Enjoying (and worrying about) the great outdoors

Sometimes it’s good to get away.

I did just that this past week. Last Thursday found me running down to the ranch south of Gunnison to help install some Pennsylvania hunters in one of the old cabins for the early elk season. A day later, I was wandering through the mix of backcountry and industrial installations up Piceance Creek northwest of Rifle.

A few weeks ago, there was an extended central-Utah camping trip to fulfill Bonnie’s long-held desire to attend Everett Reuss Days in Escalante.

That trip also allowed us to make good on the promise we’ve made every time we looked up at Hole in the Rock from the waters of Lake Powell and pledged to someday be looking down from the top, where Mormon pioneers lowered their wagons down into the deep canyon through this spot while settling southern Utah.

(The only thing that might have made that trip better would have been remembering to take along the poles that hold up our truck-bed tent.  But who’s to complain about sleeping out in the open under a clear sky and the brightest moon I’ve seen in, well, many a moon?)

The next weekend we remembered those poles and spent a comfortable night on the banks of the Dolores River near Gateway, with the Friends of the Northern Dolores and the Western Colorado Astronomy Club. Their telescopes brought the stars quite a bit closer and the high desert hike into the backcountry the next day made me glad to have left the post-midnight viewing to the more hardcore members of our group.

A third long weekend we were headed the other direction. First stop was Crested Butte, where we tucked things away in preparation for the coming winter. For some reason, I seldom sleep better than when in my grandparents brass bed in that historic two-story house originally built by the town’s founders.

Then it was on to the ranch for a couple of days of wildlife viewing and cleaning up what the younger generation calls “Mouse Manor” in preparation for the arrival of those aforementioned hunters making a 3,500 mile cross-country round trip to spend a few days in the high country we take for granted.

That’s why it was a bit sobering to be standing in the parking lot of the old Rock School up the Piceance Creek Road shortly before noon last Friday, listening to a handful of former wildlife professionals with around 150 years of combined experience talk about what happens when you superimpose heavy industrial activity across what’s been known as Colorado’s “deer factory.”

It wasn’t hard, during our day in the field, to see why production from that “factory” is slipping.

To be fair, weather and other natural factors are also at play in the Piceance. But it’s also hard to ignore the impacts of natural gas exploration and production, extraction activities for soda and other products and, potentially, renewed oil shale development.

Most of that activity remains unseen until you get off road. Rio Blanco County, with about 6,000 residents, will soon begin spending more than $2 million per mile, a few miles at a time, to bring what’s formally known as County Road 5 up to standards that will safely support traffic that is now much heavier and exponentially more frequent than the ranching and hunting activity it was originally designed to carry.

What happens when you plop down a man camp capable of housing hundreds of workers into the back country within sight of sage grouse leks critical to the preservation of a species considered for listing as endangered?

Despite occasional pretty pictures of deer and elk grazing on or near drilling pads, what’s the long-term impact on wildlife reproduction, migration and winter range use of compressors and generators running 24/7/365?

What good does it do to plant an “approved seed mix” that might grow great grasses, when it’s sagebrush that’s necessary to sustain deer through the winter?

And what potentially happens, even with the phased program that added three research-and-development oil shale leases to the mix last week, should another crisis throw all caution to the winds and rush commercial development without appropriate safeguards for communities, the environment and traditional local economies?

Perhaps we shouldn’t take our “great outdoors” for granted.

Former Mesa County commissioner and Grand Junction City Council member Jim Spehar makes part of his living consulting on energy development issues. E-mail him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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