The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Friday released a Draft Environmental Assessment (EA) that eventually may lead to natural gas drilling in the Baca National Wildlife Refuge in the San Luis Valley, which is located in Saguache County, CO.

The refuge, which is so new that it has not yet opened to the public, was created from the $33 million purchase of the Baca Ranch, 100,000 acres that were originally granted to the Baca family by the U.S. government in exchange for land lost in the Mexican-American War. The refuge was cut out of the new Great Sand Dunes National Park "to restore, enhance and maintain wetland, upland, riparian and other habitats for wildlife, plants and fish species that are native to the San Luis Valley."

Even though the public has not had access to the land, it has been open to Toronto-based Lexam Energy Exploration Co., which, with ConocoPhillips, owns the mineral rights to about 54,000 acres of the ranch. The Department of Interior, which manages the FWS, did not come to an agreement on buying the mineral rights when the ranch land was purchased, and because Lexam owned the mineral rights before it became a wildlife refuge, the FWS could not prevent drilling on the property.

In its "preferred alternative," the draft EA would allow drilling if some environmental precautions are included. Lexam wants to drill two test wells, which would involve clearing 14.5 acres of land for roads and well pads, according to the document. If the final EA is approved, Lexam may begin drilling this summer.

The FWS, to assist agency decisions, initiated the EA process last August for activities related to oil and gas exploration on the refuge. Under the National Environmental Policy Act, the EA process is intended to analyze the FWS's roles and responsibilities as surface owners of the refuge "to ensure that exploration of the mineral estate is conducted in a reasonable manner. The FWS's "ultimate objective in this process is to protect refuge resources while at the same time honoring Lexam's valid rights to access and explore the subsurface estate."

The draft EA is posted on the website for the San Luis Valley National Wildlife Refuge Complex at www.fws.gov/alamosa. Comments on the draft EA will be taken until March 2. The FWS also has scheduled an open house on Feb. 12 to answer questions about the draft EA at the Baca Grande Property Association Hall in Crestone, CO. FWS staff, Lexam and its contractor are expected to share information and answer questions.

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