Last year, the Bureau of Land Management received a request to lease for gas and oil development thousands of acres within the Perins Peak State Wildlife Area and other lands surrounding Lightner Creek and Dry Fork.
The proposal to open one of Durango's cherished natural icons for natural-gas exploration caught everyone by surprise, including the BLM. The Durango BLM office declined to lease Perins Peak in February, but anticipated leasing could occur at a future date once additional environmental reviews are completed.
The apparently promising new natural-gas play in Montezuma and Dolores counties uncovered by Bill Barrett Corp. has created a bit of a bidding frenzy for mineral leases on nearby lands. Barrett tapped into a deep shale formation and managed to fracture the Gothic shale enough to release paying quantities of natural gas tightly trapped in the shale. Now, others hope similar deposits might be situated farther east in La Plata County.
The prospect of Perins Peak turning into a gas field spurred local elected officials to action. The Durango City Council and La Plata County commissioners passed resolutions urging the BLM not to make Perins Peak available for gas and oil development, and also urged our congressmen and senators to promptly act to safeguard Perins Peak from development. Not only would such action protect Perins Peak, it will forestall a protracted community fight against natural gas exploration in one of the premier outdoor amenities in Durango.
The resolutions urge that Congress enact legislation to withdraw the minerals owned by the federal government beneath Perins Peak, as well as Lightner Creek and nearby Animas City Mountain, from all forms of mineral development. It would address about 9,000 acres of federal minerals; privately owned mineral resources would be unaffected.
The BLM's response often is that we can achieve desired protections with administrative limitations. Basically, the "don't worry, trust us" response. Which might be adequate during the reign of current BLM managers, but it leaves the community at risk from future managers with different priorities. So while the BLM might offer "timing limitations" (avoiding drilling during winter for big game) and "no surface occupancy" (drilling beneath steep slopes from adjacent valleys), those also could be waived by future managers. Why not promptly and effectively act to protect Perins Peak, and Animas City Mountain, in the interests of local residents? These areas provide important wildlife habitat and abundant recreation opportunities at Durango's doorstep. The city of Durango has made significant public investments in purchasing open space properties - including Durango Mountain Park and Dalla Mountain Park - adjacent to BLM lands subject to mineral leasing.
The BLM generally takes the position it must make available for lease any lands identified as such in its management plan, and cannot decline to lease unless leasing is specifically prohibited by law. Well, let's get cracking and make the law completely clear with respect to natural gas development in Perins Peak. U.S. Rep. John Salazar, D-Manassa, and our senators have heard our community's concerns. The next step is theirs.
Mark Pearson is director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.