DENVER – Residents in the San Luis Valley and conservation groups today lauded a U.S.
District Court decision to block oil and gas drilling in the Baca National Wildlife Refuge.
U.S. District Court Judge Walker Miller on Thursday issued a preliminary injunction against
Lexam Explorations, a Canadian mining company, barring it from drilling and activities related
to oil and gas exploration on the 79,000-acre refuge in southwest Colorado. Walker wrote in his
decision that “it is undisputed that the Refuge contains unique resources, including sensitive
wetlands, habitat for a variety of wildlife and fish, aquifers that play an important role in the
wetlands and in providing water for the community, clean air, and a large expanse of
undeveloped land with a significant ‘sense of place’ and quiet.”
“When the Baca National Wildlife Refuge was established in 2000, the intent was to protect the
water, wildlife and land within the area,” said Travis Stills, an attorney who represented the
plaintiffs. “Drilling activities posed a huge threat to the refuge and the underlying aquifers. Judge
Miller’s decision brings us one step closer to full protection of this pristine area and its
The federal government purchased the refuge in 2000 for the purpose of protecting its “unique
hydrological, biological, educational and recreational values.” However, Lexam owned mineral
rights within the refuge and in 2006 proposed drilling for natural gas there.
Department of Interior officials in the Bush administration approved the plan, determining that
drilling and gas exploration would have no significant impact on the refuge or groundwater, and
that a full environmental impact analysis was not necessary. Records obtained under the
Freedom of Information Act later showed that industry officials helped draft parts of the
The San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council and Energy Minerals Law Center, along with the San
Luis Valley Water Protection Coalition, challenged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision
In granting the preliminary injunction, Judge Miller affirmed the plaintiffs’ claims that Lexam’s
drilling proposal threatens “irreparable harm” to the refuge and underlying aquifers. He said that
the proposal submitted by Lexam and approved by USFWS did not present sufficient safeguards,
and he questioned “whether the agency really evaluated the efficacy of many of the proposed
safeguards.” Miller also expressed concern about the potential impact of chemicals used in
drilling and about clean-up and mitigation efforts.
The refuge contains more than 15,000 acres of irrigated wetlands and another 10,000 acres of
natural wetlands and playas, considered among the most concentrated, pristine and biologically
diverse wetlands in the southwestern United States. The refuge also is an important recharge area
for San Luis Valley’s Closed Basin groundwater aquifer system. Lexam was proposing to locate
its test wells in the midst of these sensitive wetlands and potential groundwater recharge areas.
In his order, Judge Miller said the agency’s decision failed to include any meaningful analysis of
what chemicals and other materials might be used during drilling, “what hazards they might
pose, and on what basis the agency has concluded that these will not have significant effect on
the delicate resources of the Refuge, including the aquifers.”
“This decision is a victory for those of us who live and work in the San Luis Valley and who
have fought to protect the refuge and its special sense of place,” said Christine Canaly of the San
Luis Valley Ecosystem Council. “As a region with huge potential for sensible, renewable energy
development, this is a victory for our country and for efforts to move toward new, cleaner energy
A diverse group of San Luis Valley residents including ranchers, farmers, teachers, artists,
business owners, faith leaders and scientists, united to oppose the drilling proposal. The
Crestone/Baca community sits adjacent to the Baca NWR and less than a mile from the proposed
drilling sites. It was featured in a US News & World Report story on “sacred places.”
Jillian Klarl, a Crestone real estate broker, said that Judge Miller’s decision will help to secure
the quality of life in the San Luis Valley.
“The economic value of this area is dependent on the protection of sensitive places like the Baca
Refuge,” said Klarl. “Our quality of life depends on clean water, clean air and the recreational
opportunities that surround our communities. Drilling is not compatible with those qualities.”
Based on the evidence presented, Judge Miller said that the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council
is “likely to prevail on the merits” and labeled the decision to approve the drilling “arbitrary and
The preliminary injunction will be in place until the lawsuit has a ruling.