Drill, maybe, drill: The uncertain fate of Colorado State Parks

Posted: Sep 18, 2019

My first year in college I had kitchen duty with a friend who enthusiastically splashed bleach and ammonia into a bucket while she was mopping the floors. Almost immediately, the toxic vapor had our heads swimming and our eyes burning. As the entire dorm was being evacuated I asked her what she was thinking (or not) when she gassed us all. “I was just trying to do a good job,” she said.

I was reminded of this event the other day when I was reading in the Denver Post about the Colorado Parks Commission’s initial endorsement of a plan to drill for oil and gas inside St. Vrain State Park.

Evoking the rationale so often heard these days for reckless acts, like robbing banks or selling organs—“I needed the money”—Parks and Wildlife Commission chairman Tim Glenn said this new drilling scheme would be a good way to prop up our struggling parks. “If we can do this with fairly limited environmental impact, I don't see the real downside,” he said. By trying to earn our poor parks some money, the Parks Commission is essentially just trying to do a good job. But, as I learned way back when, the road to hell is paved with the very best of intentions.

St. Vrain is one of 42 Colorado state parks. It’s a postage stamp of public space with just 604 acres of recreational land and 152 acres of water. Despite being located on the truck-crammed corridor of I-25, eagles, red-tailed hawks and owls spend all year here, and Swainson’s hawk, osprey and others stop by on their way south. Its ponds are chock-a-block with seven fish varieties including rainbow trout and largemouth bass. On their shores, painted turtles bask in the sun. On recent visits, I watched herons and cormorants fuss around with Long’s Peak as their backdrop and peaked into two snapping turtle nests. After spending many millions to development the park, St. Vrain is a restored wetland to be proud of.

St. Vrain is in the crosshairs of oil and gas development because it’s one of the few spots where State Parks and the State Land Board own the land’s surface and mineral rights. The plan floated at the Parks meeting last week would see an energy company drill multiple wells on two pads covering about six acres. Governor John Hickenlooper’s budget, which came out last spring, estimated that the energy leases for St. Vrain could generate $500,000 per year over the next decade.

Getting at the gas and oil trapped in the rock formations thousands of feet beneath the St. Vrain would require hydraulic fracturing. So-called “fracking” is the hotly-contested process of blasting cracks into underground rocks and then pumping sand, water and a chemical cocktail in to free the resource. PR stunts on both sides have made headlines recently—one Halliburton executive recently drank some fracking fluid (no word on how he’s doing) to demonstrate its benign contents. Meanwhile environmentalists have lit more than their fair share of faucets on fire to show how drinking water is being polluted.

Regardless of the effects fracking may have on the park’s lively ponds, its planned reservoir, or the nearby St. Vrain River, the possibility of drilling begs the question: is this the purpose of our state parks? The Colorado State Parks’ mandate is, “To be leaders in providing outdoor recreation through the stewardship of Colorado’s natural resources for the enjoyment, education and inspiration of present and future generations.”  The noise alone that’s created by fracking—the sound of which I’d equate to being sucked into an airplane engine—would blow that mission out of the water. No one would want to fish, walk, camp or canoe anywhere near that.

There’s no question that we’re presently cash-trapped and trembling, and tempted to pimp out our open spaces every time someone flashes some bills in our face. But clutching at short-term gain will leave us poorer. Even during the height of the Great Depression our publics lands earned protection (including Canyon de Chelly in 1931, the Great Sand Dunes in 1932, and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in 1933). Our predecessors celebrated the riches we do have, even as the economy flat-lined.

Even if the revenue earned for drilling actually was invested in maintaining our parks (which is not at all a certainty), St. Vrain would be a sacrificial lamb, a Gift of the Magi. Destroying one park to save another is not the best job we can do.

~Heather Hansen

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