Located in western Colorado, just northwest of the town of Rifle, the Roan Plateau is comprised of approximately 67,000 acres of public lands, with about 34,000 acres located on top of the plateau and the remainder below the rim. These lands vary widely from sagebrush scrubland below the rim to deep lush canyons on top, making the Roan Plateau one of the most ecologically diverse landscapes in Colorado. The Roan offers some of the state's best elk and deer hunting and supports healthy populations of native cutthroat trout.
The Roan Plateau amounts to 1.5 percent of the larger Piceance Basin, where extensive energy development is well under way. With more than 90 percent of the public lands in the Piceance available for leasing and drilling, the Roan Plateau is literally an oasis of wildlife and trout habitat in a desert of industrial development.
Despite protests from 14,000 citizens and more than a dozen conservations groups plus objections from Colorado’s elected leaders, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has moved forward with its plan to drill this sportsmen’s paradise. In August 2008, the federal agency sold leases for all of the public lands on the Roan Plateau. The lease sales were especially galling to sportsmen who four months earlier witnessed the impacts of 1.2 million gallons of industrial drilling mud spilled into the Parachute Creek watershed from an adjacent drilling operation on private land.
Whatever the resolution of the Roan Plateau controversy, at least some amount of drilling appears imminent. In August 2009, the lease holder, Bill Barrett Corp., told its investors the company had identified "up to 3,200 additional potential drilling locations" on the Roan. The question now is whether that development will be balanced with the needs of fish and wildlife.
What’s at Risk?
The lands on top of the plateau are bisected by four streams: Trapper Creek, the East Fork of Parachute Creek, Northwater Creek and the East Middle Fork. All of these streams contain important populations of rare, native Colorado River cutthroat trout, a species that occupies less than 10 percent of its historical range. The plateau is a refuge for herds of elk and mule deer that attract hunters from across the country. It is truly a safe haven in the industrial development surge that is occurring in the lands surrounding the plateau. Local communities at the base of the Roan have long depended on these public lands for their outdoor recreational opportunities, including hunting and high-quality backcountry fishing.
The BLM itself states that “the [Roan Plateau] is extremely species rich. There are only three areas of similar size in Colorado that contain such a richness of rare species. . . . Although the [plateau] is clearly of comparable biological significance; it is the only area of the four that does not enjoy protective status.”
The Sportsmen’s Solution
Hunters and anglers who have spent years working to protect the Roan Plateau have been involved in talks with the BLM and lease holders to settle a lawsuit about the proposed leases on the Roan. Any settlement will need to require that habitat necessary for wildlife and trout is adequately protected from the industrial activity that would accompany drilling.
If a settlement cannot be reached then a judge is expected to rule on the lawsuit this year and the leases could be canceled, allowing the BLM to revisit the issue with a fresh start.
Short of a settlement or favorable outcome in the lawsuit, sportsmen will be involved with the BLM and state of Colorado drilling approval process to ensure that the most sensitive areas – such as big-game winter range and cutthroat watersheds – of the Roan Plateau are protected to the greatest extent possible.
Sportsman in the Spotlight
John Trammell has spent many hours on the Roan working to restore native trout populations. John is an active member of the Grand Valley Anglers chapter of Trout Unlimited. He and other chapter members have worked during the last 17 years to restore riparian habitat and build fencing to protect portions of the streams on the Roan Plateau. They also have been instrumental in increasing public understanding of the unique values atop the plateau, with emphasis on the Roan’s rare Colorado River cutthroats. John is one of many sportsmen outraged at the potential loss of this unique place and its native fish. The prospect of widespread drilling atop the Roan is a sobering thought for John.
“It would be a serious mistake to jeopardize the irreplaceable values of native fish on the Roan by drilling in their watersheds.” – John TrammellNext: North Park Valley