MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
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And I'm Michele Norris.
High natural gas prices have energy companies looking for new places to drill. The Rocky Mountains contain huge reservoirs of gas. They also have some of the last untouched lands in the country. Environmental and recreation groups warn that unless some places are kept off-limits to drilling rigs, those untouched lands will be lost.
NPR's Jeff Brady has a story of one drilling decision that's about to be made in Colorado.
JEFF BRADY reporting:
The Roan Plateau rises 3,000 feet above the Colorado River, just a few hours west of Denver. If you want to see what it looks like on top, there's the easy route around back, or the more difficult, four-wheel drive route that weaves along the face of the tan cliffs.
(Soundbite of truck rolling over rocks)
BRADY: We're taking the rough route. Clare Bastable with the Colorado Mountain Club is behind the wheel.
Ms. CLARE BASTABLE (Colorado Mountain Club): In my 30 times or so driving up this way, I think I've gotten six or seven flat tires and I'm really crossing my fingers that we don't get one today on our way up to the top.
BRADY: Bastable's luck holds out, and when we get to our destination, it's amazing. The wildflowers are blooming, butterflies are everywhere. There are lots of roads up here, but the Bureau of Land Management says some of the areas still have wilderness characteristics. And that's what makes this place special to people like Bastable. Amidst the regional drilling frenzy is this one place that's still something like it was before Europeans arrived. But she worries that if drilling is allowed on top of the plateau, this oasis will be lost.
Ms. BASTABLE: A lot's changing right now all over states like Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana because we're seeing an incredible push for extraction of natural gas, extraction of oil shale, extraction of all of these resources for energy.
BRADY: Under the Roan Plateau, the BLM believes there are huge reservoirs of natural gas. On nearby private land, wells already have proven successful. Now, the agency appears ready to approve drilling on public land up here.
But Bastable says drilling here would change the local economy. While oil booms have come and gone, the tourism industry has remained relatively steady. Bastable asks what will happen if popular natural areas are sacrificed in favor of gas drilling?
Ms. BASTABLE: Now if you're a big game hunter and there are 2,000 laws up here, and you're from Kentucky and you've got one week to enjoy your hunting experience, are you going to want to come up here? It's an important question to ask. What is going to happen to the traditional economy of western Colorado?
BRADY: Over at the local BLM office, Jamie Connell says such questions are being considered.
Ms. JAMIE CONNELL (Bureau of Land Management): I think it's important to know that it's a complicated area, and the decisions that we're making aren't simple. And that we're really trying to work to balance the demands of the people of the United States.
BRADY: While Americans demand places to recreate, they also demand natural gas. Connell says the agency has come up with a plan that she thinks will address both needs.
Drilling on top will be limited, and it will take place in phases, to lessen effects on plants and wildlife.
Petroleum companies interested in drilling in the area are supporting the BLM plan. Susan Alviar(ph) is with the Williams Companies, which already has wells on nearby private land.
Ms. SUSAN ALVIAR (The Williams Companies): We had some that were drilled in the late 1980s, and they're producing gas as we speak. And I think people would be hard pressed - if they flew over - to pick those wells out of the landscape.
BRADY: But there are only seven wells right now. Under the BLM plan, there could be several hundred, though they would be consolidated into a relatively small area. Alviar says her company has worked to lessen the effects of wells. Still, each requires pipes sticking out of the ground, and new access roads would have to be built.
Last fall, a drilling rig on private property atop the plateau could be seen by folks in nearby towns. It created a bit of an uproar and polarized the community.
(Soundbite of car running)
BRADY: In downtown Rifle, Colorado, Tammy Spendin(ph) is opposed to drilling on top of the Roan Plateau.
Ms. TAMMY SPENDIN: I'm an avid outdoorsman, so I love going up and four-wheeling and camping and everything like that. And if they go up there and do that, then that's an area that we can't use.
BRADY: Many of Spendin's neighbors share her view, but others are making a good living in the current natural gas boom.
Dennis Firth(ph) is a welder for drilling companies. And while he likes recreating on top of the plateau, he says the U.S. needs the gas.
Mr. DENNIS FIRTH (Welder): It makes our country stronger, and it brings jobs into this part of our country. And the economy has benefited, and the tradeoff, long-term, I'm undecided. I don't know. I know I can't stop it, so I just try to make the best of it.
BRADY: The BLM released preliminary plans for the Roan Plateau in 2004. The agency received more than 70,000 comments, mostly form letters opposed to drilling on top. The bureau is expected to release its final plan in a few months.
Jeff Brady, NPR News.