Paonia tries to protect area from drilling rigs

The town of Paonia is asking U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet to seek legislative withdrawal of federal acreage around the town from future oil and gas leasing, something the Colorado Democrat already is trying to do for what’s known as the Thompson Divide.

The Town Council voted on July 9 to approve a letter 
making the request, after a recent visit by Bennet to the North Fork Valley to hear concerns about possible oil and gas development there.

In its letter, the council cited the desire for protection of nearby public lands.

“Industrial development on these lands would adversely affect the Town of Paonia and its residents and would directly impact our water sources and supplies, our recreation and hunting access, and would harm the defining natural features that frame our valley and town,” the council said.

“Therefore, the Paonia Town Council respectfully requests that you include some additional lands in pending or future legislation to protect these key water sources, nearby critical wildlife habitat lands and hunting access, local landmarks, scenic areas, and recreational opportunities.”

The letter specifically calls for withdrawal of leasing of:

■ lands that contain town water supplies, including along Minnesota Creek;

■ mesas and other lands that frame the town’s entrance and/or provide its scenic backdrop;

■ the Mount Lamborn area and the flanks of the West Elk Mountains, including Mount Jumbo.

It said other areas important to the town, including the Paonia Reservoir area, which provides irrigation water and recreation, should be considered for lease withdrawal or watershed protection.

In March, with the support of many residents and local governments in the Roaring Fork Valley, Bennet introduced a bill seeking to limit oil and gas development on 183,000 federal acres of the 221,000-acre Thompson Divide area between Glenwood Springs and McClure Pass. It would prevent unleased public minerals from being developed and let existing leases be retired if they are willingly donated or sold by their owners.

Meanwhile, some North Fork Valley residents, elected officials and businesses have become alarmed by proposals, now on hold, to lease tens of thousands of acres for drilling there.

Bennet spokesman Adam Bozzi said his office is reviewing Paonia’s letter.

“Senator Bennet believes public lands management works best with strong local community support,” he said.

David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said the local drilling opposition efforts reflect the degree to which Americans consume energy but are unwilling to be inconvenienced by its production.

“Everyone believes their community is more unique and more special than everybody else’s community,” he said.

Such opposition “doesn’t recognize the energy that’s required to fuel our dynamic and growing country,” he said. “We need to look at how we can all do our part to produce the energy we use every day.”

Some North Fork Valley activists are asking the Bureau of Land Management to adopt an alternative leasing plan. They say it would allow some leasing but require strong agricultural, water, wildlife and other protections.

The town of Paonia supports that plan.

“But we also recognize the limits of securing only administrative protection,” the council says in its letter.


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