NORTH FORK VALLEY – Hard on the heels of a citizens and business-owners lobbying trip to Washington, D.C., state Bureau of Land Management officials traveled to the North Fork this week to talk about oil and gas leases due to be auctioned Feb. 14.
A five-person delegation, including state BLM Director Helen Hankin, state BLM Communications Director Steven Hall, and Montrose Field Office Manager Barb Sharrow, scheduled meetings with the city governments of Hotchkiss, Crawford and Paonia to discuss the leasing of 20,555 acres for oil and gas development. Many of those 20 lease parcels are in close proximity to the three towns and activists have expressed concern that drilling would threaten air quality, drinking water supplies, irrigation water, and more broadly, “the sustainable organic food-and-wine economy” that has flourished along the North Fork of the Gunnison River.
According to Jim Ramey, executive director of Paonia-based Citizens for a Healthy Community, things “did not go too well” at the first meeting, on Monday, Jan. 21 in Hotchkiss. “They [the BLM] appeared to want to exclude comment from the public.”
About 50 citizens, in addition to the mayor and town council, attended the meeting at Hotchkiss Town Hall Monday. As reported by KVNF radio, BLM Director Hankin had maps and handouts describing the lease parcels, but only for the council. It was further reported that the five BLM staffers took questions only from Mayor Wendell Koontz – the audience was not invited to participate – which resulted in growing “audience rumblings.”
Field Manager Sharrow did address concern that the agency’s land management document, the RMP or Resource Management Plan, was drafted in the mid-1980s and finalized in 1989, well before fracking and other controversial industry practices were widespread. Sharrow said the RMP had been “amended 16 times” in the years since its drafting and that a new RMP, long in the works, was due out “sometime this spring,” to be followed by the requisite public comment period. But, she emphasized, the prospect of a new RMP had no bearing on the February lease sale upcoming.
Unhappy with that answer and frustrated at not being allowed to speak, an unidentified woman stood and shouted: “Shame on you for not hearing the people in this room who are opposed to these leases.”
“The BLM road show,” as KVNF called it, was due to meet with city councils in Crawford and Paonia on Tuesday, Jan. 22.
The groundswell of opposition to leasing (and drilling) in the North Fork began a year ago, when the parcels were nominated for mineral development by unnamed industry players and culminated last week in a visit to Washington, D.C., by valley business people hoping to persuade the Bureau to remove the parcels from the auction block, at least until a new RMP, one that would reflect the realities and impacts of drilling today, was in place.
“Time and again we have tried to get the BLM Colorado office to slow down and wait until there’s an updated plan in place for the area,” said Marley Hodgson, one of five North Fork residents who made the trip. “We travelled all the way to Washington because it’s just that important to us. We really appreciate that BLM Director Pool and Deputy Director Kornze took the time to meet with us and listen to our concerns.”
According to a release by Citizens for a Healthy Community, Hodgson, of the Smith Fork guest ranch in Crawford, told Pool: “Based on the wineries and the organic farming, we have a very sustainable economy here that’s not compatible with oil and gas development.”
Another Crawford resident, national food and wine critic Eugenia Bone added that the sustainable agriculture that’s developed in the North Fork in recent years is threatened at its core by the prospect of industrial-scale oil and gas drilling. “I have been a consistent advocate for the emerging organic food and wine scene in the North Fork,” Bone said. “Here we have a case where one industry, oil and gas, would completely decimate the existing, sustainable economy that is still growing. Moving forward with this lease sale based on outdated science and analysis is just a bad idea.”
The North Fork group also met with, and requested help from U.S. Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, and Rep. Scott Tipton.
Other critics of the industry (and of the BLM’s process) who made the trip included Ty Gillespie, owner of Azura Cellars and Gallery in Paonia, Landon Deane of the Eagle Butte cattle ranch in Paonia and the T-Lazy-7 Ranch in Aspen, and strategic consultant Pete Kolbenschlag, who said, “We were hoping to work with the BLM on the updated plan, but the February lease sale threatens this work. Leasing these lands before the updated plan is in place fails the common sense test, and we’re hopeful BLM will do the right thing and withdrawal these leases.”