Written by Jes Walton
Every year, I looked forward to school fieldtrips to the Great Sand Dunes in southern Colorado. Riding in yellow school buses full of kids and the smell of sunscreen. Trekking up the dunes for hours in knee-deep sand with colorful plastic sleds and flying down the slopes in a matter of seconds. Watching simulations of the changing dunes in the education center and swimming in Medano Creek, which felt like being buried in fine, cool sand. My lunch always managed to have grit in it, and I always returned sunburned and happy. Sleep came invariably on the ride home.
On these days, this land belonged to my classmates and it belonged to me. It was our land, and we enjoyed it to the fullest extent.
Great Sand Dunes National Monument was created in the 1930s, when the integrity of Medano Creek was threatened by decades of gold mining around the dunes. It has been reclassified as a national park since my schooldays, which I assumed provided our beloved dunes with greater levels of protection. But, it’s happening again — the lands around this and other U.S. National Parks located above oil and gas deposits are at risk of experiencing the negative effects of fracking, particularly if President Obama’s Bureau of Land Management gets its wish to pursue fossil fuel development near many of our nation’s parks.
It may go without saying, but the Great Sand Dunes are located in the desert — one of Colorado’s most fragile ecosystems. Isolated dunes are a rare phenomenon, and this protected area in Colorado is just one of few in the world. Little Medano Creek plays a crucial role in maintaining these dunes by returning sand blown into the mountains back to the dune field. Humble endemic species and charismatic fauna like bison, elk, black bears and pronghorn antelope rely on this environment. This is their land.
The stadium-style lights used by nearby fracking rigs day and night would disturb the area’s many nocturnal inhabitants, including the tiny Ord’s kangaroo rat and mountain lions that prefer to hunt in the dark. Toxic wastewater runoff, which could enter Medano Creek, would make the area unlivable for the tiger salamander and countless other riparian species.
The San Luis Valley, which contains the Great Sand Dunes, has been long revered as sacred by Navajo, Ute and Apache tribes. Today it is home to a Buddhist Stupa, Haidakhandi Ashram, several monastic communities and numerous retreats and spiritual learning centers. For the many communities in the valley, the dunes are a source of pride and an important part of the local economy. This is their land.
While some come to this place for serenity and closeness to nature, others live and farm here. The cacophony of trucks and drilling operations jeopardize the pristine quiet of the area. Air pollution threatens the area’s residents, crops and livestock.
Climate change is already affecting the Great Sand Dunes indirectly. Medano Creek used to flow in the springtime, when melted snow ran down from the nearby Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Now the summers are hotter, and the water rarely reaches the dunes. Warmer temperatures are forcing the American pika to higher grounds. It’s hard enough to imagine the dunes without a creek, but fracking rigs, which extract natural gas, represent a very tangible and direct impact on the valley. It is an unacceptable invasion that would change these lands forever.
The Great Sand Dunes are geologically unique, biologically diverse and spiritually significant. Many can claim this land as their own, but it is important that the oil and gas industry is never one of them.
Take action today to protect Great Sand Dunes National Park and other national treasures from the effects of fracking.
This article was originally published at Food and Water Watch.
Photo Credit: Brian Dierks