by Peter Mertz
DENVER, the United States, May 1 (Xinhua) -- Environmentalists have been rallying to stop the Trump administration's plan to auction off thousands of acres of land for oil and gas lease adjacent to Sand Dunes National Park, a spectacular pristine area in central U.S. Rocky Mountain State.
"Unprecedented threats by (Donald) Trump and (Interior Secretary Ryan) Zinke's energy dominance plan involves fracking in national parks, and that has galvanized environmentalists," said Diana Dascalu-Joffee with the Center for Biological Diversity.
Zinke announced last month a plan to auction off 21,000 acres (84.9 square km) of public lands in Colorado in September for oil and gas leases.
"This is an absolute tragedy and unbelievable," said Eddie Brown, an environmental scientist from the University of Colorado, who said he has been "hiking the dunes" since he was a child.
"If I ever see oil and gas rigs along the highway to Sand Dunes, I will never return," Brown told Xinhua Tuesday.
In 2017, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) auctioned off more than a million acres (4,046.9 square km) of public lands for fracking in six western states. The BLM's proposed lease sales for the first half of 2018 in those same states already total almost 1 million acres (4,046.9 square km).
Thus far, public reaction to the lease sale has been enormous and strongly negative, environmentalists said.
BLM officials in Denver confirmed Tuesday that some 6,000 citizen responses flooded their website during a "Protest Period" that ended last month.
"The area near Great Sand Dunes National Park is uniquely beautiful and very vulnerable to the harms from drilling and fracking," said Becca Fischer with Wild Earth Guardians.
Fischer said her group will "keep hammering Zinke to defer leases in the Colorado sale," something the interior secretary did last week after the public decried similar BLM activity in the state of Montana.
"We are weighing our legal options," Fischer told Xinhua.
"Drilling holes into the Earth and injecting volatile chemicals that will spur fractures is dangerous business, not to mention the potential for groundwater contamination," Dascalu-Joffee said.
Fracking is a process that requires drilling boreholes 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) beneath the Earth's surface to locate and capture oil and gas trapped below.
"That part of Huerfano County in Colorado has significant volcanic geological formations, and data shows that the injection of waste water from fracking can trigger volcanic activity," Fischer added.
Both Fischer and Dascalu-Joffee are Denver-based attorneys specializing in environmental law, accepting low salaries and long hours to combat the Trump Administration's attempts to exploit the Colorado wilderness for economic gain.
A BLM map of the September lease sale shows a total of 24 separate areas or "11 parcels" of land that will be auctioned off, and cover a vast, mountainous land of roughly 120 square miles (311 square km), in an area that features seven reservoirs and a dozen streams and rivers.
"They may or may not be sold, and if they are, they may or may not be developed," said Denver BLM spokesman Jayson Barangan.
According to Barangan, the BLM's rules for analyzing possible drill sites have changed, thanks to a January memorandum from Washington D.C. that streamlined the process whereby land is offered for oil and gas leasing.
"There has always been controversy related to oil and development," Barangan told Xinhua Tuesday. "Part of BLM's multi-use mission is to try to balance the land with other uses and management," Barangan said.
However, Dascalu-Joffee, who filed a lawsuit against the BLM last week in western Colorado to stop similar lease sales and protect the vital Colorado River, said the "BLM is not reviewing the potential harm to any of their proposed drill sites and especially the impact on ground water."
National environmental policy requires any federal agency to disclose potential environmental harm, according to Dascalu-Joffee.
"The fact that they didn't address the environmental impact is frankly against the law, in our view," she told Xinhua.
SAND DUNESh In the case of the BLM land near Sand Dunes, the Trump Administration's fast-track lease approach is even more disturbing, environmental lawyers said, because a comprehensive study of the region has not been done in 25 years and a new one is currently underway.
"The resource management plan is 25 years old for eastern Colorado," Dascalu-Joffee said. "They need to stop all leasing until that plan is done. It is the roadmap as to why parcels should be developed."
"So they're operating in the dark," she said.
According to Barangan, the public's final opportunity for input on the leases will end Aug. 1, at which time the Environmental Protection Agency's assessment study and public commentary will be released, with the sale to take place the following month.
Oil and gas leasing on federal public lands is a major contributor to global warming in the United States, according to environmentalists, who said leasing opens the door for oil and gas drilling and fracking and more fossil fuel burning.
Their studies indicated that 20 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions can be traced back to fossil fuel development in federal public lands and waters.
Sand Dunes features Bison, 200 species of birds, and hundreds of types of amphibians, reptiles and other animals, National Park Service data shows.
The park spans an area of 437 square km, of which 98 percent is blanketed by sediments from the Quaternary Age, and the Holocene and Pleistocene Epochs.