Earthjustice attorney Jay Tutchton successfully negotiated a settlement with the federal government and oil and gas companies that adds significant protections to a seismic survey plan in the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. The settlement, reached in a Denver United States District Court September 20, allows the survey work to proceed in 9,600 acres of the monument subject to added protections included in the agreement.
The settlement agreement specifies how future oil and gas leasing, if any, may proceed within the monument. Oil and gas exploration is presently allowed within the monument only on existing leases. The settlement agreement spells out that decisions pertaining to future oil and gas leasing within the monument shall be deferred by the federal Bureau of Land Management until completion of the Resource Management Plan Environmental Impact Statement several years from now.
Earthjustice represented the San Juan Citizens Alliance, The Wilderness Society, Colorado Environmental Coalition, and Oil and Gas Accountability Project in the settlement that was signed with Red Willow Production, LLC; Robert L. Bayless Producer LLC; Legacy Energy Corporation; Western GECO, and the BLM.
The monument, a rugged landscape in the southwest corner of Colorado, contains the highest known density of archaeological sites in the nation and holds evidence of cultures spanning thousands of years. About 85 percent of the 164,000-acre monument is currently under lease for oil and gas resources.
The monument is home to a wide variety of wildlife species, including unique snakes and lizards. Crucial habitat for the Mesa Verde nightsnake, long-nosed leopard lizard, and twin-spotted spiny lizard can be found within the monument in the area around Yellow Jacket Canyon. Peregrine falcons, golden eagles, American kestrels, red-tailed hawks, and northern harriers have all been observed in the region. Game birds like Gamble's quail and mourning dove are found throughout the monument both in dry, upland habitats, and in lush riparian habitat along the canyon bottoms.
At issue was BLM's decision on August 9 approving a plan to map underground oil and gas pockets. The survey work involves large 60,000-pound trucks driving off road to points where shock waves are transmitted into the ground and the echoes are recorded to give a picture of the subsurface geologic formations. Earthjustice filed a lawsuit challenging the planned survey on August 19 in federal district court in Denver. Chief Judge Lewis Babcock temporarily stopped the project pending further review by the Court. The settlement agreement lifts this injunction and allows the project to proceed.
The settlement agreement insures that in addition to a contract archeologist hired by the oil companies on site, a staff BLM archeologist will be present when seismic operations occur specifically on Hamilton Mesa and Mail Trail Mesa so cultural sites can be further avoided. A BLM-approved wildlife biologist or herpetologist with particular expertise in local reptiles will also be present when operations occur in the areas known to be habitat for two sensitive lizard species, the desert spiny and long-nosed leopard lizard. These personnel will ensure that archeological and biological resources will not be damaged by exploration activities. The agreement also closes some roads created by previous seismic exploration activities on Hamilton Mesa and moves approximately 3 dozen survey points to protect wildlife habitat, cultural sites, and sensitive soils.