Little grousing on the prairie


By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

I’m embarrassed to say that, in the decade I’ve lived on the Colorado Front Range, I’d never been to the Pawnee National Grasslands; that is, until last week. With mountains in my rear-view, I drove east from Fort Collins. Before long, I crossed the border into Weld County (called “Upstate Colorado” as I came to learn) and, after passing the Bison Breath bar in the tony town of Ault, I was on the Pawnee Pioneer Trail.

The land settled into rolling hills of gold and green and pockets of metallic-grey virga hung in the sky. Red-tailed hawks perched on fence posts and lark buntings darted upward then plummeted back toward the earth. Near-dry arroyos accompany small pockets of cottonwoods. There are homesteads with wrought-iron arches proudly marking ranch entrances —the legacy of pioneers who survived the Dust Bowl in the 1930s—and the tumbled-down remnants of the ones who did not. Here the PNG is interspersed with private land in a checkerboard of preserve bordered in spots by cattle munching on rangeland or farms with bales of hay stacked toward the heavens.

Here and there, poking up from the plains like giant, lit cigarettes are gas flares, burning off “waste” from oil drilling operations. The oil and gas game in Weld County is part of the Niobrara play, a rich shale deposit that lies beneath more than 8,000 square miles of northeast Colorado, northwest Kansas, southwest Nebraska, and southeast Wyoming. The formation is made up of layers of shale (where the oil formed) and limestone (where the oil collected) that were deposited 90 million years ago when a vast, inland sea covered most of the West. The wells lie on both private and public land and, out here, it’s hard to tell which is which.

The PNG is 193,000 acres of shortgrass prairie, home to pronghorn, mule deer, coyote, swift fox, snakes and prairie dogs and is also an internationally-known birding area. The American Bird Conservancy rated it “globally significant” for the diversity of its feathered residents and visitors, including burrowing owls, northern harriers, American kestrels, Western meadowlarks, and many more. It’s also one of the main breeding grounds in the world for mountain plovers, according to the Audubon Society. Likely the best-known features of the area are the Pawnee Buttes, two 250-foot-high sandstone mounds, where hawks and falcons nest, which are remnants of the High Plains that once dominated this topography. The PNG is popular for hiking, camping, horseback riding and stargazing, as it gets dark as tar out there.

I got interested in the PNG last month when I read in the Coloradoan about how public interest in drilling there has been essentially nil. When they wanted feedback on the proposed Niobrara 3D Vibroseis Project last year, the U.S. Forest Service sent out between 60 to 90 letters (depending upon who you ask) to neighbors and interested parties and advertised in the Greeley Tribune, they received just four comments, and one of those was from Colorado Audubon Society. (Note: The USFS is responsible for protecting the surface resources like wildlife, soil and hydrology, in the PNG, while the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) leases the oil and gas rights. The BLM also has a webpage, where it posts lease applications.)

The vibroseis project consisted of three monster-style trucks with five-foot-high tires  inching across 1,000-square miles, like a scene out of Mad Max, stopping now and again to pound the ground with huge metal plates. The thumper convoy was deployed by Geokinetics Inc. to map the underground and give oil prospectors a sense of where they might hit pay-dirt.

Well operations are not new on the PNG; many of the 63 active wells there were drilled over the past 25 years. But recently there’s been an uptick in interest in tapping oil reserves beneath the preserve, both because of a renewed push for domestic oil extraction, and the rise of techniques including lateral drilling and hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking.  USFS has devoted a new web page so the public can keep track of the growing list of proposals for exploration on the PNG. Another vibroseis project is under consideration, as are nine exploratory wells, which would be accompanied by construction of new access roads.

That same Coloradoan article included a comment by USFS lands and minerals manager, Vernon Koehler. Koehler remarked on the public outreach for future proposed projects on the PNG saying, “We'll probably use a smaller mailing list because we got so few comments about the first project.” It seemed to me that a lack of comments may indicate that a wider net needed to be cast, not a smaller one. So when I spoke to USFS spokesperson Reghan Cloudman I asked her about it. “That’s not the case,” she said, explaining that they’ve added at least a dozen people to their mailing list over the past couple of months, and that their public scoping would including tribes, local government, landowners, interested parties, volunteer groups and outfitters. Anyone who wants to be added to the “interested party” list can easily sign up on at the bottom of their webpage.

Looking east over the grasslands, past the Pawnee Buttes, to the horizon is a wall of wind turbines looking, against the darkening sky, like something Don Quixote would have stood ready to battle. Throw in the ranches, farms and oil wells churning ceaselessly, and it’s clear the Pawnee grasslands is not a pristine landscape. It’s for that reason some have remarked that another well here or there, on or around the PNG, won’t make any difference.

Others fear it will. “There’s not that much there anyway, people think. But it’s as important as the ocean, the rainforest; it’s an ecosystem filled with life,” says Judy Enderle of the Prairie Preservation Alliance, who’s passed many days on the PNG in the past 30 years. “These wells will be the final nail in its coffin,” she says. For Deb Jones, of Prairie Dog Action, the PNG cured her homesickness years ago for the Texas grassland she grew up stomping around in. Now it reminds her even more of her childhood home, of her parents ranch which now has five oil wells on it. She’s seen first-hand the effects of drilling and, particularly, fracking and foresees a similar future for the PNG. “I could see how they’d go hog-wild up there, with big trucks going in and out, trampling all over, destroying water quality and the dang noise would be awful,” she says.  

With a growing interest in drilling into the PNG, I was curious about whether or not the agencies tasked with protecting and leasing it consider the total aesthetic impact of that development. They may determine that, one by one, no single project will adversely impact nesting mountain plovers, for example, or skunk the water quality. But is there a tipping point that should be conceived of, beyond which the PNG will no longer offer pockets of seclusion or serenity, beyond which the Pawnee Buttes are outshone by gas flares? BLM spokesperson Vanessa Delgado reminded me they only deal with what goes on beneath the surface. The USFS’s Cloudman answered candidly, “I honestly don’t know.”

As I watch a falcon perched on the bulky arm of an elm tree, keeping watch over the rustling blue grama, I puzzle over what will become of its prairie. While the clouds at last relinquish their cache and raindrops splatter the landscape, I wonder, who will speak for the Pawnee?

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for their content.

Heather Hansen is an environmental journalist working with the Red Lodge Clearinghouse /Natural Resources Law Center at CU Boulder, to help raise awareness of natural resource issues.

Image of grassland courtesy US Forest Service.

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