BUCK BERLAIMONT

Wilderness Workshop has long been engaged in a battle to protect critical winter wildlife habitat in the Eagle Valley from a damaging road across public lands sought by developers of the Berlaimont Estates subdivision near Edwards. The road would access a 680-acre, private inholding deep inside the forest. The developer wants to build 19 new mansions in a rural, fire-prone area, putting expensive property and people at risk due to increased fire activity from climate change.

Our work has informed and activated the public and elected officials. More than 4,000 citizens signed a petition in opposition to the road. During the public comment period for the draft environmental  impact statement, 95% of comments—submitted by more than 700 citizens—opposed the project. Letters of concern and opposition were also filed by Governor Polis, elected officials at the state and national levels, and the Eagle County Commissioners.

So much opposition helped the U.S. Forest Service see how damaging the developer’s proposal would be to wildlife and our public lands. The agency recently released a decision that avoids some critical habitat and doesn’t follow the developer’s requested alignment. We’re still in the fight for a better outcome, though.

Even the less damaging alternative still stretches across several miles of national forest in the heart of some of Eagle County’s best remaining winter range. It would destroy and degrade habitat for iconic herds of deer and elk, which are already in dramatic decline because of habitat fragmentation. It would also threaten Greenback cutthroat trout, and habitat for greater sage-grouse, lynx, Brewer’s sparrow and Harrington penstemon.

We’ve made progress in our fight to protect this important habitat, but we haven’t yet won. Formal objections have been filed, including ours and more than 30 more. These objections asked the Forest Service to deny the road or start the process anew. It is possible the agency will do that. The agency’s analysis was deeply flawed. Even if the agency presses forward, though, we’ll continue working to protect this habitat before Eagle County and, possibly, in federal court. Our goal is to stop this damaging and unreasonable project before the bulldozers pave this critical winter range.

DAM DRILLING OPPOSED BY HUNDREDS

This summer more than 500 comments were submitted to the Forest Service on a geophysical feasibility study of the proposed Whitney Reservoir. Nearly all opposed the project on lower Homestake Creek, between Minturn and Leadville.

The cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs are proposing to drill 1 150-foot boreholes and conduct a seismic survey as preparation for building a dam in the spectacular Homestake Valley. The Front Range cities own water rights in the Homestake Creek drainage and they’re working to develop and divert 20,000-acre-feet of water per year from the Western Slope.

With the help of your comments, we asked the Forest Service to conduct a detailed environmental analysis and told them that a drilling rig—and, eventually, a dam—does not belong in the wetlands, fens, fragile headwater streams, wilderness, or Roadless Areas of the spectacular Homestake Valley.

The Whitney Reservoir is an alternative to the Homestake II project, which, as many of you remember, proposed a dam in the Holy Cross Wilderness and was successfully defeated by massive community outcry and legal action in the 1990s. This alternative is no better than Homestake II. To build the dam, Aurora and Colorado Springs officials propose eliminating as many as 497 acres from the Holy Cross Wilderness.

We’re now awaiting a decision from the Forest Service on whether they’ll approve the test wells. If they do, it’ll likely signify the beginning of a new water war between the Front Range and Western Slope and reinvigorate efforts to ensure the permanent protection of the Holy Cross Wilderness that date back many decades.

A VICTORY IN THE THOMPSON DIVIDE

For years you’ve heard us talk about our efforts to save the East Willow Roadless Area in the Thompson Divide from new drilling. Back in the 2000s, we identified thousands of acres of oil and gas leases in this area that should have expired because the company that owned the leases failed to comply with lease terms. Leaseholders have 10 years to drill federal oil and gas leases. If that time passes and they haven’t found oil and gas that they can produce and sell, the leases are supposed to expire. Holding leases without an intent to develop them is considered speculation, and it isn’t allowed by law.

We began pushing the Bureau of Land Management to confirm that leases in the East Willow area properly expired in the 2000s. After a few years, the BLM actually admitted that the leases had expired. That initiated a challenge from the leaseholder and nearly a decade of legal wrangling as the case was heard by administrative courts and, more recently, a Federal District Court in Denver. At every stage, WildernessWorkshop and our partners intervened to support expiration of the leases. And at every stage we won!

The most recent decision was handed down by a Federal District Court judge in August, and it confirmed that thousands of acres of leases properly expired a decade ago. The decision denied every argument from the leaseholder, and gave us one more victory in our longstanding campaign to protect the Thompson Divide. There’s a chance the operator will appeal to the appellate court. If that happens, we stand ready to intervene again on behalf of our members and the Thompson Divide.

While this is great news, we’re still working to proactively protect the rest of the Thompson Divide with a permanent ban on future oil and gas leasing through the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act. You can help by encouraging our senators to support the CORE Act. (It’s already passed the House.)

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