North Fork crowd opposes gas drilling

HOTCHKISS — Nearly 500 people filled the high school gym in Hotchkiss and urged the Bureau of Land Management to withdraw 22 parcels scheduled to go up for an oil and gas auction this summer.

Drilling for natural gas on the 30,000 acres that comprise the parcels would threaten the North Fork Valley’s growing organic-farm industry, vineyards, and limited water supply, as well as devastate views and cramp a recovering real estate market, several officials were told.

While members of the crowd spared no criticism of the proposal to drill natural gas, several also noted community support for the coal-mining industry a few miles up the North Fork Valley. If any members of the crowd supported gas drilling on the parcels, they kept it to themselves.

Gas drills could be operating hundreds of feet from the community Montessori school that sits on Bulldog Drive, which leads to the high school, the president of the school board said.

“Who is safeguarding our children?” Tim Lafferty asked, backed by three students. Lafferty was among the first of dozens of speakers who urged that the parcels be withdrawn from the lease.

State Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass, presided over the meeting, which was attended by Mike King, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, and representatives of U.S. Sens, Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, both Colorado Democrats.

Ranching utopia

BLM officials have said public meetings will be scheduled when there is a project to discuss. The bureau however, frequently withdraws lands from auctions when faced with considerable opposition, said attorney Kyle Tisdale of the Western Environmental Law Center.

Some residents of the Crawford-Hotchkiss-Paonia area — including longtime ranchers, relatively new arrivals, real estate agents, vintners, artists and hunters — made it clear they strongly oppose leasing of the parcels.

The North Fork is “almost utopia” for ranching, said Landon Dean of Eagle Butte Ranch, summing up the clear skies, uncluttered landscape and relative solitude by noting “a dog could be heard to bark for almost 10 miles.”

All that could change with gas drilling in the valley, Dean said, citing concerns about air and water pollution and the loss of clarity in the atmosphere.

“Like the Napa Valley 50 years ago, the Willamette Valley in Oregon 40 years ago and the Texas Hill County 25 years ago, the North Fork Valley is ready to blossom,” Smith Fork Ranch owner Marley Hodgson said.

Drilling could ruin all that, Hodgson said.

Hunting, mines

The threat of drilling already is having an effect, driving away potential buyers who learn of the lease auction, several speakers with real estate interests said.

John VanDenBerg, an international consultant, said if he had been aware of the possibility of drilling in the North Fork Valley, “We would not have moved here three years ago.”

James Schott of the Delta Conservation District, which oversees water and soils for agriculture, urged the BLM to take no action until it revises its resource-management plan for the valley.

Paonia sculptor Lincoln Fox said residents would sue to prevent drilling.

“It’s much easier to fight for what we have rather than move and find another pristine place,” Fox said.

Some opponents cited individual parcels as being problematic, but hunter and outfitter Adam Gall said each lease parcel also contained a game unit, and that could harm the region’s thriving elk-hunting business.

Drilling also could cause seismic disruption to the valley’s coal mines, which have support because of the steady, long-term employment opportunities they offer, said Sarah Sauter of the North Fork River Improvement Association — Western Slope Environmental Research Council Conservation Center. 

The BLM moves to auction properties after they are nominated for leasing. The identity of the nominator isn’t revealed, but Bradley Robinson, president of Gunnison Energy, a gas drilling company, said at an unrelated meeting earlier this month that Gunnison Energy had not sought the nomination.


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