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It’s another quiet morning in the Paradox Valley on Colorado’s Western Slope. Dew shimmers on scented sagebrush before silently evaporating. To the south, in Dry Creek Basin, the Gunnison sage-grouse has just performed its obligatory mating ritual dance. Today is just another day for all the creatures of the Paradox Valley and Dry Creek Basin, and ‘nothing’ is happening as usual.
No clear cutting. No new roads. No uranium mill. No bulldozers. No noise. Nothing.
A victory of absence is a tough sell – we who cherish the outdoors love to celebrate a new monument or park. Rightly so. What attracts us to wilderness is the rush of feeling alive through a zillion forms of expression – hiking, kayaking, casting a line, or climbing one. But part of what we seek in wilderness is absence. Absence of city lights, cell service, pavement – a connection to something beyond ourselves.
Whatever we receive in wildlands begets a natural need to protect them. We know that the Gunnison sage-grouse has lost 90% of its original habitat — facing a similar fate in Colorado as the grey wolf, the grizzly bear, species who are no longer with us — due to development, fossil fuel extraction and greed. The Gunnison sage-grouse historically occupied parts of the aforementioned Paradox Valley; the Dry Creek Basin is one of its last stands.
Last month, The Wilderness Society released a study stating that if U.S. public lands were their own country, they would rank 5th in the world for greenhouse gas emissions. Oil and gas and coal leasing on public lands have long been a mainstay, but it’s been rapid-fire since January of 2017. Public comment periods on some of these projects have shortened from 90 days to 10. Fighting this is nuanced and difficult. The outdoor retail industry attempts to point us toward ‘activism’, but can we buy a jacket or hashtag our way out of these issues? Who will lead the charge?
The answer lies in this work of silence and absence. In 2018, a team including Rocky Mountain Wild received the hearing decision and official revocation of a license held by Pinon Ridge Resources Corporation to create a uranium mine in the Paradox Valley, north of Telluride, a legal dispute that began in 2012. In 2017, after a 30-year battle, Rocky Mountain Wild was part of a collaboration of nongovernmental organizations (NGO) that received the court order halting plans for a 10,000-person resort on Wolf Creek Pass. These two instances provide examples of both environmental justice in addition to democratic justice. The judges in both cases were presented with hundreds of public comments from locals in opposition to these projects, voices that can often feel small in the face of giant corporations and multi-million dollar development entities. It is important to engage in this dialogue, and your local NGOs can help you.
I am proud to be part of an organization that assess every oil and gas lease issued by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in northern New Mexico, eastern Utah, southern Wyoming, and the entirety of Colorado. A large part of our job is to make sure government entities such as the U.S. Forest Service and the BLM are acting in ways that are both legal and represent the desires of the public – not just the oil and gas corporations. Even in the face of an administration that does not always condone data and democracy, the conservation community is committed to upholding both science and law, and using both to protect public lands.
Rocky Mountain Wild has worked to protect more than two million acres from oil and gas development. We are just one of hundreds of conservation NGOs throughout the U.S. that monitor 600 million acres of your lands and waters. We are the vigilantes, in the trenches. The battles over the uranium mill in the Paradox Valley and the Vail-sized resort on Wolf Creek Pass need constant support, monitoring, and defense. In these cases as well as in many others, extractive and developmental entities appeal the decisions to protect wildness. The fight goes on.
Support a local, grassroots, environmental NGO this Saturday, May 19 on Colorado Public Lands Day. Enjoy yourself. Especially if you make it to Paradox Valley or Wolf Creek Pass.
Erica Prather is a campaign assistant for Rocky Mountain Wild. She experimented with many fields of study and career-paths before engaging in conservation work and exploring all its possibilities She has hunkered down in a lab, studying microbes on a sustainable green roof, worked as a naturalist locally in Denver as well as in Juneau, Alaska, taught science in Seoul, South Korea, was part of an international conservation trail team with the Environment Agency of Iceland, and has written and produced two environmental films, one of which debuted on National Geographic’s explorers blog.
Photo of Wolf Creek Pass Overlook by Chris Amelung via Flickr: Creative Commons