Exploring the Roan Plateau: Day One

Pilot Bruce Gordon of EcoFlight, a flying service based in Aspen, Colorado, flew us out of Glenwood Springs to make a pass over the Roan to see what it all looks like from the hawk's eye view. That's the mighty Colorado River below us, and as we gained altitude, we passed over Storm King Mountain, on the White River National Forest, where 14 wildland firefighters lost their lives in July of 1994. This is big country, dry down low, getting greener as the land gains altitude and catches and holds the big snows that make this part of Colorado habitable by man and beast and fish alike.Kevin Cooley
Ken Neubecker of Carbondale, Colorado, former President of Colorado Trout Unlimited and lifelong fisherman of the area, was our guide to what we were seeing- he points out the highcountry of the Flattops Wilderness, with the rushing Canyon Creek ripping down from melting snows, and he explains the complicated geography, with the dramatic Grand Hogback ridge marking the separation line between the Rockies and the Colorado Plateau, which contains the energy- rich Piceance Basin. This has been fossil fuel country for a long time- there are lines of coke ovens dating back to the 1880's right beside the Glenwood Springs Airport. Now the insatiable appetite for that same kind of energy, and the fantastically inefficient ways in which we are burning it, is putting one of the West's most iconic wild places at risk of being forever changed. That's Trout Unlimited's Corey Fisher up front, a serious fisherman and big game hunter based in Missoula, Montana. Fisher has been working on Roan Plateau issues for TU for the past six years, fishing the little creeks for the genetically-pure strain of native Colorado Cutthroat trout, hiking the canyons, and working to make sure that some small part of the place remains intact for future generations of adventurous American hunters and fishermen.Kevin Cooley
Sopris Peak and the Elk Mountains, classic Colorado high country, and an elk hunter's dream.Kevin Cooley
The Roan Plateau on top of 3000 foot tall cliffs above the Colorado River valley. In most of these cliffs, there is a dark band known as the Mahogany Ledge, the southern edge of the oil shale - kerogen - that people have long believed would provide billions of barrels of oil, if only the right technique for extracting it could be discovered. Until 1997, when public lands on the Plateau were turned over to the Bureau of Land Management, it was managed by the Department of Energy, and known as the Naval Oil Shale Reserve. Whenever you hear about the 'billions of barrels of oil" trapped in the rock of Colorado, the Roan, and the lands for miles and miles to the north of it, are what is being discussed. Such an operation to unlock the oil, should a method ever be found to do it economically, could be among the most environmentally destructive and water intensive energy projects on earth to date. So far, the key has not been found. The name of the game these days is another fossil fuel, natural gas. The natural gas development you see here climbing the flanks of the Plateau is mostly on private land. It is also important winter range for the big game herds that calve and summer on top of the Plateau.Kevin Cooley
Extensive development of lower elevation habitat, winter range, and creek systems. When I was last here in 2004, the drilling and roadbuilding had just begun. Although the natural gas resource was always known to be strong here, I don't think that too many residents ever envisioned development like this.Kevin Cooley
Energy Development on the Plateau. If full build-out of the land that has already been leased is allowed to occur, thousands or more of these well pads will occupy every ridgeline on the Plateau.Kevin Cooley
Looking down a tributary of Parachute Creek from the lip of the Roan, with well pads and roads in and along creek bottom.Kevin Cooley
Some of Colorado's highest waterfalls tumble from the heavy snowmelt and year-round spring systems of the Roan Plateau to the arid valleys below. This if Garden Gulch Falls, in the headwaters of Parachute Creek, which provides the water supply for downstream ranches, other landowners, and the town of Parachute. During the late winter of 2008, a series of spills from defective pits at well pads- one of them estimated at 1.2 million gallons of drilling mud and other chemicals- poured down these falls and into the creek. Along with the spills, washouts from development created what the Denver Post called a "soil tower" - a frozen waterfall of mud and fluids from the spills that stood until spring thaw. Since the energy industry is protected by law from having to reveal what chemicals they use in their operations, and what they store in the pits like the one that can be seen on the lower left of the photo, nobody along Parachute Creek ever found out what was spilled into their water supplies. Even EMTs and other emergency responders have no idea what chemicals they are dealing with when there's an accident. A May 11th, 2010 story in The Colorado Independent described the case of Garfield County resident and hunting guide Ned Prather, who was hospitalized after being poisoned with benzene from a spill that had contaminated his well. Prather's case is still being investigated, as are many other cases of spills and contamination, writes Independent reporter David O. Williams.Kevin Cooley
The undeveloped part of the Roan, and the road that most hunters and fisherman, ranchers and others use to access the Plateau. With a wild mix of country, from sage flats to black timber and open aspen groves to meadows thick with snowberry, serviceberry, and native grasses, the Plateau is a big game hunter's dream country. There is a lot of road access along the ridges, but the deep-cut canyons that crisscross the Plateau provide a kind of maze, rugged and, in places, covered with impenetrable thickets that hide plunging cliffs and hidden valleys, where only the boldest or the most foolish hunter will ever tread. This is part of the 36,000 acre area that Trout Unlimited and other conservation groups have asked to be excluded from further drilling and roading by energy developers.Kevin Cooley
Well pad on Cow Creek, which flows off the Roan, along the Cow Creek road, one of the only access roads that climbs up to the Plateau.Kevin Cooley
Well pad on Cow Creek.Kevin Cooley
Corey Fisher runs the jack, while I extract the pitiful little temporary spare that will never take this rig up the rough Cow Creek road to the Roan. Trout Unlimited's Chris Hunt of Idaho Falls, Idaho, who rented the car, and has been fishing on the Roan and working on energy issues here for years, celebrates this event as his fifteenth flat tire on the Roan and its access roads. We took the other car on up, Hunt left for town, and didn't return, flummoxed by the unavailability of a new tire for his rig. Any hunter who has hunted the back country knows the story.Kevin Cooley
On top of the Roan, looking off Anvil Point at the country around Rifle, Colorado. The natural gas development stretches to the edges of the forest in the far distance, and on into the mountains beyond. Looking out at this spectacular view, one of the things that strikes you is just how much energy we must be using as a nation, and what the true costs are - beyond a monthly electric or heating and cooking bill, or a tank of gas for the SUV that brought us up here, or the plane that flew us over. The true costs are in land for grazing, water for drinking, game for hunting, fish for catching. Some very deep questions are being asked here, with this unprecedented scale of development for a finite resource. As Rifle outfitter Keith Goddard told me in 2004, when this boom was just beginning, "We have to try and keep some of what we have left. Recreation and tourism supported us when the first hardrock boom played out, then again when cattle prices were low. When the oil shale bust came we were still here, and we had this country to draw on. In the aftermath of this one, the people who come here from 40 states to hunt and fish and hike won't have it." In talking about the Roan, Goddard said, "People are always saying that turning these lands over to the energy industry is the right thing to do for the country. But to hell with that. The people of the United States own the public lands. This is where I grew up. This is my heritage."Kevin Cooley
You have to admit that some BLM policies- such as the no vehicles in space policy- make a lot of sense.Kevin Cooley
On top of the Roan Plateau, the road down through some of the area's best elk and muley country into Trapper Creek, where Trout Unlimited has been working on projects to restore habitat for the native Colorado River Cutthroat for the last fifteen years. As TU Director Mac Cunningham of Grand Junction puts it, "We've been working in here for fifteen years and we'll be working in here for a long time to come. These cutthroats are absolutely unique, and so are these creeks. All of this water up here, it all seeps down- this is the water source for everything down below here. I'm not sure a lot of people down below realize that."Kevin Cooley
Old growth aspen. Some of these ancient trees are carved with the initials of wanderers: sheepherders, cowboys, hunters, travelers, who've been gone from this earth for decades. There is an old silence here, as if this sheltering high altitude place has seen it all.Kevin Cooley
Trout Unlimited sign about native cutthroats at the TU restoration projects on Trapper Creek.Kevin Cooley
Sundown in the elk country along Trapper Creek.Kevin Cooley

Conservationist blogger Hal Herring and photographer Kevin Cooley spent three days exploring what's at stake in the current rush to develop the energy resources beneath Colorado's unique Roan Plateau -- some of the best big game hunting and trout fishing in the United States.