In Colorado, an unlikely alliance against drilling

Plans to open up a swath of wilderness are bringing hunters and environmentalists together – and reshaping state politics.

Bruce Gordon/EcoFlight
Elk Country: Natural gas extraction at the foot of the Roan cliffs, near Rifle, Colo. Drilling has also been proposed in the protected Roan Plateau Planning Area, atop the cliffs.

Karl Van Calcar’s passion is elk hunting, and he likes to do it the hard way: by longbow. Bowhunting requires mimicking elk calls well enough to convince a bull elk he is being challenged for his herd of females. When Mr. Van Calcar is convincing, and everything goes right, the reward is an angry, 700-pound animal with massive antlers looking for a fight.

But these days Van Calcar is the one who’s got his blood up – about what’s happening to his favorite hunting ground, a 200-square-mile plateau that stretches from the western edge of the Rockies to the Utah border. The reason? Extensive oil and gas drilling that, he says, is ruining the rugged Roan Plateau with too many roads and rigs.

Van Calcar grew up a conservative Republican and a proud member of the National Rifle Association. But the avid hunter says he’s become disillusioned with the Bush administration’s embrace of the oil and gas industry. He changed party affiliation before the 2004 election.

“The current administration has completely pushed me to the other side,” he said one day this past winter, sitting at his dining room table in Palisade, Colo.

He and other local hunters have formed an alliance with fishing and conservation groups to halt the administration’s plans to open up a part of the Roan Plateau that has been off limits to drilling. In late 2007, the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) decided to begin offering drilling leases on 70 percent of the Roan Plateau Planning Area (RPPA) – a 73,000-acre island of wilderness in a sea of industrialized energy extraction.

The coalition’s fight is part of a rising opposition of sportsmen to the effects of energy development – a force reshaping Colorado politics and altering environmental politics across the West.

“We started organizing and speaking out, loud and clear,” says David Peterson, co-chair of Colorado Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and state field director for Trout Unlimited’s public lands initiative. “It was really Bush’s arrogance that created today’s conservation movement among disgruntled sportsmen, mostly traditional-values Republicans – ‘Roosevelt Republicans,’ I call them.”

The Roan has become a flash point for sportsmen because of its legendary reputation for wildlife. It is part of the range used by the world’s largest herd of migratory elk, and the massive elk and mule deer herds here attract hunters from across the US every fall, bringing in $3.8 million per year to the local economy.

Atop the plateau, wild cutthroat trout fill secluded streams that are cut off from lower elevations by 200-foot waterfalls. Bear and mountain lion stalk the aspen forests and sagebrush meadows.

While the RPPA has remained off limits to drilling, much of the larger Roan Plateau is already leased or owned outright by energy companies. Natural-gas extraction has created an economic boom in rural western Colorado towns like Rifle and the surrounding Garfield County.

There were 2,550 new permits for drilling in the county in 2007, up from 796 in 2004 and 213 in 2000. Industry officials estimate that if the rest of the Roan is opened to leasing, the gas reserve could heat 4 million homes for 20 years.

After the BLM decided to open the protected part of the Roan Plateau, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. (D) countered with a recommendation to expand protected areas and to phase in leasing over 20 years – a plan that many praised as a common-sense compromise that would maximize revenues for local governments and allow emerging technologies to reduce environmental impacts.

Even some pro-industry Republicans such as Sen. Wayne Allard of Colorado backed the proposal. In March, though, the BLM surprised nearly everyone by rejecting the governor’s plan.

Since then, members of Colorado’s congressional delegation have introduced legislation to put those recommendations into law. Now, all parties – industry officials, conservationists, and policymakers – are preparing for a fight.

Sportsmen involved in the dispute say they do not oppose drilling outright. They just want to see it done right.

“We have never encountered something like this on this scale – there is no precedent,” says Bob Elderkin, president of the Rifle chapter of the Colorado Mule Deer Association, recently retired from overseeing oil and gas leasing for the BLM. He says he understands the need for energy development, but adds: “I’ve been around the oil patch long enough to know that when this is played out, this entire area will look like an industrial zone.”

Keith Goddard of Rifle, an outfitter who leads hunting and fishing trips on the Roan, has been one of the most vocal opponents of drilling on the plateau. Early on in the fight, he joined with environmental groups. From behind his bushy cowboy mustache, Mr. Goddard says, “Years ago, I never thought I would sit at the same table as environmentalists. Now I am proud to have worked with these people.”

The feeling is mutual, as environmentalists, who have felt marginalized in public lands planning under the Bush administration, have found powerful new partners.

“Sportsmen have been hugely influential,” says Steve Smith, assistant regional director with the Wilderness Society. “They bring so much knowledge and experience to the debate just from spending so much time on the ground.”

With a legislative fight due this summer over drilling in the Roan, the alliance between sportsmen and environmentalists in a election battleground state such as Colorado is likely to catch the attention of politicians of all stripes.

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