Colorado’s newest and largest Wildlife Refuge under threat from oil and gas drilling

Sandhill crane. Courtesy USFWS.

Once one of the original land grants from Spain, the Baca Ranch became a national wildlife refuge in 2000, part of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve Act of 2000. That Act also expanded the national park and preserve and added additional acreage to the Rio Grande National Forest. It is Colorado’s newest and largest refuge, an integral part of the greater Baca public lands complex.

With its wetland meadows, cottonwood-studded riverbanks and rolling sagebrush prairies, the Baca National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in southeastern Colorado is a magnet for migrating birds such as the sandhill crane. The refuge also is home to many threatened or endangered species including the mountain plover, and bald eagle, as well as providing crucial habitat for Colorado’s imperiled Rio Grande sucker and Rio Grande chub. The refuge also provides important calving grounds for deer and elk. Cultural and archeological resources in the area have only begun to be assessed.

Now oil and gas companies want to drill deep, “high risk” wells under the refuge without giving regard to the exceptional ecological, archaeological, and cultural characteristics known to be present in the area.

Lexam Corporation drill rig with the Great Sand Dunes in the backdrop. Courtesy Matthew Crowley.Lexam Corporation, the owner of the mineral rights below the surface of the refuge, announced in 2006 its intent to conduct exploration activities on a portion of the Baca NWR, and to drill two 14,000-foot oil and gas wells.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducted an Environmental Assessment on the drilling proposal which garnered over 47,000 public comments, many expressing concern that neither a Comprehensive Management Plan had been done nor data on the effects of oil and gas drilling had been established for the refuge. In response, in 2007 the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council filed a lawsuit asserting that the Fish and Wildlife Service had to conduct a more thorough public comment and analysis process in order to protect the public’s interest in the Baca NWR.

Now the public has another chance to tell the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that drilling in the Baca NWR would cause irreversible damage to the vast ecological, cultural, and archaeological values in this phenomenal wild place — and to insist that the agency conduct a much more thorough analysis before approving any drilling.

Specifically, we encourage the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to expand the scope of its NEPA process for the Baca Refuge from an Environmental Assessment to an Environmental Impact Statement so the full extent of values can be inventoried and analyzed.

Thunderstorm at sunset in Baca National Wildlife Refuge, Colorado. Photo by Matthew Crowley.Conservation groups are also pursuing the purchase and retirement of the mineral rights below the Baca NWR and other public lands in the surrounding Great Sand Dunes National Park complex. Lexam Corporation, which owns a majority of the drilling rights in question, has indicated an interest in selling them to the federal government. Acquisition and permanent retirement of all drilling rights would provide a fair and lasting solution that would protect this ecologically invaluable region. In addition, uniting the surface and subsurface rights within the Great Sand Dunes complex would allow the managing agencies to further expand the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness and pursue protection for some 50,000 acres of recommended wilderness lands within the Great Sand Dunes National Park, which has been held up pending resolution of this controversy.

Where would funding for the buy-back come from? One potential source could be the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which uses a portion of royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling to invest in America’s public lands.

In approving the 2000 legislation establishing the Baca NWR, Congress recognized that these wildlands provided “unique hydrological, biological, educational, and recreational values deserving of preservation into perpetuity.” Now we need to protect these values.

Sandhill crane. Courtesy USFWS.
Lexam Corporation drill rig with the Great Sand Dunes in the backdrop. Courtesy Matthew Crowley.
Thunderstorm at sunset in Baca National Wildlife Refuge, Colorado. Photo by Matthew Crowley.