Most weary I-70 travelers take little note of the Roan Plateau as they pass the cliffs rising above the Colorado River near Rifle. They may wonder what lies on top, or marvel at the multi-colored badlands reaching up toward the shale cliffs, but probably give it little more thought than that. Biologists and geologists, on the other hand, seldom pass this area without considering its unique character.The geologist may ponder the enormous quantity of mud that was deposited over millions of years and then hardened into the oil shale that produced an energy boom in the 1970s. The biologist, meanwhile, will most likely think of the myriad of species – many of them rare, declining, or imperiled – that survive here, including the unique native plants that are tied to this specific geology.This is why if you visited the Roan Plateau with a botanist you might see them get very excited as they found Parachute Penstemon, Roan Cliffs Blazing star, Debeque Milkvetch, and Sun-loving Meadow Rue. All of these plants are extremely rare and are found in just a few counties in Colorado and no other place in the world. Biologists call these “narrow endemics.” Any area with narrow endemics is of special concern because even a localized disturbance might wipe out an entire species.The Colorado Natural Heritage Program (CNHP) maintains a database that documents the status and health of endemics as well as other vulnerable species. CNHP and their partners have documented over 12,000 such occurrences of plants, animals, and plant communities within Colorado. This information set clearly shows that certain areas of the state have high numbers of endemic plant or animal species, and are therefore considered “biological hot spots.”The Roan Plateau is such an area. Although relatively small, the plateau is home to more than five endemic species of plants and at least many other notable species of concern. For example, in addition to those noted above, the Hanging-garden Sullivantia, a Colorado endemic, is found where springs, waterfalls, and seeps emerge or fall over the cliffs. The plateau holds the largest known populations of this plant. The valuable mosaic of plant communities in this area supports a diversity of animals, further contributing to the plateau’s status as a biological hotspot.Creeks on the Plateau support some of the purest genetic strains of the imperiled native Colorado River cutthroat trout, while the 2,000-foot cliffs support nesting peregrine falcons. The combination of forests, meadows, and wetlands provides the state imperiled boreal owl with excellent habitat, while the sagebrush shrublands and grasslands are excellent habitat for the declining sage grouse. According to Colorado’s Division of Wildlife (DOW), the lower elevations along the base of the plateau include expanses of critical and severe winter range for elk and deer, and the uplands are important calving and fawning grounds. The patches of old-growth Douglas fir below the cliffs are large enough to support nesting pairs of three-toed woodpeckers.The Bureau of Land Management, which gained jurisdiction over these public lands in 1997 and is currently preparing the Roan Plateau’s first-ever management plan, has noted, “there are only three other areas of comparable size in western Colorado that contain such a richness of rare species… (yet) it is the only area of the four that does not enjoy protective status…” Planning for multiple use of our public lands invariably involves difficult decisions. Simply put, what is the best long-term use of the public lands and resources of the Roan Plateau? In addition to globally significant biological treasures, the area is rich in energy resources. As BLM prepares the plateau’s plan, they must make important decisions including how much drilling to allow, where to allow it, and how to best safeguard the plateau’s unique values. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has identified energy development as the single largest threat to the continued health of the unique biological diversity here, noting that some endemic species are “threatened by destruction of its habitat for oil shale production or other energy development.” For a few of the endemic species, the loss of habitat on the Roan Plateau and the surrounding base would put these species at risk of extinction. Can America fulfill its energy requirements as well as protect its unique biological resources? Is it possible to set small parcels aside for the most biologically unique areas while developing energy in the less sensitive areas? Is it possible to develop new techniques and technology to extract energy with less surface occupation? These important questions should be addressed while we develop energy plans across America, including the Roan Plateau area. It is BLM’s task to ensure that such resources are developed responsibly. For the Roan Plateau, BLM must balance energy needs with the protection of the unique and rare resources of this true “biological hotspot.”Renee Rondeau is director and chief scientist for the Colorado Natural Heritage Program.
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