WASHINGTON -- Just as managers of the Carrizo Plain National Monument in eastern San Luis Obispo County are moving toward agreement on the future of cattle grazing there, oil and gas exploration is emerging as a new battleground on the 250,000 acre grasslands preserve.
Vintage Production, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum, owns 30,000 acres of mineral rights in the heart of the monument's valley floor. With oil now topping $100 a barrel, the company has notified the Bureau of Land Management that it wants to find out what's there.
John Dearing, a BLM spokesman, said there's nothing the agency can do to stop the testing because the mineral rights pre-exist the monument's creation by President Clinton as he left office in 2001.
"Because this is a national monument, there will be environmental concerns that will have to be strongly looked at," Dearing said. "But they have a right to access."
The monument grounds are not virgin territory for drilling rigs. The monument is just over a hill from the oilfields of Kern County. There is a small amount of production already occurring in remote canyons of the monument.
But Vintage's holdings are under the heart of the monument grounds, and whatever it does can't help but impact the natural grasslands and wildlife diversity of the area. The monument contains the last vestiges of San Joaquin Valley grasslands and is home to the greatest concentration of endangered species in the country.
Among those endangered critters is the kangaroo rat, which lives in the ground where Vintage Production wants to explore.
The exploration proposal, which Dearing said has yet to be submitted to the BLM, is dividing environmentalists.
"Oil drilling is not going to occur on the Carrizo Plain National Monument without a huge battle," said Pat Veesart, a former member of the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission and a board member of Las Padres ForestWatch.
"If anyone wants to drill for oil there, they had been better be prepared to go to war over it," Veesart said.
But others see an opportunity, noting that at least initially there will be no holes bored into the ground.
Seismic testing will determine whether there is oil and gas in Vintage's holdings, and that in turn could set a value for the mineral estate. With such a value established, the BLM could begin negotiations to trade other oil rights for the monument property or open talks with the BLM's monument partners -- the state Department of Fish and Game and The Nature Conservancy -- for an outright purchase.
An oil or gas discovery "might let us get our heads together for a trade-out," said Tom Maloney, the conservancy's San Luis Obispo County project manager. "It's just exploration now, and not development."
Word of Vintage's interest came at a meeting Feb. 23 of the advisory committee working with the BLM and its partners to craft a management plan for the fledgling monument.
People who attended that meeting said the announcement by Tim Smith, the BLM's regional manager in Bakersfield, was the only sour note sounded at the all-day meeting, which was otherwise notable for a new era of cooperation.
Since its creation, the monument has been a battleground over cattle grazing. The refuge's former manager, Marlene Braun, committed suicide during the height of those tensions, believing she had been sidelined by her superiors seeking to protect grazing rights despite the area's new mission of species protection.
Neil Havlik, San Luis Obispo's natural resources manager and chairman of the advisory committee, cited a "sea change" in the BLM's approach to monument grazing since Braun's death.
"What impressed everyone is that the BLM, the Department of Fish and Game and the Nature Conservancy staff are all on the same wavelength now," Havlik said. According to the draft management plan outlined at the meeting, Havlik said, the needs of native wildlife in the monument would largely determine where and when grazing occurs.
"This is a major breakthrough," Havlik said. "This says that the needs of native animals will direct the vegetation program."
But with oil exploration, native critters like the kangaroo rat could face new risks.
Vintage would use huge "thumper" trucks to vibrate the ground, sending shockwaves deep into the subsurface. Sensitive electronic equipment would outline geologic formations and measure the production potential.
According to Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, which had fought seismic exploration on BLM land in Wyoming, the trucks can be especially hard on burrowing critters like the kangaroo rat. He cited a BLM study showing a drop in the population of white tail prairie dogs after the thumper trucks had tested an area.
"It is certainly a major industrial undertaking," he said. "And if something is found, it can lead to a major influx of drilling rigs and bulldozers."
But like Maloney at The Nature Conservancy, Alice Bond of the Wilderness Society said the long-term gains to the monument may be worth the risk if it could lead to a buyout of Vintage's drilling rights. About 130,000 acres of mineral rights are privately owned in the monument.
"It would be good if we could start moving forward to a purchase of those," Bond said.