Home to bald eagle and big game, South Shale Ridge's spectacular geological formations twist through miles of canyons. But this proposed wilderness of multicolored badlands may soon be home to drill rigs.
Despite promises to consider South Shale Ridge, located outside Grand Junction, Colorado, for Wilderness Study Area protection, the Bureau of Land Management leased the vast majority of the area for oil and gas drilling last November. Colorado conservation groups yesterday filed suit as a last resort to conserve the incredible wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities, and wilderness features that South Shale Ridge provides. Represented by Earthjustice, the Colorado Environmental Coalition, Colorado Mountain Club, The Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, and the Center for Native Ecosystems filed suit in the U.S. District Court in Denver to compel BLM to keep its promise and protect this area's wildlife and natural beauty from oil and gas development.
South Shale Ridge's rugged solitude and beauty make it a popular destination for hikers and hunters. In addition, South Shale Ridge is home to extremely rare plants and wildflowers, including the Uinta Basin hookless cactus and DeBeque phacelia.
Citizens and conservation groups have long contended that South Shale Ridge's multicolored canyons, wilderness qualities, unique hiking opportunities, wildlife habitat, and sensitive species warrant protection. Beginning in 1987, BLM's original management plan for South Shale Ridge came under fire because it failed to properly account for the area's wilderness, recreational, and biological values. In 1998, BLM initiated a multiyear review process led by citizens, stakeholder groups, and agency professionals. BLM's findings, published in 2001, recommended that South Shale Ridge be reconsidered for protection as a Wilderness Study Area. The BLM then publicly committed to amending its 1987 plan to account for and properly mange the area's wilderness features.
"BLM previously acknowledged that the beauty and sensitivity of these lands required an update to its management plan to consider protecting them, a sensible position the agency now refuses to follow, " said Adriana Raudzens with the Sierra Club. She added, "Drilling this landscape would damage the area's wilderness quality while doing little to solve our nation's energy needs."
For years there has been strong, consistent public support for protecting South Shale Ridge from industrial development. In 2004 nearly 9, 000 citizens sent comments urging BLM to protect the area. Yet in November 2005 BLM leased almost the entire area for oil and gas drilling without putting measures in place to protect the area's rare plants as part of an updated resource management plan.
"When BLM agreed that the area met all the requirements for protection and pledged to update its 1987 management plan, the community as a whole took the agency at its word, " said Pete Kolbenschlag, Lands Defense Coordinator with Colorado Environmental Coalition. "By allowing gas drilling on these lands, the agency is ignoring public opinion and the conclusions of its own multi-year public process."
Meanwhile, BLM continues to lease millions of acres of public lands for oil and gas development. As of January 2004, BLM had issued more than 4378 leases in Colorado alone, amounting to over 3.4 million acres of Colorado public lands. This rush to lease has created a "getting while the getting is good" culture allowing industry to stockpile leases. For example, of the 4378 leases issued only 2039 leases were in production – the remaining are slated for future development.
"What is the rush to lease these vulnerable lands?" asked Suzanne Jones, Regional Director with The Wilderness Society. "So many public lands in our region have already been leased with millions more acres of non-wilderness lands already available for future leasing and development. Western Colorado is becoming an industrial zone but what legacy are we leaving for future generations?"
For maps, photos, and supporting information, contact Pete Kolbenschlag at (970) 527-7502 or email at Pete1@cecenviro.org.
Keith Bauerle, Earthjustice, (303) 623-9466
Pete Kolbenschlag, CEC, (970) 527-7502
Suzanne Jones, TWS, (303) 650-5818, ext. 102
Adriana Raudzens, Sierra Club, (303) 449-5595, ext. 100
Jacob Smith, CNE, (303) 546-0214
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