This blog is part of an ongoing series produced by the State of the Rockies Project, which is reporting on large landscape conservation efforts in the Rocky Mountain region.
"I'm no granola crunching hippie," Randy Melton says, pausing for a moment while shoeing a feisty mare. "But this is beautiful country and I don't want to see the gas industry gut it because it would be the end of a way of life out here." After spending the several hours with Melton, who operates Avalanche Outfitters in Redstone, Colorado, he's convinced us on each of these points. His impressive mustache and stories of military service in Iraq don't give us any cause to argue with him on the hippie statement. The afternoon light on the red cliffs and a brilliant stand of aspens just leafing out for the summer confirm the beauty of the place. And watching Melton lasso a running mule from across the horse corral seems to prove he's doing his part to keep a disappearing way of life alive.
Melton is worried about proposed natural gas drilling in the Thompson Divide, which borders his property. He estimates that half of his business is done on leased national forest lands where he takes guests on rides through the summer and leads hunting trips in the fall. "I've been all over the world with the military, ranching and cowboying, and this is the most beautiful place I've seen," he says with open pride, though he lets his voice drop as he adds, "I just hope they don't put a sewer in the middle of it."
In the last decade, the booming (and busting) gas industry in western Colorado gave Melton a first hand view of the effects of drilling on public lands and adjacent communities. Before serving in the military, he lived near the town of Parachute which is at the heart of one of the most heavily developed gas reserves in the state and home to a recent benzene spill which has been making headlines for several months. "When I left for Iraq, all the oil and gas business was just starting," he remembers. "When I got back, I went over to Parachute and Rifle to look for a place to live, but I took one look around and said, 'No way.' Rifle went from being a pretty cool old town to a slum overnight. There are still a lot of good people there, but there's a lot of other people too that seem like vultures hanging around a carcass."
Randy Melton, Avalanche Outfitters
Speaking as a hunting outfitter, he laments the loss of elk habitat near Rifle. "Garfield County used to be one of the elk hunting capitals of the world. Now all the big herds are gone. If they drill in the Thompson Divide, the elk would move out and the economy would hurt big time."
Throughout the Crystal River Valley along the eastern edge of the Thompson Divide, we interviewed ranchers about the drilling debate and heard many voice concerns about the effects gas development would have on the local quality of life. Bill Fales is celebrating his 41st year running Cold Mountain Ranch along Thompson Creek, which has been producing food for the community for the last 130 years. "I like running cows," he says. "They're a fun tool for trying to figure out how to manage land as well as produce beef. I think we do a pretty good job and are actually improving the land we graze on." Even though Fales is convinced that natural gas in a necessary resource, he isn't convinced all reserves should be developed.
"There are some areas that have other attributes that are more valuable than taking the gas out. If we just go hell bent for leather and drill every possible acre we can drill, I think we're doing a real disservice for future generations. I don't try to graze my cows absolutely everywhere, and I think it's ridiculous to say we should drill absolutely everywhere."
Bill Fales before Mt. Sopris, Cold Mountain Ranch.
He dismisses the common pro-gas argument about energy independence, explaining that the gas from the Thompson Divide would be headed overseas anyway. "There is a glut of natural gas in the US, and I see no reason to destroy really spectacular spots in this country to ship gas to China."
Although Fales cites wildlife, recreation, hunting, and hiking as some of the values of an undeveloped Thompson Divide, he is naturally concerned about the effects it would have on agriculture as well. "It's terrifying for us. We depend on a good source of water and clean water to keep our cows and crops healthy. We sell to a premium beef market and if there's even a perception that our water is tainted, we'll lose our market. Every paper you pick up shows accidents happen."
Fales speaks from experience on this point. He reports that a gas pipeline which was put through the Thompson Divide in the 1960s, "is probably the worst section of weeds we have in the forest," and he tells us about an incident when ten of his cows drank contaminated water from a faulty part of the pipeline. "They licked up the little puddle of the water and dropped dead on the spot. They died right there by the pipeline." When the energy company denied liability, Fales brought in a vet for the autopsy. "His method was pretty simple. He cut them open and held a cigarette lighter to them. They would sustain a flame. The carcasses would just burn. But that's not a natural deal," he concludes, chuckling sadly. "Our beef does not burn."
Judy Fox-Perry lives on Water Gap Ranch, which also relies on irrigation water originating in the Thompson Divide. After speaking extensively on the local ecology and explaining the importance of the area as a wildlife migration corridor, she runs through the various threats that road building would bring to the health of the landscape, including new avenues for invasive species as well as diminishing water quantity and quality. "I don't think we can trust the industry," she says, despite their constant reassurances that fracking can be done safely.
"During my lifetime we've heard these claims before. Growing up, we thought the oceans were too big to pollute, but now we have plastic islands in the oceans. We thought the air was too vast to pollute, but now we have global warming and in Colorado we're breathing dust all the way from China. We heard that smoking wasn't hazardous to our health, but now we know the industry was wrong on that. I think fracking falls in the same category. We can't see it, it's a huge earth underneath us, but I think it's going to catch up with us. We're creating fissures in the rock and creating pathways for fluids to travel. And you can't clean up an aquifer once it's contaminated."
For more information on proposed drilling in the Thompson Divide or the State of the Rockies Project, please visit www.RockiesExpeditions.org.
All photos copyright David Spiegel.