PARACHUTE, Colo. — From the ground, the Roan Plateau is a craggy mass of tree-dotted rock that rises half a mile out of the high desert of western Colorado.
From the air, however, it is 54,000 acres of green rolling hills and valleys that are home to wildlife such as elk, deer, mountain lions, peregrine falcons and bears. Rain that falls on the 9,000-foot plateau nurtures patches of aspen and Douglas fir, intermingled with scrub oak and sagebrush.
On a cold December day, pilot Bruce Gordon dips a wing of his Cessna 210 to angle around and give his passengers a good view of a 200-foot frozen waterfall.
"People should be aware of these areas, these special places," said Gordon, who works with conservation groups in the West.
With the Roan Plateau, it's all about perspective. To energy companies and the Bush administration, it is a key plank in the drive for U.S. energy independence, because it sits atop a mother lode of clean-burning natural gas.
To others, the plateau is a haven for wildlife and the cornerstone of the region's $3.8-million-a-year hunting industry. They fear that the plateau is being sacrificed in a mad dash to develop rather than conserve energy.
Bob Elderkin of Silt has roamed the plateau for years in his work for the Bureau of Land Management and as an avid hunter. Elderkin, who retired from the bureau in 2000, said he doesn't oppose drilling on the plateau because the country needs the fuel.
But he said the area appeared to be on a fast track for development and only the most rigorous restrictions would protect it.
"If you go about it the right way, you can have multiple use," Elderkin said. "But the way they're going about it right now, it's just going to be mineral use."
Four years ago, the Bureau of Land Management said 22,000 acres of the plateau had characteristics of wilderness, a designation that would bar development. Such protection seems increasingly unlikely.
The agency is considering a plan that could add 800 to 1,600 gas wells on 73,600 acres of federal land near and atop the plateau. A draft plan is expected to be issued in January.
The bureau dropped an option, backed by city governments in surrounding Garfield County, that would have banned drilling on top of the plateau.
Dan Richardson, a Glenwood Springs city councilman who led the no-drilling campaign, said he believed the high-profile fight to develop Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge had distracted the public from places like the Roan Plateau.
"I kind of see the Roan Plateau as our ANWR," he said.
Officials with Williams of Tulsa, Okla., which has 800 gas wells in Garfield County, said advanced technology and careful attention would allow drilling on the plateau without harm.
EnCana Oil & Gas USA, which is headquartered in Alberta, Calgary, and Williams operate most of the 1,800 wells in the county. About 350 new wells were drilled in the county this year, and 550 more are expected to be drilled soon.
"The need for natural gas and the energy and electricity supplied by it have grown exponentially, but exploration has gone down in other areas. That's why we need to explore for it here," said Kathy Hall of the Colorado Oil & Gas Assn., a trade group.
Energy development is no stranger to the area. An oil field in neighboring Rio Blanco County was once the largest in the Rockies. Part of the Roan Plateau was known as the Naval Oil Shale Reserve until the government halted efforts to mine oil thought to be in the shale, causing a bust that crippled the region's economy for years.
The Energy Department handed over responsibility for the plateau to the Bureau of Land Management in 1997 with the idea that the natural resources would be developed, Hall said.
Environmentalists believe that what happens in the gas-rich Uinta-Piceance Basin, which includes the Roan Plateau, could influence decisions about other Western public land under scrutiny by energy companies and the Bush administration.
The U.S. Geological Survey says the basin holds 21 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas. The Roan Plateau alone contains at least 5 trillion cubic feet -- enough to heat 75 million homes for a year.
About half the private and public land in the area is already under lease or available for drilling, said Pete Kolbenschlag, western Colorado representative for the Colorado Environmental Coalition.
"They'd like to make this ground zero," he said. "The issue is, are they going to be able to drill every last squirt?"