North Fork Alternative Plan would protect special place from drilling

By Marley Hodgson

Spring is a time when the valley along the North Fork of the Gunnison River comes alive, not only in the greening of hayfields and pastures but also with the budding fruit, awakening vines, kids, calves, lambs and chicks. It also comes alive with the activity of business and commerce in our valley that thrives on this renewed activity.

The North Fork’s lodging and tourism economy is supported by a loose affiliation of hotels, resorts, B&Bs, restaurants, winetasting rooms and retailers who all rely on a growing, dependable flow of tourists.

Food, wine, arts, retail, lodging and agriculture are all interrelated components of the North Fork’s budding tourism industry. For these reasons, many local businesses here support the North Fork Alternative Plan. The Paonia Chamber of Commerce and Town Council are also both on board.

This community-driven effort focuses on the area’s Bureau of Land Management lands to provide a framework for oil and gas development that is highly protective of the valley’s scenic and rural amenities, agricultural resources and steadily growing tourism economy.

The alternative plan seeks a strong, resource-based management framework in order to protect the North Fork’s unique features, activities and important resources for any possible future oil and gas leasing of BLM lands and federal minerals in the North Fork area.

The plan would use a combination of protective surface stipulations, including no surface occupancy, controlled surface use and closing certain areas to oil and gas leasing. It would create management zones to protect the North Fork Valley’s key features and economies; maintain the rural setting through protection of scenic corridors, key vistas and view sheds; and enhance recreational opportunities and address sensitive resource issues.

The BLM must ensure that it has fully considered the value of these amenities and public land resources as they exist today, with thoughtful planning that looks at resources across the area and that puts adequate management in place before deciding if any public lands and minerals should be leased for energy development.

The North Fork Alternative Plan does that, and the protective measures it proposes should be adopted by the BLM if the agency makes lands available for oil and gas leasing in the Uncompahgre Field Office Resource Management Plan revision, now underway.

Growing numbers of visitors come to the North Fork as part of Colorado’s “agritourism” industry. People come here for beautiful scenery and rural culture, arts and activities and to enjoy high-quality local products. They often leave with wines, cheeses, meats, juices, produce and Colorado-made, cottage-industry goods prepared by area farmers and artisans.

BLM lands in the North Fork surround and border towns, farms, orchards, ranches, wineries, restaurants and lodges. These public lands include numerous water sources, the area’s primary irrigation ditches, grazing and other permits and leases — all important to the continued well-being of the community and our businesses.

The North Fork is an American Viticultural Area, specially designated for its unique winegrowing qualities, one of only two in Colorado and notable for the highest altitude commercial wine vineyards in the Northern Hemisphere.

It is also a state creative district and the only rural district designated by Colorado for its “incredibly vibrant cultural scene, with many festivals and events that draw visitors from around the state.”

The tourism and lodging establishments in the North Fork are a vital part of the diverse regional economy, extending well beyond our scenic little valley.

Many of the North Fork’s restaurants and markets specialize in local produce and meats, and the high-quality products from here are enjoyed in some of the area’s top restaurants — in mountain towns such as Aspen and Telluride, in Western Slope cities and across the Front Range. 

The North Fork Alternative Plan recognizes the important features and resources that make the North Fork Valley a popular tourist destination, and it places the strongest level of protection around our communities, along scenic corridors, for riparian areas, for wildlife habitat, for popular recreation areas and for water sources and supplies.

The North Fork Alternative Plan would help maintain the unique qualities and the rural experience of the area by protecting critical resources and community uses, before any more oil and gas leasing is considered.

The rural qualities and interwoven nature of heavily utilized public lands and cultivated private lands, along with the small-scale, family-oriented farms and businesses of the valley, warrant careful management attention from the BLM.

Oil and gas development is an intensive industrial use that has real potential to harm the area’s tourism and recreation economy. This is why so many North Fork tourism-related businesses are joining a growing number of other businesses, organizations, local governments and valley residents to urge the BLM to adopt the North Fork Alternative Plan to help make sure these harmful impacts do not happen here.

We invite readers, family and friends to come visit this season to share our hospitality, sample our wines, pick fresh fruit or enjoy a chef-prepared, farm-to-fork meal.

Come experience firsthand what makes the North Fork Valley uniquely Colorado, its natural qualities, mountain scenery and rural charm. Come learn why residents and businesses here are intent on working together to keep it that way.

Our hope is that the BLM agrees and includes the protective measures of the North Fork Alternative Plan in its revised land use plan.

Marley Hodgson and his wife Linda own Smith Fork Ranch outside of Crawford. The ranch is a historic western hunting lodge, restored into a unique luxury-rustic getaway at the foot of Saddle Mountain on the edge of the West Elk Wilderness.


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