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June 17, 2013

A Plateau Under Siege

From Moab, in Utah, we drove for about three hours along the Colorado River to the town of Rifle, Colorado. We came to see Colorado's Roan Plateau, which looms 3,500 feet above the town and is a beautiful, biologically diverse landscape of canyons and waterfalls that is popular with hunters, fishers, wildlife viewers, and hikers. The plateau provides critical habitat for sage grouse, and it's also where you'll find some of the purest strains of the imperiled Colorado cutthroat trout. In fact, the plateau is one of the four most biologically rich areas in Colorado -- and the only one not protected as a national park.

Unfortunately, the Roan Plateau is also the epicenter of a natural-gas fracking epidemic that threatens to spread to the top of the plateau itself. In Rifle, we met up again with EcoFlights founder Bruce Gordon so we could see the area from above. Several things were obvious during the flight.

First, the Roan Plateau is a wild and gorgeous place. Second, fracking has already begun near the bottom edge of the plateau. Third, fracking has basically gutted the valley -- we saw hundreds of fracking sites, with pipelines everywhere, gravel pits, and waste ponds. Some sites were only a couple of blocks from homes. After the flight, we heard firsthand stories from locals like Tony Cline and Rick Roles. Tony was sickened for months after fracking began near his home. If you've seen the movie Gasland, then you might remember Rick, a soft-spoken cowboy who, since fracking came to the valley, has seen his horses and livestock succumb to birth defects and miscarriages along with other horrors.

The juxtaposition of the industrial fracking in the valley and the unspoiled wilderness above it underscored the urgency of convincing the Bureau of Land Management to backtrack on its original plan to permit fracking on the plateau itself. Last year, the Sierra Club and other conservation organizations won a legal victory that forced the BLM to withdraw its original plan to allow oil and gas companies to drill thousands of wells there. The agency is now in the process of formally reevaluating those oil and gas leases.

I hope the BLM reaches the right decision, but part of me still can't believe there ever was any question over whether it made sense to take a place as special as the Roan Plateau and cover it with well pads. When President Obama talks about "all of the above," does he understand that some people hear that as a license to "destroy everything"?

Our short airplane flight uncovered one more irony. Along with the fracking craziness on the valley floor, we could see several large solar farms as well as smaller rooftop solar PV systems. The answer to why we don't need to frack everything in sight was right there below us. It reminded me of something the writer William Gibson once said: "The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed."

Clean, renewable energy is our future. It is already here. The question isn't whether energy development in this area will shift to the renewables -- it's whether we will lose the Roan Plateau before we can make that happen. The world has only one Roan Plateau. Add your voice to the outcry against destroying it.

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