Judge says refuge’s value ‘undisputed’

DENVER – Residents in the San Luis Valley and conservation groups lauded a U.S. District Court decision on September 3 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 establishedin 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 resources.”
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 government’s analysis.
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 2007.
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. 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 capricious.”
The preliminary injunction will be in place until the lawsuit has a ruling.