Groups hold out hope for HD Mountains in 10th Circuit Court appeal of BP gas-drilling plan

Old growth ponderosa pines in the HD Mountains near Bayfield.

The HD Mountains in southern Colorado were reportedly named after an old cattle brand, not the more contemporary “High Definition” television brand. But a plan by BP America and other oil and gas companies to drill natural gas in the low-elevation roadless area has brought into crystal-clear focus the debate over drilling for gas on public lands deemed “roadless” by the Clinton administration in 2001.

The so-called Clinton roadless rule was quickly set aside by the Bush administration, and the U.S. Forest Service and BLM issued more than 100 oil and gas leases throughout the 4.4 million acres of federal lands in Colorado that were designated as roadless areas. The pristine HD Mountains 20 miles east of Durango near Bayfield – part of the larger San Juan Mountain Range – is one of those areas.

The Clinton roadless rule has been tied up in federal court for years, and the state of Colorado submitted its own roadless plan, which many conservationists say allows far too many exemptions for coal mining, logging and ski area expansion.

Late last week, lawyers for Earthjustice – a Denver-based environmental law firm – made final arguments in a June challenge of the Forest Service approval of the HD Mountain drilling plan. The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver may issue a decision in a matter of weeks, or it could take up to a year.

A coal-bed methane drilling proposal by BP America, XTO Energy, Elm Ridge Exploration Company, Exok and Petrox Resources was first submitted for the area in 2000, originally calling for 57 well pads and 38 miles of new roads. San Juan National Forest officials pared that down to 27 well pads and 11 miles of new roads.

Mike Freeman, an attorney for Earthjustice – which represents the San Juan Citizens Alliance, Oil and Gas Accountability Project, Colorado Environmental Coalition, Colorado Wild and The Wilderness Society in the appeal – says that’s still too much impact for one of the last low-elevation roadless areas in the state.

“Roadless areas that are at that elevation are really pretty rare in Colorado,” Freeman told the Colorado Independent. “Most of them have been developed. And because it’s low elevation and roadless, it’s really kind of an island of refuge for wildlife in that part of the state that depend on this important block of pristine wild land for their habitat.”

Even drilling opponents say Forest Service officials have addressed some of their concerns – for instance making the “heart of the roadless area (Ignacio Creek) off limits to coal-bed methane drilling because of concerns about landslide hazards, slope stability, erosion, and watershed impacts.” But that ban could someday be lifted, so no drilling at all is their preferred alternative.

“In a region peppered with tens of thousands of gas wells, there must be places where drilling is simply not allowed — regardless of what resources lie beneath the surface,” San Juan Citizens Alliance Executive Director Megan Graham said in a release.

Freeman last week argued the Forest Service simply isn’t following its own rules and guidelines.

“In adopting the [drilling] plan, they’ve ignored the requirements of the forest plan for managing the area,” Freeman said. “The forest plan imposed a host of different requirements that protects the old growth forest that would get cut down and the wildlife that depends on that habitat and protects the rivers and streams in the [HD] Mountains. The decision here violates the forest plan standards for all of those.”

The HD Mountains are home to stands of old-growth ponderosa pines, in some cases dating back more than 300 years.