Tom Ross: Future of ‘High Lonesome’ |

Tom Ross: Future of ‘High Lonesome’

Jim Comeau fishes North Park’s South Delaney Buttes Lake on Sunday with the Never Summer Range in the background.

Jim Comeau fishes North Park's South Delaney Buttes Lake on Sunday with the Never Summer Range in the background.
Tom Ross

— I don't think it's a stretch to suggest that the Bureau of Land Management picked the most inopportune time in American history last week to attempt to sell 11 oil and gas leases on public lands in the Jackson County wildlife and ranching paradise known as North Park.

The parcels offered by the BLM included one touching on the Lake John public fishing destination and another that would have affected the big game hunting on Independence Mountain.

The lease sale was anti-climactic — only two of the parcels were bid on.

I can't claim to know with certainty why the response from energy companies was so indifferent. But we can all agree that the lease sale came at a time when the focus of much of America was on the widening oil leak catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. It wasn't a great time to raise the level of public outcry about drilling in a largely unspoiled mountain park hosting a diversity of species in a special habitat above 8,000 feet in elevation.

I've been driving over Rabbit Ears Pass and turning left onto Colorado Highway 14 to go fishing and hiking in North Park for 25 years. The wind can blow so ferociously at times that you'd swear you were in Wyoming. And at other times, the salty crust on the alkaline soil makes it resemble a high desert. I've stolen a phrase I first encountered in a Thomas McGuane novel to describe North Park. I like to call it the "High Lonesome."

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Look a little closer, and instead of a harsh landscape, you see wetlands that nurture waterfowl, small bands of pronghorn, moose foraging along the Michigan River and the pale wild iris that bloom in profusion in May.

Nesting waterfowl on the Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge produce an estimated 7,000 ducklings a year.

But you don't have to take my word that there is critical wildlife habitat close to the proposed drilling leases. Jim Haskins, area supervisor for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, described it in a February letter to the BLM in which he asked that the federal agency delay its plans until it has time to complete a new resource management plan for the area that is already under way.

Haskins identified by parcel number lease areas where there is a peregrine falcon nest, and another in which there is an active golden eagle nest. He also listed nine proposed drilling areas that are managed by the DOW for use by sportsmen.

Haskins said Monday the level of public blow-back this month about the impending lease sale took him by surprise.

I reported in June 2007 that oil exploration companies already have drilled a half dozen wildcat wells or more on a small portion of the thousands of acres of private land available for energy exploration in North Park. So, the proposed BLM lease sale came as no surprise.

But the events this month in the Gulf have all of us thinking about what it will take to begin to wean ourselves off petroleum. I thought about it while I filled my medium-sized sport utility vehicle Monday morning with the high-octane gasoline it insists upon.

If we don't feel a sense of urgency this month, perhaps we never will. Given that there is so much potential for energy development on privately held land in North Park, I'd hope to see the federal government hold back the public lands.

North Park, to me, is a landscape, human and natural, that is worth preserving. But with or without leases on the public land, the High Lonesome seems destined to change forever.

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