OUT: Preparing hunters for change
Seen from the air, the scar of the Bull Mountain pipeline corridor snakes across open meadows, dark spruce forests and immense stands of green and gold aspen.
“The pipeline cuts through what’s thought to be the largest single contiguous stand of aspen in the world,” said Sloan Shoemaker, peering intently from the right-hand seat of the Cessna 210. “This one stand of aspen stretches from Grand Mesa and Battlement Mesa all the way to the Flat Tops and south to Crested Butte. It’s huge.”
The plane, with conservation pilot Bruce Gordon of EcoFlight at the controls, wheeled and turned, following the route of the controversial 25.5-mile pipeline. The scene below was quiet, since work on the pipeline has slowed after a cease-and-desist order was issued last week by the Forest Service.
A walkout by three of the required four environmental inspectors spurred the stoppage.
No one at Wagon Wheel Consulting in Rifle, which initially hired the three absent inspectors, was willing to talk about why the inspectors left the job.
However, the fact there weren’t four on site was enough to shut down the project.
“I heard rumors but no wanted to tell me,” said Tom Matza, authorizing officer with the White River National Forest in Rifle. “All I cared about was there weren’t as many inspectors out there as there should be.”
He said some work will continue this fall as soon as new inspectors are hired.
About 3,000 feet of pipe will be buried and vegetation and site rehabilitation will continue until the weather forces work to quit.
“What stopped is any additional clearing of right-of-way on public lands,” Matza said.
Shoemaker, executive director of the Aspen Wilderness Workshop, said the pipeline, which cuts through three Forest Service roadless areas, is an unwanted break in the “habitat link” from Grand Mesa to the main stem of the Rockies.
The pipeline bisects what Shoemaker calls the Clear Fork Divide, including thousands of acres of old-growth forests.
“It’s the last chunk of undeveloped landscape” between Grand Mesa and the Roaring Fork Valley,
Shoemaker said, harboring elk, deer, moose and possibly, Canada lynx.
That landscape is popular with hunters, and with the regular big-game season beginning Oct. 11, hunters in the area east of Vega Reservoir will find some perplexing changes.
The Bull Mountain pipeline will affect hunters headed for game management unit 43 on the White River National Forest. At least one commercial hunting outfitter is directly effected by the pipeline, which passes within 100 yards of the outfitter’s base camp. Additionally, work on the Hightower Mountain energy project in GMUs 42 and 421 will bring heavy equipment for an expected 32 wells on five drill sites, road construction and site development.
It won’t be pretty, nor will it be quiet.
“I hunted up there during the archery season and sometimes the equipment was so loud all you could hear was diesel engines and the beeping of backup warnings,” said archery hunter Brandon Siegfried.
He quickly switched hunting locales.
“We’ve been talking to hunters about the project since 2006,” said Liz Mauch of the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest. “It will be surprising to hunters who haven’t hunted that area for a year or two.”
The Forest Service has posted information signs in the area, Mauch said, in an effort to caution hunters and other recreationists about the development.
“There are no outfitters with base camps in the Hightower area but it is popular with hunters,” Mauch said.
Construction on roads and well pads should be starting “very soon,” Mauch said.
Three of the five well sites will be built this year with the rest slated for next spring when weather and road conditions allow.
Division of Wildlife spokesman Randy Hampton said hunters in the Hightower area likely will find “massive changes” in what they traditionally see.
“Hunters going into the development area can expect more traffic, noise, dust and a number of other changes that they haven’t traditionally found in those locations,” Hampton said. “We want them to be prepared for that.”
He also strongly reminded hunters that the areas, in spite of ongoing construction, still are public lands and still open to hunting, such as it may be.
“No one can force hunters off public lands,” Hampton said. “The fact that development is going on doesn’t mean there aren’t any animals, but hunters might have to travel farther to find them.”
The plan is to limit effects on wildlife by getting the drilling done as quickly as possible, Mauch said.
“We’ve worked closely with the Division of Wildlife on this,” she said. “We’ve agreed the best alternative is to drill intensively, then get out.”
Those impacts on recreation is one of the cumulative effects of energy development that often are overlooked which planning energy fields.
The Bull Mountain pipeline and the Hightower project are two of several energy-related developments in the area directly affecting hunters.
The two projects only foreshadow what’s come. Much of the region is leased for future development.
Hunters and wildlife alike can expect massive changes.