PAONIA-Today a diverse and substantial number of protests were submitted to the Bureau of Land Management Colorado State Office over the North Fork Valley oil and gas lease sale, scheduled for February 14, 2013.
Protests argue that the BLM must withdraw the North Fork parcels from this sale; that the agency has failed in its legal obligation to ensure it has updated management in place that adequately considers current economies, resources, and uses of the public lands at stake in this federal agency decision.
The Paonia Town Council approved a protest last week:
“This community warrants having all the impacts noted and addressed before such leasing is proposed. The Town is requesting that every aforementioned parcel proposed for lease in the North Fork valley be removed from the sale. … The Town is not against mineral extraction as an industry, it does however oppose these parcels for the above-stated reasons. …The North Fork valley is truly a special place for many people. Our citizens deserve legislation that ‘protects their land, water, air, and economic viabilities of their-livelihood and assets.”
The Gunnison Board of County Commissioners also sent a ‘letter of objection’ that requests BLM:
“…not proceed with the proposed February 14, 2013 Oil and Gas Lease Sale unless and until further review of the impacts associated with the parcels be evaluated, reconsidered, and mitigated.”
The North Fork’s BLM lands are intermixed with the private, productive agricultural lands of the valley, where families live, and that will be directly impacted by traffic and development on rural roads and adjacent lands. The community nature of these public lands, uses never fully considered by the BLM, has driven this small community to action. Protests were submitted or joined by hundreds of local residents, with one community protest gathering over 600 signers.
“It’s a simple and sensible position: Helen Hankins, the BLM state director, should not push through new leases that would permit new industrial use under a plan from 25 years ago,” said Pete Kolbenschlag with Mountain West Strategies, a Paonia-based strategic consulting firm, who helped gather support on the community protest. “The bottom line is the BLM has not done the work required, the North Fork deserves a plan that protects the resources in place here today.”
The plan the BLM is relying on to permit the sale of these highly utilized public lands was finalized in 1989. The majority of the analysis and studies that plan relied upon were completed in the early and mid-1980s. Protests and objections contend this is a backward approach and that the law requires that the BLM update its analysis and consider new information first, before it commits the lands to highly impactful industrial development.
Agricultural groups like the Valley Organic Growers Association, the state’s largest such organization; Slow Food Western Slope; and, the West Elk Winery Association—made up of twelve area wineries; all filed protests. As did several local irrigators such as the Terror Ditch and Reservoir Company.
“[The] vineyards and wineries surrounding Hotchkiss, Paonia, and Crawford have been steadfastly crafting a sustainable, locally-based industry relying on premium quality wine crafted from premium quality grapes, diverse, nearby recreational opportunities set amid sweeping views, and a pastoral, bucolic local ambience,” the Winery Association protest reads. “The proposed lease sale threatens our industry at its very roots, as several of the Protested Parcels are located within the boundaries … while others are located close by.”
The North Fork is Colorado’s only rural winegrowing region as recognized by the federal government. The area also includes the highest concentration of organic farms and orchards in the state and is gaining a reputation as “An American Provenance” for its compact towns with surrounding small family-scale farms and wineries.
These wineries, farms and other agricultural businesses directly impacted by this sale are an important part of the local economy. With its high-quality rural ambience, small-scale family farms, cottage industries, local markets, and farm-to-table restaurants the North Fork is a growing agritourism destination. Area businesses fear that all this could be significantly impacted by the agency’s leasing of these lands that would allow oil and gas drilling under a nearly 30-year-old analysis. The North Fork Valley Tourism and Lodging Association (made up of 26 local tourism, recreation and guest-oriented businesses) filed protest, arguing that:
“The most recent Environmental Assessment acknowledges that the NFV has changed dramatically since 1989, when the BLM approved the out-of-date UFO RMP. Accordingly the BLM must now comply with its multiple-use mandate, which requires “periodic adjustments in use to conform with changing needs and conditions”, and reevaluate whether oil and gas activity is appropriate for the North Fork Valley.”
Both visitors and residents are attracted to the North Fork’s rural culture. And over a dozen local realtors also filed a protest. Both sets of protests—tourism businesses and the realtors—highlight factors that have changed since the 1980s. The protests assert that the BLM must first consider these changed circumstances and this new information in a land use plan but that it has not. Therefore these lease parcels must be withdrawn.
Of course it is not only the impacts to the human environment that is drawing concern. Oil and gas development on the fragile soils and among the water sources and riparian areas of the valley could cause significant environment harm should spills or storms (neither infrequent occurrences) happen at the wrong time or in the wrong place. Impacts to wildlife, including elk and deer, and endangered and sensitive species, have the potential to be significant. Air quality is another significant issue the BLM all but admits it has failed to properly consider, before it decides to lease the lands anyways.
Trout Unlimited filed a protest due to important populations of Greenback and Colorado River Cutthroat Trout populations in streams that could be affected by development under this decades-old plan. Both the Colorado Wildlife Federation and the National Wildlife Federation filed a protest over concerns about impacts to wildlife habitat and migration routes. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—the BLM’s own sister agency—even recommended consultation prior to leasing, which the BLM state office and director have ignored.
Conservation groups also filed protests raising the above issues, including the Hotchkiss-based Citizens for a Healthy Community and Western Environmental Law Center and another from Colorado groups led by The Conservation Center (of Delta County) and High Country Citizens Alliance (in Gunnison County).
“The North Fork Valley of Colorado is a unique and valuable area, that deserves unique attention,” said Sarah Sauter with The Conservation Center, a local community group active in the valley since 1977. “The 1989 plan simply does not consider what exists here today: our water sources, our homes, our businesses and farms. We deserve better and we intend to work with the BLM to get it.”
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