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Rocky Mountain Chapter

New Court Ruling Gives Pristine Roan Plateau a Second Chance

By Lauren Swain

DENVER- On Friday, June 22, U.S. District Judge Marcia S. Krieger set aside a 2007 Bureau of Land Management (BLM) plan that would have allowed oil and gas companies to drill thousands of wells on 55,000 acres of the Roan Plateau.

The majestic cliffs of the plateau rise 3,500 feet above the Colorado River, and stretch along the north side of 1-70 from Rifle to Grand Junction. The Roan is one of the few oases of scenic beauty and solitude remaining amidst the industrial desert of oil and gas drilling which surrounds its base.

The Colorado Natural Heritage Program has identified the Roan as one of Western Colorado's four most biologically diverse places. The plateau provides crucial habitat for some of North America’s most rare plants, genetically pure cutthroat trout, and prize herds of elk and deer. The BLM had acknowledged that drilling the Roan would cause permanent and irreversible losses to native trout populations and rare plant species, and also that wilderness-quality lands and opportunities for backcountry recreation would be permanently destroyed.

A public interest law firm, Earthjustice, filed suit in 2008 to challenge the Bush-era BLM leasing plan on behalf of 10 conservation groups, including the Sierra Club.

Judge Krieger ruled that the BLM plan failed to consider a more balanced alternative that would have better protected the Roan’s pristine lands. In addition, the court ruled, BLM failed to take a hard look at the air pollution that would result from drilling on the Roan. The BLM and all parties involved in the case have 60 days from the ruling date to appeal.

“The Roan Plateau is one of Colorado’s richest environmental and wildlife gems,” said Earthjustice attorney Michael Freeman. “The Court’s ruling means that the Roan will get a second look and hopefully (be) preserved.”

Joshua Ruschhaupt, Sierra Club Rocky Mountain Chapter (RMC) director, commented,“This court decision is a victory for Coloradans who care about their air, water and land.”

The Roan’s deep canyons, spectacular waterfalls, sagebrush and woodlands make it a popular destination spot for local hunters, fishers, wildlife viewers, and hikers.

Bob Millette, Conservation chair for RMC’s Roaring Fork Group, said, “The recent court ruling on the Roan illustrates how persistency by the 10 environmental groups who were plaintiffs in the Roan lawsuit has finally paid off. We are indebted to the fine work of Mike Freeman and others on the legal staff of Earthjustice who have spearheaded the lawsuit against the BLM. The ruling further illustrates how our letters, rallies, and attendance at public hearings has helped to win this battle. The Roaring Fork Group has been active in saving the Roan Plateau for at least 10 years.”

Because of Judge Krieger’s ruling, groups and individuals advocating for the Roan are granted a new opportunity to persuade BLM, now under the Obama administration, to provide for greater environmental protection─largely by confining drilling activities to the perimeter of the plateau. However, the court order only requires BLM to reconsider various aspects of the plan, and the new plan may continue to allow some or all of the contested drilling to proceed.

It is critical that advocates effectively make their case to the media, to the public, and to Interior Secretary Kenneth Salazar and the BLM. Sierra Club will continue to work with its partners in the lawsuit and will report to members on strategies to save the ecological, recreational, and economic values of the Roan from the negative impacts of fossil-fuel extraction.

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