Against a backdrop of $4-a-gallon gas and Republican campaign crowds chanting, “Drill here, drill now!” the leases were sold at auction to a shadowy Denver-based energy company called Vantage Energy, which quickly resold them. Pending the outcome of a court challenge, drilling could begin as soon as next summer.
It was a knockout blow, coming at the end of a bruising eight-year fight — and it wasn’t just hemp-and Chaco-sandaled liberals up in Boulder who were crying into their chai lattes. Local communities from Carbondale to Silt, including Rifle, the onetime ranching and mining town at the base of the Roan, passed resolutions opposing the leasing. Joining the usual cast of greenies in opposition were hunters and fishermen like my guides: Neubecker is president of Colorado Trout Unlimited, while Torbit, of National Wildlife, is an avid hunter. “I never thought I’d be sitting down at the table with environmentalists,” says Keith Goddard, a local outfitter and rancher who is a longtime opponent of drilling the Roan. “But all it’s gonna take is one screwup, and that’ll be it,” he says, for the wildlife on the Plateau.
The Bush administration ignored their objections, as well as those of the governor of Colorado, two local congressmen, and U.S. Senator Ken Salazar, all of who opposed the drilling plan. Yet in January, drilling opponents saw new hope, when Obama appointed Salazar to be Secretary of the Interior, with jurisdiction over 500 million acres of federal lands — including the Roan Plateau. That put Salazar in position to stage an 11th-hour reversal, canceling the leases and saving the Roan. He killed a planned lease sale in Utah that would have allowed drilling next to Arches National Park, and he temporarily withdrew a million acres of land near the Grand Canyon from consideration for uranium mining. Environmentalists hoped he’d do the same for the Roan.
“He could cancel the Roan leases tomorrow,” says Mike Freeman, an attorney representing environmental groups and sportsmen who are suing to stop drilling on the Roan. “He has that authority. But so far, their position has been the same as the last administration’s.”
The oil and gas industry would raise holy hell, of course, and probably mount a nasty legal fight. But canceling the leases would have ripple effects far beyond this corner of Colorado. It would mark a decisive break from the drill-where-you-please ethos of not just the Bush administration, but every administration since Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. “The Roan Plateau is very symbolic,” says Suzanne Jones, Central Rockies regional director of the Wilderness Society. “It may be a small place, but it has big ramifications.”
One of the biggest ramifications is what it will tell us about Ken Salazar. Will he — and by extension, his boss — have the balls to face down the energy and extraction lobbies and their cronies?
“He’s looking to enact a 21st-century version of what was done by great leaders like Teddy Roosevelt, who created the National Forest System, and JFK with the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” asserts Tom Strickland, Salazar’s right-hand man and assistant secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks. But to enact such a bold vision, he’ll have to risk getting bloodied.
When Salazar took over as Interior secretary in January, the 54-year-old ex-Senator inherited one of the biggest and least-publicized messes in George Bush’s feckless realm. The department was so demoralized by scandal, bad publicity, and political bullying that when Salazar walked into the department lobby on his first day of work, the staff erupted in a cathartic cheer. Clad in his usual cowboy hat, bolo tie, and Lucchese boots, Salazar soon began telling reporters, “There’s a new sheriff in town.”
He seemed to mean it. In his first months, he yanked a few key parcels of land away from drillers and miners; he also scrapped a massive clear-cut logging plan for Western Oregon, issued during Bush’s last weeks in office. He revamped the Minerals Management Service, a scandal-plagued office that collected oil- and gas-drilling royalties; its staffers were literally in bed with the oil industry. Even though his confirmation hearing was a lovefest that stopped just short of a happy ending, he met with immediate push-back from Capitol Hill, as Senators John McCain and Bob Bennett of Utah put “holds” on nominees for key jobs in his department.
On the plus side, he did have a really nice bathroom in his office, installed by his predecessor Dirk Kempthorne at a cost to taxpayers of roughly $235,000; Salazar uses it as a place to store his many different cowboy hats and to shower after much-looked-forward-to basketball games on Interior’s beautiful basement court.
Balding and bespectacled, with a long, smooth, placid face, Salazar’s bland demeanor conceals a mind churning with ambition and cunning. His desire to succeed was powerful enough to have brought him from a remote corner of southern Colorado’s impoverished, largely Hispanic San Luis Valley (think Mississippi Delta with Mexican food), where his family home didn’t even have electricity until 1981, to the innermost circle of the President’s brain trust. On the sultry July morning when we met, Salazar had been up at 6 a.m. reading healthcare legislation; after a morning hike at Great Falls with youth Park Service workers, he was scheduled to do stand-up interviews on the White House lawn for CNN Español and other Spanish-language networks. Then he’d be up late in his expansive office, dealing with forest fires both figurative and literal.
Ken Salazar’s forebears founded Santa Fe in 1598 and slowly migrated north along the Rio Grande. By the time Ken was born, his father was trying to scratch a living from a 210-acre farm that, unfortunately, only had about 50 or 60 really productive acres, according to Ken’s older brother John Salazar, 56, who was elected to Congress in 2004, the same year Ken reached the Senate. As the fourth son of a brood that eventually numbered eight, Ken walked to school in hand-me-down boots that did not always match. “We’d be up all night irrigating, or milking, then go home, change, and be on the school bus at seven,” says Ken’s older brother Leroy. “That was our life.”
Though not exactly tall, even in his Luccheses, the young Salazar played hoops at Colorado College, where he’d gained entrance via financial aid and Pell grants. His studies and traveling basketball squad took him out of the Valley and into a world of ideas far different from the one where he had been raised. After law school at the University of Michigan, he soon established himself as a rising star in Colorado politics. He won a dark-horse campaign to become state attorney general in 1999, and proceeded to kick ass and take names. He sued the state legislature over a gerrymandered redistricting plan and brokered a settlement with the notorious Summitville Mine, which had poured cyanide into his beloved Alamosa River, that was harsh enough that renegade mine owner “Toxic Bob” Friedland opted to leave the country (see the MJ story Battling a Toxic Billionaire from September 2007).
When he announced his intent to run for Senate in 2004 — elbowing aside fellow Democrat Mark Udall, who had announced the day before — nobody thought he could win. But the cowboy boots and the ranching background won over skeptical independents, and he whipped silver-spoon-boy Pete Coors by a solid margin to give the Democrats a rare win in that bleak year. All the while, he came off as inoffensive, nonthreatening — the furthest thing from a bomb-throwing liberal. He almost seems, in a word, boring.
“That’s totally how he wants people to see him,” says one Denver-based journalist who knows Salazar well. “He is a total Machiavellian. He gets what he wants, in the end.”
By the time Ken Salazar reached the Senate in early 2005, it was already too late for much of the Roan Plateau. Most of the privately owned land on the Plateau had already been drilled. The environmentalists and gas companies were fighting over the last small fraction of the Roan that was still publicly owned: a 55,000-acre chunk of land that represents less than 2 percent of the gas-rich Piceance (pronounced pee-yonce) Basin formation, which spreads across much of northwest Colorado.
The land had been set aside a century ago by the Taft administration as a Naval Oil Shale Reserve, intended as a fuel supply for the dreadnoughts of yore. Oil shale was and remains a largely science-fictional energy source, and so the Roan lay mostly untouched, aside from hunters, cattle ranchers, and a few stray hikers and fishermen who were drawn to its subtle beauty. In 1997 the land was transferred to the BLM, but by then, new drilling technology enabled energy companies to extract gas from shale formations like those underlying the plateau. Not long after Bush took office, the wheels of bureaucracy began propelling the last undrilled part of the Roan to its doom.
In 2002, the BLM had designated the Roan for fast-track leasing, in accordance with Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy strategy. Cheney’s home state of Wyoming was drilled like a pincushion, and overnight, little towns like Rock Springs, Wyoming, as well as Rifle, Colorado, were transformed from sleepy backwaters into gas-field boomtowns. As environmentalists banded together to save the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, known as ANWR, the Roan and areas like it in the lower 48 got lost in the shuffle.
“It was like a bait and switch,” says Steve Torbit. “While everyone was fighting about ANWR, they killed us here in the West.”
Viewed from above, the damage to the landscape is shocking. The day after our fishing expedition, Neubecker and I boarded a small Cessna piloted by Bruce Gordon of EcoFlight and flew toward the plateau, tracing the Colorado River below us. The river valley was pocked by hundreds of natural-gas drilling pads, three- to five-acre clearings gouged out of the ranchlands and sagebrush, marching inexorably up the flanks of the plateau, linked by a spaghetti-like network of freshly cut roads. A few of the bigger sites are adorned with ponds full of green wastewater; we spy one active drilling rig right next to the Colorado River. Other rigs stand in what look like people’s backyards. Under Colorado’s “split estate” form of land ownership, mining and drilling companies have a legal right to access private citizens’ private land to extract the minerals, oil, and gas beneath; the nearby retirement community of Battlement Mesa is purportedly slated for some 200 new gas wells — smack in the middle of a residential neighborhood.
As Gordon cleared the cliffs and banked, Neubecker pointed out the ravines where we’d fished the day before. The surrounding ridges were covered with drill pads, linked by a necklace of brand-new service roads that snaked around with the topography and marched up the bottoms of canyons. The well pads and new roads seem to stretch all the way to the horizon. “It’s like this whole country has smallpox,” Neubecker said.
But while the roads and rig sites are unsightly, the real impacts of gas drilling are invisible from above. To free up the natural gas, drilling “service” companies pump something called “fracking fluid” into the wells at extremely high pressure — thousands of pounds per square inch — to fracture the underground rock formations that trap the fuel. The company that pioneered hydraulic fracturing — commonly known as fracking — and which is one of the dominant players in oil- and gas-drilling out west, is none other than Dick Cheney’s alma mater, Halliburton.
What’s actually in fracking fluid is anybody’s guess; thanks to the prior Republican Congress, the industry is exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act and other federal water-pollution laws. Halliburton and competitors such as Schlumberger therefore don’t even have to disclose what’s in it, but it isn’t just water: Among its many components are toxic chemicals like benzene. And while the gas industry says its fracking activities don’t affect groundwater, strange substances like methane have begun showing up in the drinking-water wells of people unfortunate enough to live near gas fields in Wyoming and Colorado. Near Rifle, one family’s well actually exploded.
The government’s role, as the Bush administration saw it, was to make land available as quickly as possible; a 2002 internal BLM memo directed staffers to give oil and gas development top priority. “That became the primary focus of the agency,” says a western BLM manager. Field offices began feverishly issuing leases in what were dubbed the “OPEC states”: Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado. Beyond the paperwork and the numbers, they were indelibly changing the terms of the debate: Now, the idea that we might not drill wherever we can — the notion that an area like the Roan might just be preserved, as it has been for 10 millennia — seems radical, and maybe even a little dangerous.
“What the previous administration did was like telling a bunch of college kids that there’s free beer,” Torbit had said as he piloted our rented Yukon down the steep, slippery road that leads off the Roan. “There was the exact same response from the oil companies. Then, when someone tries to put the brakes on, they scream bloody murder.”
But even with the Bush administration greasing up the drill bit, the last 55,000 acres didn’t go easily. In Colorado, public sentiment tilted against more drilling on the Roan — the public comments opposed it by a factor of nearly 10 to 1. The second set of obstacles were Ken Salazar and his brother John, who’d been elected to Congress at the same time, and whose district included the Roan. Not long after he arrived on Capitol Hill, Ken came out strongly against drilling in ANWR — and on the Roan. Oil companies had enough access to federal land, he insisted in 2006: “The top of the Roan Plateau is one of Colorado’s special places, and I continue to believe that this area should not be opened to drilling for oil and gas.”
John Salazar and then-Rep. Mark Udall inserted an amendment into the 2007 energy bill that would have outlawed drilling on the Roan. It passed the House, but Ken Salazar was unable to get it through the Senate, and it died the usual quiet Capitol Hill death. Ken Salazar and Colorado Governor Bill Ritter then came up with a compromise phased-leasing plan for the Roan, but the BLM basically ignored that and in August 2008 the administration went ahead with the lease sale. The final price tag came to $114 million — a record for an onshore lease sale in the lower 48 states, but still nowhere near the $2 billion that some industry spokespeople had predicted. Salazar blasted the sale as “fiscally irresponsible,” but he knew he’d been defeated.
One thing that people have noticed about Ken Salazar, though, is that he doesn’t stay defeated for long.
Take the case of the Taylor Ranch, a 77,000-acre tract in the Sangre de Cristo Range of Colorado, on the eastern edge of the valley where he grew up. The land includes forests, creeks, alpine pastures, and Culebra, one of the state’s 14,000-foot peaks, making it one of the few high-alpine areas still in private hands.
For decades — centuries, dating back to the original land grants from the King of Spain — the local population had used the land in common, grazing their cattle and sheep in summer, drawing water to irrigate their crops. It belonged, by tradition, to la puebla, the people. But in fact it belonged to someone else, and in 1960 it was sold to a North Carolina industrialist named Jack Taylor, who had very different ideas about land ownership and property rights. Taylor began putting up fences and keeping out the locals, who were not happy, to put it mildly. There commenced a long-running, often-violent feud, a real-life version of the Milagro Beanfield War, only with gunfire and beatings instead of feel-good happy endings. Taylor hired a security force to police his land, but when his mansion’s windows were shot out one night, he decamped to North Carolina. The fences stayed up, however, and the land remained off-limits to most, while its owners logged it heavily. (The ranch was sold to another private owner, but it remained gated.)
Early in his career, while serving as director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, Salazar had tried to orchestrate a state purchase of the Taylor Ranch, which is not far from the farm where he grew up. He had the land appraised and came up with what he thought was a fair purchase price. Taylor refused the state’s offer, and the deal fell through. But Salazar refused to let go. More than a decade later, after he’d risen through the ranks and become a Senator, he tried again, sponsoring a bill in 2005 that would have created a Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area, encompassing not just the Taylor ranch, which had been sold to another private owner, but all the private land in the Culebra range, as well as the historic town of San Luis, just a dozen miles from his childhood home.
After three years of pushing, the bill eventually passed, and early this year President Obama signed off on the idea as part of a sweeping public-lands package. The bill falls short of an outright federal purchase, but is rather a first step toward restoring some environmental protection to the area. This past August, as Interior secretary, Salazar returned to his home valley for the first of many “listening sessions,” where he solicited local input for managing and preserving the land. “He tried very, very hard to come up with a solution,” says Jeff Goldstein, a Denver lawyer who represented plaintiffs against Taylor for 30 years.
Chalk up one victory for the Salazar style: persistent, low-key, patient and inclusive. “That’s Ken’s strength, that quiet diplomacy and the ability to bring people together,” says former Energy secretary and ex-Denver mayor Federico Peña, one of Salazar’s political mentors in Colorado. “That’s an extraordinary gift.”
In the Senate, Salazar quickly developed a reputation as a dealmaker, a peace broker with power far beyond his extremely junior status (he was the one senator ranked below fellow freshman Barack Obama). When the Democratic caucus gathered after the 2008 election to determine the fate of Joe Lieberman, who had broken ranks to campaign for John McCain, Salazar was the first to speak in defense of the apostate. “He basically stood up in the closed session and said, ‘Let’s let bygones be bygones,’ ” says Colorado Senator Mark Udall.
Which explains, in part, why Obama chose him for the extremely contentious job of Interior secretary. Parts of the environmental community had actually opposed Salazar because he wasn’t enough of a hard-line environmentalist. But Obama and his advisers were also mindful of the fate of the last Democratic Interior secretary, former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt. A strong environmentalist, Babbitt came charging out of the gate with aggressive proposals, such as reforming grazing rules for federal lands — a very big deal in the West and also very much of a sacred cow. But Babbitt got shut down by angry western senators and was essentially neutralized for the rest of his tenure.
Salazar, by contrast, came in speaking softly. “He’s savvy enough and middle-of-the-road enough to pull it off,” says Jim Baca, who was Babbitt’s BLM chief (until Baca got fired 16 months in). “I think he’s shown more courage than any Interior secretary in recent memory. And he is one guy who is not afraid of the Senate — maybe because he was in the Senate.”
His style is to work quietly, below the radar. While the media and official Washington have been preoccupied with shouty debates about the economy and healthcare and teabaggers and birth certificates, Salazar has already broken some notable logjams. In August he brokered a land deal for the Flight 93 memorial in Pennsylvania, which the previous, 9/11-obsessed administration hadn’t been able to achieve. He also re-opened the crown of the Statue of Liberty, which — incredibly — had been closed since the attacks.
But quiet diplomacy hasn’t worked with the Roan, so far. In court, Salazar is now in the awkward position of having to defend a drilling plan that he once opposed. Nevertheless, he has thus far been unable to resolve the case. One reason might be the hard-nosed stance of the company that now owns the leases, Bill Barrett Corporation, which has refused all settlement offers thus far. In November, the parties entered court-ordered settlement talks, but no one on either side held their breath for a swift resolution.
From Salazar’s point of view, though, revoking the leases is about the last thing he’d want to do; it would trigger an inevitable backlash that might jeopardize his effort to restore “balance” to energy development on all public lands. Better to wait, like a chess player, and hope the other guy makes a fatal mistake.
Barrett may have done just that in August, when the company disclosed in SEC filings that it planned as many as 3,000 “drilling locations” on its newly leased Roan lands. That could have been an overstatement, intended to please Wall Street (which has been pummeling natural gas stocks for a year) — but the BLM’s environmental-impact analysis had assumed just 210 drilling pads. In its attempt to boost its shares, Barrett may have shot itself in the foot. The company has already said publicly that it expects to lose the lawsuits. In a similar case, a federal court in New Mexico recently voided a set of gas-drilling leases that it ruled had been improperly awarded. Even if the leases survive the courts, a recently introduced public-lands bill in Congress could wall off much of the Roan as federally protected wilderness — which would mean no gas drilling, and no more hunters’ ATVs, either.
“My views on the Roan Plateau have not changed,” Salazar asserted to Men’s Journal in September — using his politician’s talent for expressing an opinion while avoiding any hint of a firm policy commitment. “The Roan is one of those treasured landscapes of America,” he went on, “a place where we have fish and wildlife resources, beautiful streams; I think there are ways in which the gas could be developed that are more sensitive to the environmental values of the plateau.”
One sentence giveth, the other taketh away. Preserve the fish and wildlife, while getting the gas. And if he’s lucky, someone else — maybe the court, maybe Congress — will make the hard decision for him.
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