BRIGGSDALE, Colo. — To understand why birders from across the world rave about the Pawnee National Grasslands, you have to get off Colorado Highway 14 and set off through the prairie on foot.
Colorado is known for its mountains, but its state bird, the lark bunting, is a denizen of the plains and a species common on the Pawnee National Grasslands that you’ll see up close only if you get out of your car.
“Just look at this cottonwood bottom,” conservationist Jeremy Nichols said, walking along a grassy trail at the Crow Valley Recreation Area replete with birdsong and quaking plains cottonwoods. “You don’t see this unless you get off the highway.”
Nichols is the climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians, one of the few environmental groups to turn attention to the protection of the Pawnee National Grasslands after the U.S. Forest Service announced in April that it is conducting an environmental impact study of oil and gas development in the national grasslands between Fort Collins and Sterling.
“The mountains often overshadow the plains, literally and figuratively, but we think that if people understood what’s at stake here, and saw the importance of the Pawnee, that they would understand why this should be a priority,” Nichols said.
What’s at stake is a jumble of parcels of publicly owned prairie totaling about 192,000 acres scattered among large tracts of private and state land fully open for oil and gas development. The public grasslands include the Pawnee Buttes and expansive pronghorn and bird habitat known throughout the region as some of the best in the West.
But the national grasslands sit atop one of the largest shale oil and gas plays in the region, and energy companies are looking to the public grasslands for new drilling sites.
“I was shocked how much development was going on at the time,” said Fort Collins resident John Trone, who visited the Pawnee Buttes last week with his sons. “Soon as I hit dirt roads, it’s like I hit an industrial park.”
When the Forest Service last updated its management plan for the grasslands in 1997, it estimated that 25 oil and gas wells would be drilled through 2012, with only 10 of them actually producing oil and gas.
Today, there are 1,884 state-approved oil and gas wells on public and private land existing within all of the township and range survey sections that include parcels of national grasslands, according to a Coloradoan analysis of Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission data. Some of those wells are permitted but haven’t been drilled yet. Others were drilled, fracked and are producing oil and gas. Many more were drilled, came up dry and were abandoned.
Of the wells in the area, 214 are producing oil and gas and 71 are listed as being drilled, COGCC data show. About 63 of the wells within the national grasslands boundary are on public land, 18 of which have been drilled since the management plan was last updated in 1997, according to the Forest Service.
Some of the wells are near the Pawnee Buttes, northeast Colorado’s most iconic landmarks. Divided between public and private ownership, the buttes are open for development on private land, but off-limits to drillers on public land.
The Forest Service had no say in whether the buttes themselves could be drilled for oil in 2012 after a Texas company proposed to drill directly beneath them from a site on private land less than a mile away.
The company, Carrizo Oil and Gas, later reconsidered the plan and moved the drilling site farther from the buttes.
The Forest Service’s environmental study, a draft of which is delayed and due to be published sometime this winter, will update the Pawnee’s 15-year-old grasslands management plan to account for all the new interest in drilling on the public grasslands. It will determine how much more oil and gas development will be allowed on the grasslands and add certain restrictions on drilling that will minimize its effect on the prairie.
The original proposal, or “scoping,” for the environmental study generated between 2,300 and 2,800 public comments before the study even began, Forest Service spokeswoman Reghan Cloudman said.
The oil and gas industry is asking the Forest Service to keep as much of the Pawnee National Grasslands as possible open for drilling and fracking.
The Forest Service should prepare for the “fullest development of natural gas and oil resources” in the national grasslands, wrote Andrew Casper of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, or COGA; Spencer Kimball of the Western Energy Alliance; and Claire Moseley of the industry group Public Lands Advocacy in a May letter to the Forest Service.
“Oil and gas development and production activities provide many positive socioeconomic impacts to the area, which are expected to increase in coming years,” the groups said.
But environmentalists are urging the Forest Service to keep drilling rigs off the national grasslands.
WildEarth Guardians will ask the Forest Service to withdraw public land within the national grasslands boundary from future federal oil and gas leasing and ban fracking there.
“Industry has enough of this grassland, and we feel that it’s time for the Forest Service to start prioritizing protection of this unique landscape from the demands of drillers,” Nichols said.
Public land on the mostly privately-owned Great Plains is rare, and it’s reasonable for the federal government to protect nearly 200,000 acres of it in a county where more than 20,000 oil and gas wells have been drilled, he said.
In Colorado, the mountains and the desert often attract the most attention from tourists, conservationists and people eager to spend their free time outdoors.
But advocates for the grasslands say state and federal governments are too eager to develop an area often seen as unimportant for anything but mineral extraction and grazing.
“The shortgrass prairie is one of the most overlooked ecosystems in the world,” said Judy Enderle, director of the Prairie Preservation Alliance. “It’s regrettable, and I don’t know that once it’s gone that a lot of people will realize or even care.”
Environmental groups, often eager to focus on protecting high-profile areas of Colorado’s mountains, have overlooked the grasslands, too, Nichols said.
“The Pawnee does not have enough advocates,” he said. “WildEarth Guardians is weighing in on this (Forest Service environmental study) process. We’re doing what we can right now to spread the word about it, to get other groups engaged, to tell the story of the Pawnee so people can understand what’s going on here and how to make a difference.”
Ed Butterfield, the former director of the Audubon Society’s Grasslands Institute in the 1970s and ’80s, and a former Denver science teacher, is one of the people who have been telling the story of the Pawnee grasslands and calling for their preservation for decades.
“What is Colorado known for?” Butterfield said. “Mountains. In reality, the mountains are an island in a sea of grass.”
The Pawnee National Grasslands offer visitors the chance to watch a plethora of birds and other animals in the solitude of the Great Plains, he said.
“Where do you go to see the Colorado state bird?” he said. “Where do you go to see chestnut-collared longspurs and plover? You go to the Pawnee.”
But the industry insists that won’t be lost when the grasslands are drilled and fracked to the fullest extent.
“The U.S. Forest Service should consider that the impacts of development are indeed temporary when developing vital energy resources, and should balance that fact with the erroneous public perception that once the land is developed, it is ‘lost’ forever,” Kimball, Casper and Moseley told the Forest Service.
Once the life of an oil and gas well has ended, it is plugged and abandoned, and any disturbance to the land is hardly noticeable, they said.