"The Forest Service has committed to be good stewards of the Valle Vidal. ... And they would set forth surface restrictions that would certainly ensure the safety of the public," Connery said.
In 2002, the Forest Service set aside El Paso's initial request to drill in the Valle Vidal, saying a lack of money and staff would put off analysis of the proposal for up to eight years, records show. A study would require an additional $1.6 million in federal funds, to allow the Forest Service to hire more employees and a contractor, wrote Martin Chavez, supervisor of the Carson National Forest. Even with the additional funds, the analysis could not be started until 2005 and would take at least three years, he added.
White House help
Frustrated by delays that the company said amounted to a rejection, El Paso sought help a year later from Bush's newly formed White House Task Force on Energy Project Streamlining. "We need new natural gas supplies more than ever. We believe that the Valle Vidal Unit could be a vital new source," Merryl Burpoe, federal government affairs director for El Paso, wrote to the White House.
Robert W. Middleton, director of the White House task force, sent a memo to the Forest Service a month later calling for a quick response to El Paso's request and asking for an explanation of any "unresolved internal issues" that lay in the way.
When they received that memo, officials of the Carson National Forest decided they could pursue the more accelerated schedule, after receiving none of the additional staff and only $100,000 of the $1.6 million requested.
"We did a little bit of adjusting to accommodate," said David Seesholtz, planner for the forest. "We have adjusted people's work schedules."
The Forest Service released a consultant's report last July concluding that the potential was high for the successful development of up to 500 wells in the Valle Vidal, records show.
Leon Fager, who retired in 1998 after 31 years as a Forest Service biologist, said that since the White House's involvement, some of his former colleagues are "scared to death" to speak up about potential problems caused by drilling, such as disturbances to elk or pollution in streams.
"There is a lot of pressure on the Carson National Forest to use the Valle Vidal to drill for oil and gas, and it's coming right from the White House," Fager said. "Whenever people at the Forest Service offer resistance, they feel insecure for their careers because of the phone calls from Washington."
Chavez, supervisor of the forest, confirmed that he got a phone call from the White House task force about the drilling request. But he said neither he nor his employees have been influenced to deviate from their normal evaluation process.
"We haven't felt any pressure from anybody," Chavez said. "It's not unusual to get inquiries. That is their prerogative. In this case they [the White House task force] were asking us for a reality check on the timeline."
Connery, the El Paso spokesman, said drilling could be done in an unobtrusive way.
For many here, that claim holds little credibility. A growing number are forced to live with wells in their backyards because of "split estate" situations, common in the West, in which the landowner has rights to the surface, while energy companies own the mineral rights underneath.
Richard "Sam" Lopez, a 59-year-old construction company owner who lives a short drive north in Weston, Col., said the four coal-bed methane wells installed against his will on his property chug loudly day and night, taint his water with a sulfurous smell and spill pollutants that have killed his pine trees and shrubs.
Drilling trucks rumble onto the property without warning to dig apart his scenic hillsides, ruining the serenity of what he once dreamed would be his dream house with panoramic views of the Rocky Mountains.
"The noise and chaos, day and night, has totally taken away the solitude and peacefulness we used to have out here in the West," said Lopez.
It's this potential for clatter and runoff that has brought together the diverse interests that make up the Coalition for the Valle Vidal.
On a recent afternoon, two leaders of the coalition - Alan Lackey, an NRA member, Republican car dealer and avid elk hunter, and Jim O'Donnell, a Nader-voting liberal environmentalist - followed a meandering creek down the heart of the valley beneath the snow-crowned Sangre de Christo Mountains.
Lackey, wearing a cowboy hat and boots with spurs, rode a horse; O'Donnell, sporting a green Sierra Club baseball cap, walked, explaining, "I'm ridiculously allergic to horses."
They passed a meadow of swaying grass, stands of pines whispering in the breeze, the skeleton of an elk jutting from a streambed, and flowers blossoming between patches of melting ice.