Exploring Colorado's Roan Plateau: Day One

I first saw Colorado's Roan Plateau in the spring of 2004, while researching a story on energy development for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation's Bugle magazine. It was late March, already hot in the town of Rifle, and local lion and elk-hunting outfitter Keith Goddard was showing me around. His real focus was up high, above Anvil Point on the mighty sky-island of the Roan itself, where you could still see four feet of snow shining like cake-frosting in the spring sun. Along the flanks of the Plateau, a matrix of new roads had already been built to service new drill pads, and the dust from heavy truck traffic was rising over what had been alfalfa fields and winter range for elk and mule deer herds. "Everybody who hunts and fishes in the US has to look at what is happening here," Goddard said to me that day, "Because somebody else has set the priorities, and let me tell you, it's not fish or wildlife. If they follow the current plan for development of the Plateau, I'm out of business."

I felt sure the Roan Plateau would escape the kind of destruction by energy development that I was witnessing in the big game country of Wyoming, New Mexico, and other parts of Colorado. The place was too unique, and its value for water supplies to an arid land and to the already burdened Colorado River itself was simply too obvious. In 2005, the US Bureau of Land Management, which manages almost 60,000 acres on top of the Roan, received 74,925 comments from the public, 98 percent of them asking that the top of the Roan be protected from drilling and road building. Many of the comments merely requested that the development be slowed until such time as directional drilling technologies were available to access the rich natural gas resources of the Plateau without destroying the other resources there- the native and genetically unique cutthroat trout, the trophy deer and elk hunting opportunities, the solitude, beauty, and wealth of clean water supplies. In 2007, Colorado's usually-pro-development Governor Ritter advised expanding the areas off-limits to leasing for drilling on the top of the Roan, and having a phased approach to any development of public lands there. The tide seemed to have turned to a more reasoned, balanced approach.

Then in August of 2008, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) leased all of its lands on the top of the Plateau for drilling, amidst a storm of protest and outrage. Private lands all around are already under development, and the roads and the drilling are surrounding the last empty expanses of this wild and beautiful place, where generations of Americans have hunted, fished, grazed cattle and sheep, and looked out over the vast, sun-baked Colorado River valley from the shade of ancient aspens. Trout Unlimited and the National Wildlife Federation, among other conservation groups, have filed a lawsuit to keep the BLM from turning loose the bulldozers, the trucks and the drilling mud on the last undeveloped 30,000 acres of the Plateau, a kind of island protecting the headwaters of the creeks that hold the trout and water the lands below. Looking at the rush of development, the well pads and roads in the creek bottoms all around, it seems impossible that anyone could object to leaving this one last piece alone. But so far, the BLM and the companies who leased the public land from them, are not backing up. Some feel that industry is making a stand here- that if the last of the Roan can be developed, then no place in America can be off limits. The courts, perhaps, will decide whether that is true.

I went back to the Roan with Field and Stream, some great photographers from Brooklyn, and some guys from Trout Unlimited who have been fighting for this place for over a decade now. We all wanted to spend some days way up high, wander the rugged canyons that crisscross the plateau and shelter the monster bull elk that have made it famous and catch a few native Colorado cutthroats in the shadowed cathedrals of stone and water. It was not a trip to experience what might soon be lost. It was a trip to see and feel what is still truly worth fighting for. In a world that seems haunted by losses for hunters and fishermen and their children, here was a chance, and a place, to hold on to.

Check out Kevin Cooley's photos from day one of our Roan Plateau exploration.