North Fork Valley residents, businesses, and officials praise BLM decision to defer oil and gas lease parcels

May 3, 2012 Features

Written from News Release–May 2, 2012

The North Fork Valley greeted the good news that the Bureau of Land Management is deferring 22 oil and gas leases from the August 2012 sale with excitement and relief.


From elected officials and commissions, to the area’s agricultural producers and small businesses that line the town centers of Paonia, Hotchkiss and Crawford—community members were unified in their opposition to these leases and now in their gratitude that they have been deferred.


“The BLM made a good decision,” said Neal Schwieterman, Mayor of Paonia. “I am proud of my community and I am grateful that the BLM listened to what we had to say.”


Local businesses, from real estate brokers to restaurants and guest ranches raised concerns about the impacts oil and gas development would have on the local economy. Bob Lario owner of ReMAX Mountain West Real Estate of Paonia also expressed relief at the news.


“We appreciate that the agency carefully considered what the citizens were telling it. I also think all of us in the real estate business are glad to pass this good news along to our prospective buyers.”


People raised real and legitimate issues, most recently in front of a BLM citizen advisory group and also in front of decision-makers in Washington DC. In addition to the local governments and area businesses, much of the concern came from farmers, ranchers, and food producers and centered on safeguarding the area’s rich agricultural heritage. Residents noted that this outcome shows that when communities stand and work together, citizens have an impact.


“Thank you first must go to the incredible community of the North Fork,” said Landon Deane a Colorado legacy rancher, “and to the restaurants and chefs and people in the Roaring Fork and beyond who understand that quality is important. We can all rest a bit easier now knowing that our food and water will stay clean and safe, and our valley will stay intact.”


The North Fork ‘brand’ is becoming increasingly known, as something unique, worth protecting, and marketable. Agriculture in the North Fork unites a century-old tradition with new and emerging trends and markets, and the changing value placed in high-quality, carefully produced food. Growing numbers of visitors come to the North Fork as part of Colorado’s ‘agritourism’ industry.


The North Fork is an American Viticultural Area (AVA)—one of only two in Colorado; and the twelve wineries it includes account for $2 million annually in direct sales and an additional $5 to 10 million in indirect sales. Products from the area supply top restaurants in towns across western Colorado—including in Aspen, Crested Butte, Vail, and Telluride. This emerging economy, coupled with the area’s more standard tourist fare—hunting season—is a driving force in the rural community.


Last week, dozens of area residents attended a local meeting of the BLM’s Southwest Resource Advisory Council to voice their concerns to the stakeholder representatives that advise the BLM on land use matters.


“Usually a lot of the public does not attend these meetings—which are not the most exciting affairs,” said Andrea Robinsong a member of the RAC representing conservation interests. “So when this many people showed up, with these well-thought out and credible statements, the council noticed.  BLM noticed too.”


And at the end of last month, a delegation from the North Fork travelled to Washington DC to meet with White House environmental officials, the BLM, Colorado’s Senators and members of the Congressional Delegation and staff.


“We live in a wonderful valley and are passionate about preserving it. I t is a special part of Colorado worth protecting,” said Ty Gillespie of Azura Cellars, one of the North Fork’s dozen wineries. “The community came together with a message it delivered in Montrose and Washington DC, that leasing these lands for an industrial use in the middle of and surrounding our wineries, our vineyards, our farms and communities raised awareness and it raised the stakes, bringing the issue to people who, perhaps, had not been paying attention to seemingly routine or faraway details.”


When the BLM first announced the lease sale in December it provoked community uproar. A thousand people turned out to meetings sponsored by local community groups, from a population of only several thousand. Nearly 3,000 comments were submitted in the BLM’s initial scoping comment period.


The proposal would have leased these lands under a flawed land use plan from the 1980s that fails to protect the land, water and people of Colorado’s North Fork. The parcels proposed for oil and gas leasing—included water sources, major irrigation canals, grazing permits and ranching operations—and were scattered among and surrounding farms, wineries, markets and restaurants, and school. No consideration was given in the decades-old land use plan—and therefore no oil and gas stipulations or management prescriptions exist—to maintain the area’s agricultural operations, its businesses, or any of the other unique community features.


Although the agency has not explained its decision, other than to note that it planned to conduct further analysis, it is clear that on closer look the agency realized that leasing these parcels was problematic and likely contrary to law and regulation. Comments from all direction consistently and credibly claimed that the BLM’s existing management plan for the area could not be used to support the decision to lease these lands, that a more robust Environmental Impact Statement was needed, and that that the BLM should first complete its revision to the Resource Management Plan.


But whatever the reasons behind this announcement, the BLM made the right decision, and for that many people are grateful in Colorado’s North Fork Valley and beyond.