Wednesday, May 5, 2010

HD Mountains latest sacrifice to oil & gas gods

After a long battle against the San Juan Basin strain of oil-and-gas cancer, the HD Mountains succumbed the affliction on Monday when a federal judge pulled the plug on the region's legal life support.

On Monday, a district judge ruled against the San Juan Citizen's Alliance in the group's attempt to overturn a 2007 decision by the U.S. Forest Service to expand drilling in the HD Mountains, including in roadless areas. The ruling may end some ten years of legal battling to protect the unique and relatively undeveloped area.

I think this is a loss beyond the legal decision. Even beyond this particular area itself.

The HD Mountains are important not because it's a big, dramatic, alluring landscape. But because it isn't. It's a Little Place. The prime cuts have been parsed -- a few gems set aside and the rest thrown to the economic dogs. Now our hungry eyes turn to the little nooks and crannies -- the sinew and cartilage of the San Juan Basin wildlands. That's what we're eating now. We're down to gnawing the bones.

In fact, I wrote a story titled just that a few years ago, about the battle to keep oil-and-gas out of the HDs, and especially its special roadless heart. In that piece, I described the area:
The HD Mountains fall away from the southwestern corner of the San Juans like a dangling foot. Low and rumpled, never rising anywhere near treeline, they stand like choppy water between the Piedra River on the east and the flat plain of Florida Mesa on the west, finally pinching out on the south on the shores of Navajo Reservoir, the sunken middle trunk of the San Juan River. 
On the north, looming over and dwarfing the HDs, rise the massive ramparts of the greater San Juan Mountains - a landscape of ragged, jagged, snow-field-patched peaks and green, stream-laced alpine valleys. Dramatic and charismatic, the San Juans are given their due by being largely protected in perpetuity under the shield of the Wilderness Preservation Act, as the Weminuche and South San Juan Wilderness Areas.
As a relatively little landscape - only about 40,000 acres - the HDs remain little-known, little-appreciated and little-visited. Few people outside of southwestern Colorado are aware of their existence, and even those who do live here mostly know them as the area of rolling hills south of the highway when driving U.S. Hwy. 160 between Bayfield and Pagosa Springs.
Little known, maybe; but they are also, remarkably, and importantly, little developed. In fact, RARE II, a government study in the late 1970s that inventoried the remaining roadless areas around the country larger than 5,000 acres, found 23,000 acres of the HDs qualifying as official Roadless Area designation. Other surveys claim as much as 40,000 acres - all but the outer foothills of the HDs - as de facto roadless area. Still, despite the RARE II findings, the Forest Service chose to not nominate the HD Mountains for protection when they had a chance under the Wilderness Act of 1980.

Even the judge, U. S. Senior District Judge Richard Matsch, noted that "this is not an opening up of a virgin wilderness." He still, though, recognized that the issue here is deeper than a mere legal one. Even though most of the 39-page decision focused on legal issues and environmental law, Mastch made a point to note in his decision, "Gas production is the antithesis of environmental protection. The national policies expressed in NEPA and in energy legislation are in direct conflict."

If we're going to fight for what's left and defend our public lands so our kids have some to share with their kids, then we need to argue on terms beyond law and legislation. We cannot win there.

What we need, I think, goes beyond law: We need new reasons -- 21st century reasons -- for public lands, for roadless areas, for the wild and semi-wild places that are left around us. Even and especially little places.

We need to find words and ways to say anew, not what we're fighting against, but what we're fighting for. And why. 

And we need to say those things for a 21st century world, for 21st century people living 21 century lives.

So ... what might be 21st century reasons to keep our public lands -- and our last lingering little pockets and connecting corridors of wildlands -- public and safe from the hungry gods of endless economic development and ruin?

Read about the HD Mountains in "Gnawing the Bone" here.

Read about Monday's decision allowing drilling in the HDs here.

Learn more abut the San Juan Citizen's Alliance here.
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