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The Future of Baca

By Rachel Johnson


The Canadian energy exploration company, Lexam Explorations, hopes to begin drilling for natural gas in the Baca National Wildlife Refuge, part of the Great Sand Dunes National Park complex as soon as possible. The concerned citizens of the San Luis Valley hope to prevent the drilling by all means necessary, whether that is legally or otherwise. The future of the area and its people hangs delicately in the balance. If the drilling occurs it will devastate not only the 92,000 acres of pristine land, home to rare habitats and migratory birds, but it will also be detrimental to water quality all the way to Mexico as well as the local air and soil. The waters underneath the refuge are the lifeblood of the wildlife, cultures and communities in the surrounding region. Baca is home to over 20 spiritual centers that thrive off the peacefulness and natural beauty of the area. Although there is much debate as to what will happen to the existing land and community if Lexam is granted permission to drill in the refuge, one thing resounds: devastation in all arenas.

During this time of conflict, “The whole community is really coming together to prevent the gas drilling,” said Ani, one Crestone resident, “Because [if the drilling occurs]…people wouldn’t be able to live here anymore…” Lexam is proposing to drill two test wells. Darlene Yarborough, Crestone resident, Crestone Spiritual Alliance Representative and member of Humanity and Unity, feels deceived by the entire process, “We don’t know if there are going to be just two exploratory wells or if this is going to turn into big time production, we just don’t know.” This feeling of the unknown, coupled with other potential impacts is proving to be a difficult challenge for the community. If Lexam does drill, and "If they don't find gas they'll just disappear and leave their footprint on the wildlife refuge,” said Sabud member, Robert Demko. Lexam has the dangerous capability of leaving more than just their ecological footprint.


Baca’s aquifer is one the largest in the United States and, “If that was contaminated in any way it would affect people all the way down into Mexico. That’s huge. And for something like two weeks of natural gas? The land wouldn’t be the same after that…,” said resident, Bon Dellegar. The proposed test wells alone will be drilled to an unprecedented depth of 14,000’ through a highly complex and poorly understood geohydrolic environment that underlies the Closed Basin Aquifer system of the San Luis Valley. Ancient barricades have kept the unspoiled upper aquifer waters separated from the deep toxic waters for millions of years. Those barricades will be completely destroyed in order to reach and release the hydrocarbons Lexam desperately seeks. Joy Kells, volunteer firefighter and member of the Cottonhood sustainable co-op hopes, “The drilling might make people more willing and determined to take a stand. No matter what we are going to do this. We are not even going to let the drilling rig next door to us stop us, but if it affects the aquifer we are all screwed.” Unfortunately, water contamination is only one of the environmental concerns.


Dellegar also projects that there will be, “Light pollution and drilling noise 24/7 -things that would disrupt how we live here. But even if the light pollution and the noise weren’t so bad, on a subliminal level, it would work on us…we are very much a part of this place.” In such a unique place as Crestone, it is nearly impossible to separate the harmful impacts on the environment, the cultures and the economy. It is the sacred land that weaves all three things together. Ralph Abrams, of the White Jewel Mountain Zen Center explains how all three are interconnected,

My hope is that there’s little damage to the environment and the wildlife, to the precious aquifer, and they’ll find nothing. They’ll go away. The other possibility is that they will find some gas in the area and they’ll bring in production equipment. They’ll ruin our night skies and our air quality. The noise and the vibrations of the equipment will disturb the wildlife and destroy the quietude, which is much better to practice in. In other words, they’ll destroy the whole economic and social basis of this community.

It is the sacred land, the clean air, water and soil that allow all these spiritual centers to flourish. The spiritual centers rely heavily on the land and the economy relies heavily on the spiritual centers for tourism and retreats. If the land is devastated, so is the foundation of the entire community. Many practitioners are concerned about how the drilling will affect their traditions, “…One of our practices is to gaze into space, see the blue sky, the pristine blue sky and breathe the pristine air quality. Let’s say the gas comes, one of the things they do is pollute the air quality, so you won’t be able to achieve clarity.” Abrams continues, “The five elements are an intrinsic part of our practice. If you have gas or exploratory drilling come in here, or gas production, it affects the subtle vibrations of all of this kind of energy here.” Michael Firsow, member of Humanity and Unity, Temple of Consciousness Ashram, agrees that Lexam is bringing a negative energy to Crestone. However, he hopes that the positive energies of the center will overcome Lexam, “We have a very high energy here and they are going to be bringing in a low energy, who do you think is going to win out? You know, just from an energy standpoint we have a much more powerful energy. We may not be a big company like they are or we may not have the money that they do, but just from an energy standpoint we’re united and that’s very powerful too… Plus there is a plan for this place, the masters are looking out for us, the earth hierarchy, and they got a plan…it’s too important of a place in the world for them to allow it to be destroyed, they won’t let it." Although many residents are hopeful that the drilling won’t occur, the spiritual and economic centers of the community will be completely devastated if it does, forcing some to consider leaving the area.


William Buehler, a Crestone resident, considers Crestone to be the crown ‘Chakra’ on a grid system. He believes that, “The Chakra involves not only earth consciousness but it involves the human too. If humans can’t function here then it is not functional. The chakra becomes something like…some ghetto. It is trash. So if you can drive humans out then you have effectively destroyed the Chakra.” Buehler’s worry that the drilling might drive people out is realistic a one. Debra Floyd, the self-proclaimed ‘Village Witch’ said, “I would have to see what the land says to me, but I have a feeling I would have to leave, which would break my heart.” Naomi Mattis, member of the Mangala Shri Bhuti had a similar sentiment, “I don’t know what would happen to this town…it would not be appropriate place [for drilling].” Mattis felt that her retreat center would have to relocate if the drilling ensued. Others felt that although the drilling would disrupt their practices, they have a commitment to the land. Johnathan Yate, member of the Haidakhandi Universal Ashram, expressed feelings that he couldn’t leave because there is a commitment to maintain this tradition. He believes that there is a need for all of the groups to remain in the area and because they blend so well together, he plans to stay.


Whether the groups decide to stay or go due to the drilling, it is obvious that the practices and traditions would be seriously interrupted. Julie Quinn, a Crestone resident with no local spiritual affiliation, shares her concern through an incredible story,

“We have begun cremation ceremonies here. They have no affiliation with any specific spiritual groups… but are connected to all of the groups. Someone took a photo of one man’s cremation ceremony. When it was developed, the smoke had a white light floating above it. Can you imagine something so special occurring with the noise and pollution of the drilling going on?”

This harmony among all groups is yet another unique aspect of Crestone.


Abrams recognizes how unique this aspect of Crestone is, “The interesting thing about this area…is that there’s a transcending of traditional fundamentalist approaches…everybody is in harmony here together, whether you’re a Christian, a Buddhist, a practitioner of the Japanese spiritual tradition, one of the Carmelites…We all share a container, what Crestone is as a spiritual place…There’s a respect, almost a brotherhood of understanding. So this is also possibly the way that spirituality is going in the 21st century.” If the drilling continues, Crestone’s spiritual centers may dissipate and no longer be able to serve as an example of peaceful interaction for the rest of the world. 


Thus, as the environment and the spiritual centers collapse, the economy collapses. Sister Connie, of the Nada Carmelite Hermitage, further discusses this idea, "What damage gets done here doesn’t only affect the valley it affects other places… those kinds of things have terrible ramifications.” Fewer people will want to make pilgrimages to Crestone for a spiritual retreat, which will mean less business for the centers and less business for the community as a whole.

Many residents, such as Kells, see this crisis on a grander scale, “What we are looking at here in the United States is a total disastrous economic collapse very soon… When we reach critical mass on the fossil fuels and the trucks stop running because gas is 15 or 20 dollars a gallon. It’s going to all break down and there aren’t going to be any food trucks running. The food that comes to Crestone is going to be the food we can grow.” Kells is not only concerned with the well being of the Baca, but with the inherent contradictions of the drilling. She continues, “They are going to drill somewhere. If we chase them away from here they are going to go somewhere else. We are not going to stop them from drilling. They are going to drill no matter what we do. It’s just a question of where they drill and even though I am not in favor of them endangering the aquifer, the fact of the matter is that actually it will create jobs for us. We are a very, very, poor county. It takes some of the owners off of the hypocrisy. We are going to use propane, then we have to acknowledge its okay to drill propane because I want it, I buy it, I keep warm with it. How can I say get my propane from someone else’s backyard?”

People tend to be concerned with the events of their own backyard. However, it is no secret that the proposed drilling in the Baca refuge is going to be utterly detrimental to a much larger area in addition to the local environment, spiritual centers and Crestone’s economy. "I really can't say what the effects are gonna be cause nobody knows the future, but I do know what has happened at other places, the destruction of the communities…”said Demko. The combination of water, air, soil and solitude depletion has significant impacts on the sense of place that local cultures base their very existence on.


In the disastrous event that the drilling pursues on this sacred land and, "If we damage nature it will come back to human beings...it will of course come back to us,” said Yoshiyuki Yominaga of Shumei International Institute. Allowing Lexam to drill in the Baca would be a tragic mistake, leaving the surrounding area a shell of a once colorful community.


However, this does not need to be the outcome. There is hope. There are local groups in place to stop the drilling, and many residents are ready to participate in civil disobedience if it pursues. The community is prepared to continue to show the world how Crestone can be a model community of harmony and sustainability. Crestone can provide the world with other resources that are renewable instead of wasted. Crestone residents report that the area has the most potential for solar energy in the United States. In a place filled with a vast amount of sunlight, it can be used as a solar power farm, providing energy for itself and nearby towns. If the government agrees to buy the mineral rights or the USFWS does not allow the drilling, then they will be providing a great service to both the Baca wildlife and community, allowing the land, wildlife and residents to continue to thrive. For any additional information regarding interviewees, please see the voices link.

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