Feds weigh no-drilling plan for North Fork public lands

Home to the small towns of Hotchkiss, Crawford and Paonia, south east of Grand Junction, the North Fork River Valley has long been slated for oil and gas development, particularly on the surrounding federal land where exploration can be done inexpensively. But local residents came up with a different plan for how to use the 100 thousand-plus acres, and the feds have agreed to take it into consideration.

“Just getting the BLM to take us seriously and include what we are proposing in their draft resource management plan is a big win,” said Jim Ramey, Director of Citizens for a Healthy Community, the coalition of representatives from area organic farms, vineyards, real estate businesses, outdoor tourism and conservation groups that worked up the plan together over the last year. “We’re not out of the woods yet,” he said. “Just because they include it in their draft doesn’t mean they’ll adopt the recommendations moving forward.”

Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs at the Western Energy Alliance, an oil-and-gas group, said it’s the Bureau’s job to consider a range of proposals.

“They’re obligated to strike that balance between the economic benefits of oil and natural gas development and restrictions on that development,” she said. Sgamma said Western Energy is concerned that the new proposal will extend the timeline for a decision about the land, which was initially scheduled to be released for public comment last March.

That proposal asks the Bureau effectively rule the federal land around towns like Paonia and Hotchkiss closed to industry because it’s land that is already in use.

“An example could be enacting protections to preserve views,” said area winemaker Brent Helleckson. “When I look across our vineyard toward Lamborn Mountain, that view would be protected, sure, but that area is also prime elk wintering range and a surface water catchment area for our local water supply.”

Organic farmer Mark Waltermire agreed that drilling is a bad fit for the area.

“We’re all downstream from potential oil and gas development,” he said . “Any sort of spill from a truck going up there, or a development site, would cause pretty serious harm to our operations.”

He said it’s not only about protecting air and water quality but also the great outdoors, natural-west reputation that has become a marketing brand for the area — for tourists and food and wine consumers.

“If oil and gas development were to take place in this area, it would negatively influence the perception of what we have to offer to our customers.”

As oil-and-gas development flourishes on the Front Range, tourism-driven communities like those in the North Fork River Valley have seen an increasing benefit from remaining relatively ‘unfracked,’ a benefit they’re keen to preserve.

“I’d hazard that 90 to 95 percent of realtors in the area have gone on record supporting the North Fork Alternative Plan,” said Paonia RE/MAX agent Bob Lario.

“The driving force of real estate market now is the qualities the North Fork area is becoming known for —- clean air, being a mecca of little organic farms, vineyards, orchards, restaurants… When we have to deal with the threat of oil-and-gas leasing and the perceived ramifications of that, buyers lose interest real fast.”

Despite their year-long efforts and community support, coalition members were surprised by the Bureau’s decision to consider their plan. They say the Bureau has a history of interpreting its role in a pretty industry-friendly way.

“This is a little unusual in that we’re taking an additional leap here,” said acting Bureau Field Manager Jerry Strahan. “There’s more emphasis on taking a look at resources on a broader landscape basis and that’s been kind of an ongoing evolution.”

“I’d say it’s an about face from our experience of working with the BLM,” said Ramey. “It’s a very welcome change of tune.”

 

[ Photo by Alejandro De La Cruz ]

Correction note: The North Fork Alternative Plan is for a roughly 100,000-acre subset of the 3.1 million acres the Bureau’s Uncompahgre Field Office manages in southwestern Colorado’s Delta, Gunnison, Mesa, Montrose, Ouray and San Miguel counties. 

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