A national wildlife refuge in southern Colorado may soon have oil and gas drilling rigs on it.
Environmentalists and nearby residents say the federal government paid $33 million to buy private land to establish the refuge just four years ago. The goal was to create a preserve, but it turns out that a Canadian company owns the right to drill there.
The Baca National Wildlife Refuge is at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near the small town of Crestone.
Aside from a couple dogs, it's a quiet town. That's one reason more than a dozen spiritual groups have moved here.
"Now, there are two drilling sites proposed, but what if they really find something? Then, you know, people will come in and this could start to be an oil, a gas field," said Christian Dillo, who heads the Crestone Spiritual Alliance. He also directs a local Zen Buddhist center.
Group Seeks Testing Ban
His group is asking the federal government to stop plans to drill test wells on the refuge.
This part of Colorado has largely escaped the gas boom that has awakened many sleepy towns in the Rockies, but that may be about to change. The company that owns the mineral rights under the refuge, Toronto-based Lexam Energy Exploration, believes there may be huge gas reservoirs there.
When the federal government bought the Baca Ranch, there was an unsuccessful effort to buy the mineral rights, too. Since there had not been drilling in the area, most locals assumed there wouldn't be any in the future.
Getting to the refuge requires a short walk in the snow during the winter months. Christine Canaly with the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council says no one is allowed on the refuge, yet, because there is no management plan in place.
Developing a plan involves extensive surveys of what plants and animals are there, and what needs protecting.
But the owner of the mineral rights does have a legal right to access those minerals, which lie underground, by crossing over the surface property.
Separate ownership of surface and minerals, called a split estate, exists all over the western U.S. It can leave the surface property's owner feeling helpless, as big trucks and tall drilling rigs trample fields, but Canaly says there are protections for surface owners.
"We do have rights," she says. "And we have the rights to protect our resources. And they don't need to be sacrificed at the expense of somebody else getting their resource."
Geological Testing Begins
Canaly's group filed a successful legal challenge last year, and, now, the drilling proposal must go through a more thorough environmental analysis.
Canaly hopes that eventually the federal government will find a way to bar any drilling, but refuge manager Michael Blenden says that seems unlikely because the law is clear on the rights of mineral owners.
"We're not in a position of saying yes or no. We are in a position of working with the mineral company to minimizing those surface disturbances," Blenden says.
Blenden, who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, lives in the rural community, so this is a battle with his neighbors.
"It's challenging when we have an issue like this, where ... you're faced with trying to explain subtleties of law to people that really aren't interested in subtleties because they just don't like things," Blenden says
In the meantime, drilling opponents hope money can be raised to buy the mineral rights and, then, retire them.
But that's assuming Lexam is even willing to sell. The company has already begun expensive geological testing.
Lexam officials declined a request for an interview.