Deal to protect San Luis Valley from drilling edges closer

Wild sunflowers bloom at the base of a dune in Great Sand Dunes National Park. PHOTO BY BOB BERWYN.

Energy company willing to sell underground mineral rights for $9.7 million

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — Stakeholders in the San Luis Valley have taken a giant step toward protecting Great Sand Dunes National Park from mining, energy development and water exports.  Lexam Explorations has agreed to sell its mineral rights if a $9.7 million deal can be finalized by May.

Great Sand Dunes National Park was created by Congress in 2000. More than 150,000 acres are protected, including Colorado’s largest federal wildlife area, the Baca National Wildlife Refuge.

The protected area includes forested alpine peaks, mountain streams, unique sand dune formations at the base of the Sangre de Cristos and a huge complex wetlands vital to migratory birds. But the mineral rights under the surface were not included, and have long been eyed by a variety of developers dating back to the 1980s.

American Water Development sought to pump and export 200,000 acre feet of water annually from San Luis Valley aquifers. The classic Colorado water battle lasted more than a decade before it was ended by the deal that created the new national park.

But the wrangling over natural resources didn’t stop. In 2006, Lexam Explorations said it would explore the area for oil and gas and announced plans to drill two 14,000 ft. wildcat wells.

Conservation activists in the San Luis Valley, organized as the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, challenged the plan and took federal land managers to court. The group said the federal government couldn’t issue permits for mineral exploration without first doing an in-depth environmental study.

In Sept. 2009, a U.S. District Court judge indicated that conservation groups would probably prevail in the lawsuit. The legal showdown led to the interim agreement announced Jan. 20. The deal stalls any plans for drilling and gives stakeholders a chance to come up a permanent long-term protection plan for the San Luis Valley. That would include finding the money to buy the mineral rights by May.

“The interim agreement allows the grassroots groups to openly engage the public and public officials in an effort to identify and secure the necessary funding to accomplish this long-desired outcome,” said Travis Stills, Attorney for the Energy Minerals Law Center. “In the coming days and weeks, we are hopeful that with the assistance of our conservation partners and elected officials, this opportunity will be converted into the long-term protection of the San Luis Valley.”

“This is a historic opportunity to protect a naturally diverse and pristine area at the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountains for future generations,” said Christine Canaly, director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council.

“This is an important opportunity in that the purchase of these mineral rights is now being pursued on a willing seller basis,” said Matthew Crowley, co-chair of the San Luis Valley – Watershed Protection Coalition. “After 2 decades of work from local grass roots to a literal act of Congress, we now have the chance to complete this work. Our goal is that the public/private partnership can move swiftly to meet the challenge of purchasing these rights on behalf of the American public and having them retired in perpetuity.”

For more information on the lands, groups and companies involved with this issue, please use the links within the story.

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