Exploring the Roan Plateau: Day Three

The JQS Road leading up to the Roan Plateau. These huge basins like the one we are approaching here are watered from the snowmelt trickling - or rushing- down from the heights above. At low elevation, you are in hard-grazed, kind of barren, juniper country, with cottonwoods along the creeks and washes, but as you climb, the junipers give way to a Gambel's oak forest, with a mix of grasses. There are wild turkeys feeding on the acorns here, and big elk trails where the herds drop off the summer range on the Plateau, and the security-conscious bulls linger - it gets thicker as you go up toward the watered country, steeper, tougher, in places, just about impossible. A big bull's- or a big mule deer buck's- favorite description of a place hang out. When wildlife biologists talk about "diversity due to elevation gradient" this is what they are talking about- one kind of habitat down low, merging to entirely different ones as you go up, all supporting different plants and animals. I'd never really thought about it before, but here on the Roan it is obvious- you start off in dry and hot juniper, and end up in cool wind, columbines, elderberry thickets and aspen.Kevin Cooley
The basin in greater detail, with the wild switchback of the JQS Road cut into the steep. One of the major problems with the kind of intensive energy development that is overwhelming the Roan is that there are really only a few chokepoints in the cliffs where big game herds can leave summer range on the Plateau to go to their winter ranges. If those chokepoints are blocked with well pads or roads, you start losing your herds. If you develop that low elevation winter range, you can lose them for good. To the west of the JQS Road, energy companies have built their own, entirely new, road to the top of the Roan. From our earlier flight, the new road is a tremendous scar on the flank of the Plateau. Unbelievably, where the new road tops out, there is a huge and seemingly impassable cliff band. But road builders were not stopped by the cliffs of the Plateau: they simply blew a huge hole in them, and kept building. Looking at the new road, one gets the feeling- or at least I do- that there is no recognition of how important this place is, to so many people, or how important the resources are here, beyond just the extraction of energy to sell. It is a policy that is tailor-made to create anger and conflict.Kevin Cooley
There is nothing safe about the mountains of Colorado, or about the JQS Road. Here is a memorial to someone who's luck did not hold.Kevin Cooley
As we topped out on the Roan and headed for the ridge above Parachute Creek, a wildfire kicked up in the near distance. Since it was mid-June, and the top of the Plateau was lush and green, we figured it would die down pretty quickly. Also, it looked like it was far enough away from where we were headed that it wouldn't be a problem.Kevin Cooley
Right. Actually, the fire ripped into a big north-facing stand of spruce and went crazy. We could see it sweeping up the side of the coulee, and suddenly, it was clear that it was going to come to the road and shut us down. Great plumes of black and gray smoke rose, then the fire intensified, and we could see columns of flame rolling and rushing like in the depths of a forge. Big trees started candling out, not far away. While we were standing around trying to decide what to do, a sheep rancher stopped by to talk. We had seen his herder earlier, a solemn-faced Peruvian man who lived in a traditional sheepherder's wagon with a gaunt white dog for company. The rancher told us his family had been grazing the Plateau since homestead days, and had their first leases under the Taylor Grazing act of 1934. To top it all off, Chris Hunt, during the conversation, suddenly figured out that his- Chris'- wife was kin to the rancher. Much family discussion ensued. The West, for its homesteading families, is still a pretty small world. Meanwhile the fire got bigger, and the Peruvian herder still did not appear (he was safe, it turned out).Kevin Cooley
As planes began to appear and bomb the fire with clouds of pink retardant, and more trees candled out, we discussed a Plan B- go far upstream along the Parachute drainage and descend into a deep canyon that held JQS Creek, a Parachute tributary that was rumored to have fish in it. We just wanted a few more minutes to make sure we couldn't make Plan A and the main stem of Parachute.Kevin Cooley
Smoke jumpers began drifting down from the skies in brightly-colored parasails. By the time we made it into a big stand of aspen with the fire just on the other side of a small ridge, some of the jumpers had already closed the road we needed to get to Parachute. Plan B it was.Kevin Cooley
We parked the rigs at a cow camp and started busting brush downhill, following elk trails and elk rubs like the one on the photo, wary of the cliffs we knew were somewhere below us. We could see a narrow ribbon of water at the bottom of the canyon- it was tiny, but so were some of the other creeks on the Plateau that have fish in them. The heat of the day bore down on us pretty heavy.Kevin Cooley
Chris Hunt holds an old fence down for Kevin Cooley and Bridget Batch, the photographers, who were burdened with a lot of equipment. Although Kevin and Bridge live in the concrete jungle of Brooklyn, they have no trouble with brush, high elevation and steep ground. Both have traveled the world with their work.Kevin Cooley
We worked our way down through small cliff bands and brush to this strange little grotto of blooming cow parsnips, raspberries, and cool waterfalls. It was beautiful and shady, deep green moss on the bottom of the creek. Unfortunately, I went a little further down and discovered that the pretty creek plunged off a fifty foot overhanging cliff hidden in the thickets. Time for a major uphill reversal.Kevin Cooley
We made it down to the JQS Creek, of course. Here's Sinjin Eberle working some of the spookiest fish I've ever seen. Nobody fishes this creek, maybe, but it is clear as ether and those fish live some kind of dangerous life. They take zero chances. All I saw was what looked like a bunch of little arrows shooting away when I cast.Kevin Cooley
The fish that I was failing to catch turned out not to be Colorado cutthroats at all, but little brookies. I finally managed to fool one of the hungrier or dumber ones. The fish are tiny, but the fishing is as difficult and exciting as trying to get a swimbait in front of a big redfish in a foot of water without blowing it.Kevin Cooley
Mac Cunningham and I studying on the best way to catch some of the dozens of brookies we can see feeding in this little pool. They spurned his dry fly- I'm not sure what it was called- and I finally caught a live beetle from under a rock. I tried to convince him to strip the feathers off a fly and put the beetle on the hook. Mac- lifelong flyfisherman - thought I was kidding, even when I tried to hand him the beetle. I wasn't kidding of course. I grew up with rooster livers and yo-yo rigs and have been known to shoot carp with a .22 short when they refused to bite the doughballs I made for them. But Mac has different ethics when it comes to trout. He finally got them to hit a tiny caddis, and was catching them as I headed downstream.Kevin Cooley
The Mahogany shale. This is the rock- the keragen- that holds the energy. Ken Neubecker told me a tale of an early Colorado settler who built a stout log cabin on his homestead claim, and built his fireplace and chimney out of the dark shale he gathered on his property. On a cold winter night, as he built up his cook-fire, the fireplace and chimney burst into roaring flames and burned down his cabin. Human beings have known, seemingly forever, about the combustibility of the dark shale, tossing it into campfires, playing with it. Now, it is believed that one day researchers will unlock the secret of how to produce usable energy from it. If they do, Americans will face more huge and exhausting questions about what is truly valuable, weighing water supplies and wildlife, fisheries, an intact landscape, against the desperate and insatiable need we have developed for fossil fuel energy. I don't believe that most of the people that I know who talk so hopefully about oil shale and the need to develop it, have ever seen this country, or know what is really at stake here.Kevin Cooley
A big black bear has been marking his territory along JQS Creek.Kevin Cooley
The author still trying to sneak up on the brookies, trying everything for a six inch fish.Kevin Cooley
Hiking out of JQS Creek. Mac Cunningham and Sinjin Eberle found us a steeper but easier way out. It didn't take us long to find elk trails that took us where we wanted to go.Kevin Cooley
The view from half way up the canyon side, and looking down JQS Creek toward its confluence with Parachute Creek, and then on off the edge of the Plateau, far away through untraveled country, all of it, for now, still silent and rich with game. Someday, I'd like to fish this creek all the way to the waterfalls on Parachute, a couple long days or more.Kevin Cooley
Finishing the climb through a grove of old growth aspens that fade out on a big sagebrush flat.Kevin Cooley
Old-growth aspen.Kevin Cooley
Looking down the undeveloped flanks of the Roan, late afternoon. After fishing and wandering the Plateau for three days, it seems like a fortress, hiding mysteries and riches beyond what I could have ever imagined that day in 2004 when I stood in Rifle with Keith Goddard and he explained to me just how important this place really is. Now, I think I know, although I'll never have Keith's decades of knowledge of the Plateau, or even the years that Corey Fisher and Chris Hunt have spent here. All I can say for sure is that the people who have been privileged to know this place are the ones fighting for it now, and what they are fighting for could not be more reasonable: one last part of the mighty Plateau needs to remain the way it has been for thousands of years, not just because it provides water for the people of the valleys, or timber, or grazing, although it provides all those things. Not just because it is great mule deer and elk hunting, or great fishing, although it is those things, too. Because not one of us-nobody- has the right to take from all the people too young or as yet unborn, the chance to experience this wild island in the sky, with all the wonders that it contains, right now. Nothing is more valuable than that. Nothing more important than that. As Corey Fisher wrote to me yesterday after we talked about the trip and this story: "When you spend enough time in a place like the Roan, it becomes a part of you. When somebody says that they are going to drill it - of course you're concerned about the trout streams and the elk meadows - but a piece of you is going to be lost as well. There are a lot of hunters and anglers who the Roan is a part of and if it gets ruined, there will be a bunch of people who lose a piece of themselves."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. Here's what they found on day three.