Drilling proposed near Sand Dunes
More than just the sand is starting to heat up at Great Sands Dunes National Park.

Drilling proposed near Sand Dunes

The BLM recently opened a public comment period on a plan to lease parcels east of Great Sand Dunes National Park to drilling./Telegraph file photo.

Missy Votel - 03/29/2018

Last week, the BLM released an environmental assessment on a controversial oil and gas lease sale near the iconic park. More than 18,000 acres in Huerfano County, to the east of the park, are slated to go on the block next September. Ten of the 11 parcels are within 8 miles of the sand dunes, with a portion of the 11th within a mile of the park.

The release of the EA marks the beginning of a 15-day comment period, which ends April 6.

The sale is being opposed by environmentalists and conservationists, who maintain drilling will disrupt fragile ecosystems, harm tourism and wildlife, pollute the airshed, and put the area’s renowned dark skies and solitude at risk.

The sale is just one of many in the wake of the Trump administration’s push to hasten energy development on federal lands and ease drilling regulations. The new policy includes increasing on and offshore federal acreage for leasing and fast-tracking the permitting process.

“As part of the Administration’s priority to make America safe through energy independence, the Bureau of Land Management is seeking public comments as it considers offering ... federal oil and gas leases in eastern Colorado,” Royal Gorge Field Manager Keith Berger stated on the BLM’s website.

The parcels are located on the eastern slope of the Sangre de Cristos, the ridge of which act as the eastern boundary to the park. The park itself is located in the San Luis Valley. Although drilling would take place on the other side of the mountains from the park, opponents note drilling activity would be visible from the upper reaches of the park. They also say fumes, exhaust and noise from the drilling could drift over the park as a result of storm winds, which typically blow east to west. Furthermore, people accessing the park from the east would encounter drilling operations.

“This park is home to the tallest sand dunes in North America, spectacular dark night skies, a host of wildlife and quiet solitude hard to find anywhere else,” Kimberly Pope, a representative of the Sierra Club stated. “It's a special place for visitors and wildlife alike, not drills, development and pollution. Our public lands deserve better.”

Ordained a monument in 1932 by President Hoover, Great Sand Dunes was expanded into a national park in 2000. Visitation to the park was nearly 400,000 in 2016. Due to its distance from major light-pollution sources, an initiative is under way to designate the park as an International Dark-Sky site.

In formal scoping comments, the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association mentioned the threat to the park’s dark skies as well as air quality. The Park Service’s Air Resources Division already ranks concern over ozone pollution at the park as “high.”

In addition, the conservation group noted that Park Service monitoring has found that the park has one of the lowest levels of measurable ambient noise in the park system. This factor was partly the basis for a 2009 denial of oil and gas drilling in the Baca Wildlife Preserve, to the west of the park.

In addition, the NPCA requested that before moving forward, the BLM study how drilling, including seismic activity, could affect dune formation.

Great Sand Dunes is not the first national park to face drilling precariously close to its doors. In 2017, the BLM proposed parcels for lease within a mile of Zion National Park. However, backlash from residents, the Park Service and Utah leaders, including Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, led the BLM to withdraw the parcels a few months later.

To review a copy of the EA or comment by April 6, go to https://go.usa.gov/xQxKG. Comments can also be mailed to the Royal Gorge Field Office, Attn: September 2018 Lease Sale, 3028 E. Main St., Can?on City, CO 81212.