Federal plan to auction mineral rights near Great Sands Dunes National Park opposed by environmentalists

Plans by a federal agency to auction off mineral rights on 18,000 acres near Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve to oil and gas drillers has placed Colorado at the center of growing controversy over President Donald Trump’s energy-production initiatives.

Environmentalists want to block the federal Bureau of Land Management’s push to lease out the mineral rights of 11 parcels near the sand dunes for energy development. They say drilling on those parcels will disrupt fragile ecosystems, harm tourism and put wildlife species at risk.

The concerns include potential damage to the Rio Grande cutthroat trout, a fish that environmentalists have unsuccessfully sought to have protected under the endangered species act. Elk herds prevalent in the area could be diminished, and air and water quality could be damaged, the conservationists contend.

“We all know that in this administration our president is focused on oil and gas independence,” said Anna Lee Vargas, director of project management and community outreach for Conejos Clean Water, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group in the San Luis Valley. “That is why we assume this is coming down the pike.

“Mineral extraction, such as oil and gas, near our Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve would be hazardous to our air quality and, in turn, hazardous to our health,” she said.


Ten of the parcels slated for auction this summer are within eight miles of the sand dunes, and a portion of the 11th parcel is within a mile of the dunes, Vagas said. Representatives of the pro-energy group Western Energy Alliance did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the proposal to auction off the mineral rights.

The move follows a push by U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to hasten energy development on federal lands and to ease drilling restrictions. The changes his agency has adopted since Trump took office include offering increased onshore and offshore federal gas acreage for leasing coupled with a speedier permitting process.

“There is now an energy dominance mandate,” said Vanessa Mazal, senior Colorado program manager for the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association. “That’s the term the Trump administration is using to remove barriers to oil and gas leasing of mineral rights on federal lands.”

At the Great Sand Dunes, visitors increased from 320,000 in 2015 to nearly 400,000 in 2016. An initiative is underway to designate the national park as part of the International Dark-Sky Association as part of a move to protect it from light pollution.

Colorado isn’t the only state in which federal plans to auction off mineral rights tied to federal lands has generated controversy. In June, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert wrote a letter to the federal Bureau of Land Management expressing opposition to plans to auction oil and gas leases near Zion National Park.

In Colorado, the federal land management agency on March 22 will release an environmental assessment of the proposal to lease the mineral rights on the 11 parcels near the dunes. Then, the public will get a 15-day comment period. The leases then could proceed to auction in July, with protesters getting a 10-day window to protest the scheduled auction.

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