A six-week delay failed to build suspense for those awaiting a federal document gauging the risks of gas drilling on the Baca National Wildlife Refuge.
Ceal Smith, coordinator for Citizens for San Luis Valley Water Protection Coalition, doesn't seem surprised as she calls the environmental assessment "disappointing."
Christine Canaly, director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, says the document seems to contain "no surprises."
Talking in a matter-of-fact tone on Jan. 18, only hours after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service linked to the 133-page environmental assessment from its Baca refuge Web page, Canaly seems to view the document as only a blip in a protracted battle.
"We plan on challenging it," she says.
The proposal to drill for natural gas on the recently purchased Baca refuge, located fewer than 100 miles southwest of Colorado Springs, triggered scattered yelps as word of it spread last year. Months later, Canadian energy company Lexam Explorations is still leaning on its property rights to drill on the refuge.
So, in parallel with a third environmental association, the San Luis Valley Citizens Alliance, Smith and Canaly are leading efforts to slow, stall or even suspend plans to drill in the heart of the mountain-rimmed valley.
Here's the current state of the playing field: The environmental assessment released Jan. 18, after a six-week delay, recommends Lexam go ahead with the drilling of two test wells, with various safeguards. Results there would help determine whether there's enough gas below to justify hundreds or thousands more wells.
But it also offers the public a chance to comment on its contents until March 2. No drilling can happen before the public-comment period ends and the document is finalized, which means Lexam will likely need to wait to drill until at least August, with access blocked May through July.
Canaly hopes the delays go further.
An environmental assessment is a minimal requirement under NEPA, and can be written by a team of consultants in just months. But an environmental impact statement, also permitted under NEPA, could take years. Canaly thinks an EIS is needed.
The government bought the refuge in 2004 for about $31 million, but the Fish and Wildlife Service has not yet completed a management plan or inventoried its plants and animals.
"We have no way of knowing what is being destroyed because we don't even know what's on there yet," Canaly says.
Runoff from mountains to the north, east and west converges at the refuge, filling wetlands used by migratory birds and recharging aquifers used throughout the valley. Canaly and other residents have long fought to protect that water, blocking attempts to pipe it away for Front Range uses.
The wetlands, aquifers and the history of people nearby give the area an uncommon richness both biologically and culturally, Smith says.
The Fish and Wildlife Service received 48,500 letters from people across the country as it tried to set the scope of the environmental assessment; most were from people opposing the drilling. Two archeologists with the Smithsonian Institution wrote about their work in the area, suggesting discoveries of projectile points and other artifacts could be the "tip of a very large iceberg" threatened by drilling activities.
The draft environmental assessment for proposed gas drilling on the Baca National Wildlife Refuge can be viewed by clicking on the link at fws.gov/alamosa/BacaNWR.html.
Public comments, due by March 2, can be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org or mailed to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, ATTN: Michael Blenden, 9383 El Rancho Lane, Alamosa, CO 81101.
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