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Oil and gas drilling could impact Chimney Rock National Monument, critics say

About 2,560 acres, some within half mile of archaeological site, could be up for sale
Critics of a proposed oil and gas lease sale say it would affect Chimney Rock National Monument between Durango and Pagosa Springs.

A potential oil and gas lease sale is raising concerns for its proximity to Chimney Rock National Monument.

Recently, the Bureau of Land Management posted the lease sale on its website, which includes 10 parcels totaling more than 2,560 acres in an area known as the HD Mountains, east of Bayfield.

The BLM manages federal subsurface mineral resources and is the lead agency in the lease sale, even though the land is managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

Yet the lease sale has been fraught with issues, some say.

La Plata County commissioners sent a letter Nov. 2 to the BLM saying there was an “extremely limited window allotted for public comment on this project,” and asked for an extension.

“In the last four years, the notification periods, and the opportunity to provide public comments, has just been reduced and reduced and reduced,” Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said in an interview with The Durango Herald.

Dan Gibbs, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, raised similar concerns in a Nov. 6 letter to the BLM. A department spokesman provided the letter to the Herald.

“It is difficult for state agencies and the public to respond to a proposal of this complexity within a 14-day time frame under normal conditions, but this is especially the case given the continued constraints placed on government resources and daily life during the ongoing COVID emergency,” Gibbs wrote.

Jayson Barangan, a spokesman for the BLM, said the agency on Nov. 10 granted a 15-day extension for public comment, which now runs until Nov. 25.

The commissioners’ letter went on to raise concerns about a number of issues, including impacts to wildlife (the HD Mountains are critical winter habitat for deer and elk) and the construction of oil and gas facilities in the remote area.

Jimbo Buickerood with San Juan Citizens Alliance, a conservation group, pointed out several other issues with the project. When it was posted Oct. 27, the BLM did not have any maps and also had inaccuracies where the parcels were located.

“You can see it’s just rushed,” he said.

The largest parcel, at 1,560 acres, Buickerood said, is within a half-mile of Chimney Rock National Monument, home to a number of Ancestral Puebloan ruins. The 4,726-acre site was designated a national monument in 2012 and features two defining pinnacles that have multiple sacred astronomical alignments.

Chimney Rock National Monument is home to a number of Ancestral Puebloan ruins, as well as two defining pinnacles that have astronomical significance.

Two other parcels are about a mile from the national monument, Buickerood said. And it’s not just new wells that could adversely affect the environment and experience at Chimney Rock.

Well sites also require an access road big enough for a full-size drill rig, two pipelines and supporting infrastructure, such as compressor stations, he said.

“Some people think that well sites are just standalone,” he said.

Both Buickerood and Lachelt said the BLM must look at the cumulative impacts of the lease sale at a time when an uptick of oil and gas activity is happening in and around the HD Mountains.

Two companies – Catamount Energy Partners and Petrox Resources – which are active in the HD Mountains, are seeking permits through the Forest Service for new wells, pipelines and access roads.

And a Texas-based company called Harvest Midstream is proposing a massive compressor station on the edge of the HD Mountains, to be called the El Toro Compressor Facility.

Buickerood said public land management agencies need to “look at the big picture.”

“And I would certainly appreciate if they informed the citizens if they intend to do something on our public lands,” he said, referring to what he called a lack of public outreach about the current lease sale.

BLM’s Barangan, in an interview with the Herald, said that because the lease sale is a product of a Forest Service land management plan, the Forest Service is responsible for public outreach.

Donna Nemeth, regional spokeswoman for the Forest Service, said she was tracking down information about the matter Tuesday.

Regardless, Barangan said the initial errors in the posting of the sale have since been fixed. And, he said the BLM intends to analyze the cumulative impact the lease sale will have on the region.

Once the analysis is complete, Barangan said the Forest Service will review and consider comments. It is possible, Barangan said, some parcels could be deemed not suitable for sale.

“We will work with them to enhance public notification and there will be another opportunity for public involvement when the sale notice is announced in mid-January,” he said.

Calls to the Chimney Rock Interpretative Association, a volunteer organization, were not immediately returned Tuesday morning.

The lease sale project website can be viewed at https://bit.ly/3fakjHg.

jromeo@durangoherald.com



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