© Mike Norton (Colorado)

Roan Plateau

On the western slope of the Rockies near the town of Rifle, the sere and spectacular Roan Cliffs rise sharply above the Colorado River Valley. Atop these cliffs, where peregrine falcons and golden eagles soar, sits the majestic and biologically diverse Roan Plateau. Here boreal owls and three-toed woodpeckers nest in Douglas fir forests, while sage grouse, rattlesnakes, and rare amphibians rustle through dry, wind-swept grasslands. Most unusual of all, a host of rare plants—several found nowhere else in the world—thrive on the Roan’s oil-rich shale soils. They include species such as Parachute penstemon, sun-loving meadowrue, and hanging garden sullivantia, which grows only on the wet cliff walls of the “hanging gardens” formed by the Roan’s many waterfalls.

Ironically, the same hydrocarbon-rich soils that yield botanical treasures have made the Roan Plateau a target for oil and gas development. A thorough biological survey by Colorado Natural Heritage Program scientists documented the area’s exceptional biodiversity. Spurred by the natural heritage program’s findings, The Nature Conservancy has included the Roan Plateau in its Southern Rockies ecoregional plan, a comprehensive blueprint for conservation action. Natural heritage data is also informing federal land management efforts for the 100-square-mile-plus area. The Bureau of Land Management, which owns most of the region, recently proposed large sections for special protection, while retaining public access for hunting, fishing, and back-country recreation. 

The story of the Roan Plateau is repeated at hundreds of special places across the continent identified by NatureServe’s natural heritage member programs as high priorities for conservation action. Our comprehensive database of such sites and their imperiled species now includes nearly half a million detailed records of sensitive plants, animals, and ecosystems. From Colorado to Kauai, effective conservation relies upon this one-of-a-kind database of discoveries.

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