BLM has not adequately prepared to lease oil and gas in North Fork Valley

Colorado’s North Fork Valley unites the traditional and the trendy. Its multi-generational family ranches and orchards co-exist with increasingly popular wineries and organic farms. Its recent designation as a “Colorado Creative District” is recognition by the state of Colorado of the area’s artisans, authors, artists, musicians and entrepreneurs. It is the only such rural area in the state.

Thomas Huber, a Colorado geographer, in his recent book, “An American Provence,” links the North Fork Valley with France’s world famous Coulon River Valley, a tourist destination and important agricultural area.

The North Fork is gaining national recognition as an up-and-coming agri-tourism destination and is earning a well-deserved brand for its organic, natural and minimally processed products and its responsible land stewardship. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has recognized the importance of the valley on a national and state level and has designated large parts of the valley as prime and unique farmlands.

The North Fork preserves a rural lifestyle that was long ago just memory in most of America. Local businesses are the norm here, and the sense of community is strong. While the politics often split down the middle, people get along.

We mostly agree on the importance of place and share the sense that something this special is worth preserving. We are proud that people come to experience our unique community for a weekend or a lifetime. It is the special uniqueness of old and new wrapped in an amazing natural setting that attracted or kept us here.

Some can dismiss the attitude as “provincial” — just a few thousand folks who do not want to see the lands around their water supplies, their farms, or immediately above their schools leased for oil and gas development. But legitimate concerns, based on increasingly worrisome scientific studies and real-life experiences of communities in Garfield County, Boulder County, New York and Wyoming, worry farmers about their water quality and availability, parents about their kids, towns about traffic on their crumbling roads, ranchers about their livestock and residents about their health, their property values and their livelihood.

People do not want the North Fork to become collateral damage in ways that other agricultural communities have for what some consider a myth of energy independence.

Those concerns ought not to be discounted or patronized. They are legitimate concerns that citizens expect their government to address in land use planning that could permit an industrial use in their midst.

In spite of such reasonable expectations, these concerns remain unaddressed in the Bureau of Land Management’s recent environmental assessment to lease 30,000 acres in the North Fork based on a resource management plan that is more than two decades old.

This out-of-date RMP is the core issue and was raised in most of the comments received during the last comment period. The analysis and management framework of the 1980s-era RMP and related environmental impact statement cannot support leasing these lands under current circumstances.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife comments urge the BLM to withdraw parcels because the 1989 RMP cannot protect migration corridors, riparian zones and other habitat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommends parcels be deferred because the 1989 plan does not adequately protect against impacts to endangered species. The Gunnison Basin Selenium Task Force said leasing would jeopardize progress to reduce salinity loads in the Gunnison and Colorado Rivers — at the expense of millions of taxpayer dollars already spent. The Delta Conservation District urged parcels be pulled since outdated management does not properly protect the extensive irrigation and related resources and infrastructure in the valley. Several local governments commented, all asking that parcels be withdrawn because the RMP cannot show it will avoid damage to public, community or local resources. Gunnison County summed it up succinctly in its comments on the environmental assessment:

“We believe that the proposed lease sale is premature, unsupported by required National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis and documentation, that it lacks critical foundational information ... The draft Environmental Assessment only affirms those concerns. We respectfully suggest that to act on the incomplete information included in the draft EA and FONSI (agency ‘finding of no significant impacts’) will indeed result in a regrettable decision.

“Again, the Board of County Commissioners of the County of Gunnison, Colorado, respectfully requests that the Bureau not proceed with the proposed August 2012 Oil and Gas Lease Sale unless and until both an Environmental Impact Statement, and the current revision of the ... RMP are completed.”

North Fork communities deserve due consideration from their government. Common sense and good land use planning demand that such be given based on the uses and resources that exist today, and on which of those should be cultivated for the future.

The North Fork is a special place, recognized as such by old timers, newcomers and visiting travelers alike. It is a uniquely Colorado community, deeply rooted in the past and creatively manifesting its future.

Residents do expect the BLM to consider our communities as it revises its RMP. But that such a revision is underway is not really the issue. The matter comes down to a simple one: The agency cannot lease these lands because it has not done the necessary study and planning, nor can it show that it has management in place protecting the valley’s important and current assets.

Lazaros Bountour serves on the Upper North Fork Valley planning committee for Delta County.  He and his wife own a vineyard and 27-acre farm in the North Fork Valley that they hope to turn into a Bed and Breakfast. 


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