Guest Opinion: Mountains buffer park from oil and gas development

Why is air traffic increasingly congested over the Great Sand Dunes National Park? Environmentalists are chartering flights to take reporters over the area as an anti-fossil fuel campaign comes to San Luis Valley. At issue is proposed oil and natural gas leasing east of the park on public lands managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management.

None of the resources are within the national park or nearby wilderness area. In fact, hiking from the park’s eastern boundary, you would have to cross several miles, climb over the 14,000-foot peaks of the Sangre De Cristo Mountains and descend onto the plain below to reach the area. Yet keep-it-in-the-ground groups from San Francisco and Washington, D.C., with no understanding of the region are spreading misinformation about oil and natural gas production and public lands.

Groups like the Sierra Club and WildEarth Guardians are looking at the sand dunes as the next stop in a much larger campaign against fossil fuels. In Colorado, they have unsuccessfully attempted to shut down production along the Front Range and the Western Slope by advocating for bans and moratoriums -- which were overturned by the Colorado Supreme Court -- and proposed several ballot measures. They see the sand dunes and Huerfano County as a new community full of political opportunity.

Across the West, activists are using the public’s sentiments around national parks and monuments to campaign against responsible oil and natural gas development. They falsely claim companies are threatening Chaco Canyon, Carlsbad Caverns, Canyonlands, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. The truth is, the federal government owns valuable energy resources that lie several miles outside of these protected areas and under lands Congress designated for productive uses.

In the minds of conservation groups, however, a national park’s boundaries don’t stop at the gate, but continue beyond the horizon.

Recently, the Huerfano County Commission voted to recommend BLM delay the upcoming lease sale.

The commissioners called for several years of environmental analysis even though oil and natural gas production is a well-established process that would bring economic benefits to Huerfano County. Without seeking a better understanding of the oil and natural gas industry, the commissioners regrettably missed key facts. For instance, they overlooked BLM’s multiple regulations and restrictions that ensure the land and environment are protected. Had the commissioners reached out to industry representatives, they could have gained a deeper understanding.

They also took a stricter position than the Environmental Protection Agency. Following an environmental assessment of the area, the regional administrator said EPA’s recommendations in a letter to BLM could be resolved quickly and should not hold up the lease sale.

Fortunately, other local leaders recognize the potential benefits of oil and natural gas development in the valley. State Sen. Larry Crowder supports BLM’s plan, saying: “Fracking is extremely safe, the technology has proven safe and the economic development for that region would be tremendous.”

As it turns out, the sand dunes could benefit from oil and natural gas leasing on BLM land. Momentum is building in Congress to use revenues from energy development on public lands to reduce the National Park Service’s $11.6 billion maintenance backlog. The National Parks Restoration Act has bipartisan support, a rarity in Washington, D.C. The bill has the support of Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner and New Mexico Democrat Sen. Martin Heinrich. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is promoting the bill as part of President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget proposal.

The sand dunes currently has $10.4 million in outstanding maintenance. Under the bill, revenues from oil and natural gas leases could help address financial needs that include $4 million for roads, $1.2 million for building upkeep, $3 million for campgrounds trails and water/wastewater systems.

The sand dunes, like other national parks, is a treasure set aside for people to enjoy for generations. The oil and natural gas industry has no desire to operate within nor disturb the park. We know the only thing that beats climbing the hot, sandy peaks on a visit with family is cooling your feet in Medano Creek. In contrast, the ones disturbing the park at present are out-of-state activists flying around reporters.

Aaron Johnson is the vice president of public affairs at Western Energy Alliance, a nonprofit trade association that represents more than 300 companies engaged in all aspects of environmentally responsible exploration and production of oil and natural gas in the West. See


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