The San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council (SLVEC), Citizens for SLV Water Protection Coalition, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Lexam Explorations recently filed a settlement agreement with U.S. District Court in Denver regarding a drilling proposal on the Baca National Wildlife Refuge. The lawsuit centered around the implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) public process. This filing, brought by SLVEC in May of 2007, brings a formal close to the lawsuit.

SLVEC’s complaint centered around the federal agency not having complied with NEPA when it gave Lexam the go-ahead to drill two exploratory wells on the recently established 92,500-acre Baca Wildlife Refuge.

This agreement cancels U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s prior approval of the drilling project and designates the agency to initiate another NEPA process.

The Memorandum Of Understanding (MOU) negotiated between the three parties in May 2010 requires that the US Fish and Wildlife Service begin another NEPA public process, with a time frame requiring a draft study of the proposed drilling project by Jan. 7, 2011  and a final Record of Decision (ROD) completed by April 1, 2011.

Toronto-based Lexam Explorations Inc., has private ownership of the mineral rights that lie beneath the former Baca Ranch, lands that are now part of the of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve Act which was passed by Congress in 2000.

Before passage of the 2000 Congressional act that established the Baca Public Lands Complex, including the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Baca National Wildlife Refuge and Forest Service Baca Mountain Tract, efforts were underway to purchase the Mineral Rights and reunite them with the surface.  It became clear that acquisition of the mineral rights would be a lengthy process, so the Act‚s sponsors decided to move the legislation expeditiously, in anticipation that the mineral rights would be acquired later.

Chris Canaly, Director of SLVEC, and Matthew Crowley Chair of WPC will continue to pursue a buyout and retirement of Lexam’s mineral rights.

It has been around four years since Lexam Explorations announced its intent to drill for oil and gas on the Baca wildlife refuge.  That announcement was met by a great amount of local public comment.  Citizens and advocacy groups insisted that a public process be conducted, the result being a challenged Environmental Assessment.  The settlement agreement is seen as a victory towards the long term goal of permanent protection of the Baca Refuge through acquistion and retirement of the mineral rights.

The Baca National Wildlife Refuge is also scheduled to begin analysis of their Comprehensive Conservation Management Plan (CCMP). Until that plan is completed, the Baca Refuge will remain closed to the public.