Southern Colorado is home to some of the most stunning landscapes in the country. Where the steep, dark-green slopes of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains hit the valley floor, they are met by towering sand dunes that sprawl across more than 30 square miles. The highest dunes rise more than 700 feet into the air – about the height of the tallest skyscraper in many American cities. This landscape has been crafted over tens of thousands of years, as winds blowing over the mountains dropped grains of sand, which slowly morphed into the dunes we see today.
Over Memorial Day weekend, I went camping in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and hiking in Great Sand Dunes National Park. I’ve traveled a lot and spent a lot of time in different wilderness areas, but I have to say – this was unlike anything I had ever seen before.
First recognized and protected by President Herbert Hoover in 1932, the Great Sand Dunes contain the largest dunes in North America. Every year, around 320,000 visitors, many of them children and families, enjoy the park by sandboarding down the dunes, playing in the adjacent creek, hiking or looking for wildlife. According to the park’s website, the dunes are home to six species of insects that can be found nowhere else on earth, including the pretty, and appropriately named, Great Sand Dunes Tiger Beetle.
But the area around the Great Sand Dunes – like many other special places across America – is now at risk.
The Trump administration has proposed selling mineral rights on properties adjacent to this magnificent place, opening up the area for oil and gas drilling. According to the Denver Post, drilling could be done on land that touches the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness area and within one mile of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.
The attack on public lands isn’t limited to Colorado. Uranium mining once again threatens the Grand Canyon, the Bureau of Land Management is considering leasing pieces of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and drilling and the Trump administration has also released a plan to allow offshore oil drilling in billions of acres of protected Atlantic waters – to name just a few of the current proposals.
In the Great Sand Dunes, I experienced real quiet and real night. In moments of stillness, the only thing I could hear was the wind, and all I could see were stars. Why would we put that beautiful purity – a rarity in 2018 – at risk for more oil and gas, despoiling the landscape while fueling pollution and climate change?
By the end of May this year, Medano Creek – which, fed by melting snow, typically flows past the sand dunes – had dried up without a trace. A dry, warm winter has left much of Colorado without snow and the state is not alone; most of the Southwest is experiencing drought. These trends are expected to worsen as the planet warms. We can only avert the worst results by reducing, rather than expanding, our consumption of fossil fuels.
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Beautiful spaces across Colorado and the rest of the United States have already been ravaged by oil and gas extraction. While the state has embraced clean energy and promised to uphold global climate goals, it has simultaneously ramped up oil and gas extraction. Colorado, and the nation, face a choice between continuing that devastation or making the transition to efficient and clean ways of producing energy.
The Great Sand Dunes, the Grand Canyon and the pristine wilderness of Alaska are among our nation’s treasures. Generations of Americans, including political leaders of both parties, have recognized these parks as such an important part of our national heritage that they’re worth defending. We should be doing everything we can to protect them, not selling them off to temporarily feed our addiction to fossil fuels – an addiction that threatens our children’s ability to enjoy America’s natural wonders for generations to come.