Group sues to stop drilling in refuge

Group sues to stop drilling in refuge

A conservation group is suing to stop energy exploration in a national wildlife refuge next to the Great Sand Dunes National Park in south-central Colorado.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court by the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council claims that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated federal law by failing to conduct an environmental review of plans to drill oil and gas wells in the Baca National Wildlife Refuge.

The Alamosa-based group is seeking an injunction voiding authorization of the two test wells by Lexam Energy Exploration and forcing the Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct an environmental analysis.

Lexam, based in Toronto, Canada, and the Fish and Wildlife Service didn’t return messages left after business hours Tuesday.

The Fish and Wildlife Service was wrong when it said because it can’t prevent Lexam from exercising its rights, an environmental analysis isn’t necessary, according to the lawsuit. Exploration by Lexam has already “impacted hundreds of acres,” and left visible scars, the conservation group said.

According to the filing, the group said it wants to ensure the public is fully informed of Lexam’s drilling plans and that alternatives and measures to reduce the impacts are explored before drilling starts.

Baca National Wildlife Refuge was created in 2004 with the acquisition of the 97,000-acre Baca Ranch. Some 31,000 acres of that ranch became part of the Great Sand Dunes National Park, previously a national monument, and the rest became the wildlife refuge.

The national park, about 160 miles southwest of Denver, includes 750-foot dunes, North America’s tallest.

The refuge is public land, but Lexam Exploration owns or leases rights to the minerals under the national wildlife refuge. The law gives a mineral owner or lessee the right to reasonable use of the surface to extract minerals.

The area’s landscape changes from 8,200-foot-high grasslands, to the dunes, to 13,000-plus-foot mountains and alpine lakes — all within four miles. The dunes hug the bottom of the snowy Sangre de Cristo Mountains that tower over the San Luis Valley.

The area is home to seven species — six insects and a mouse — not found anywhere else in the world. The wildlife includes deer, elk, foxes, coyotes, mountain lions and bighorn sheep.

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