Singing the North Fork fracking blues and updating BLM policies

Gov. John Hickenlooper may drink fracking fluid in a publicity stunt showing his affinity for the oil and gas industry, but no one in the North Fork wants to. That feisty valley full of organic farmers, aging hippies, libertarian liberals and at least one billionaire with his very own military tank is a great place to buy everything from delicious apples to exquisite wines.

Whatever else it is — with its deep traditions of coal mining, hunting, farming, ranching and fruit growing — the North Fork Valley is a singular place. The residents of Delta, Hotchkiss, Paonia and Crawford, descended from generations of homesteaders with a significant sprinkling of newcomers, have their own way of looking at the world.

They also have their own perspective on the federal government and the Bureau of Land Management in particular. Locals have hunted public lands for decades. They intimately know where to be at dawn in just the right places for elk and deer season. They know the creeks, streams, rivers and all aspects of their watershed. What they don’t know is the long-lasting effects of hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas, a relatively new technology compared to farming techniques practiced in the valley.

They also don’t know which corporations have threatened to overturn their organic apple cart by seeking to lease 30,000 acres of BLM lands in the North Fork Valley. They may soon find out. Those vine-hugging eco-nuts sued the BLM to release the names of corporations that nominated lands for lease. And they won the preliminary round.

Paonia’s Citizens for a Healthy Community brought the case. Attorney Kyle Tisdel of the Western Environmental Law Center said, “Every community has the right to know what corporations are seeking to drill on public lands near their homes and where they recreate.”

When are oil and gas corporations going to quit hiding behind the word “proprietary” when it comes to doing business on public lands? What’s not clear about the word “transparency”? Locals have won a substantial legal ruling and the BLM has deferred those leases. For now.

Oil and gas leasing on public land in Colorado remains a battleground unique in the West. Of New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado, our state has the highest percentage, at 85 percent, of acres protested for potential lease. What does that say about us? Do we care more about the environment or are we just enviro-stick-in-the-muds unwilling to do our part for national energy self-sufficiency? What’s going on here?

It’s time to find out.

Legitimate issues both in the North Fork Valley and in La Plata County in southwest Colorado are outdated public land management plans that do not reflect how rural western communities have changed in the last 30 years. The BLM has a federal mandate to develop energy resources on lands it administers.

Historically, BLM lands were those lands that nobody wanted. They were not homesteaded. They were not added onto national forests or national parks. They were part of the federal estate left over after the frontier ended. Why pay property taxes on desert, oak brush and adobe?

Now, we see through a different lens. Those once-useless lands are now valuable, not only for oil and gas but also for recreation, animal habitat and watershed protection. I’m glad they are administered by the BLM. I’m glad federal employees have various responsibilities in caring for our public-lands legacy, and I’m also glad the BLM itself is evolving from an agency that does more than just monitor extractive industries.

Part of the evolution of the agency from resource extraction to resource protection of national conservation areas, national monuments and wilderness areas is to understand the changing perspectives of citizens who live near federal lands. Hence, every concerned West Slope resident should read a valuable document produced in Washington, D.C. The bland title is “Bureau of Land Management, Socioeconomic Strategy, 2012-2022.” What the document reveals is nothing less than a seismic shift in how the BLM needs to do business. More than 1,200 BLM employees and citizen members of BLM resource advisory councils were interviewed as part of the report.

The social-science jargon is a little thick, but the report is a clarion call for institutional change, beginning with a vision statement that proclaims, “Relevant and credible socioeconomic information and tools are used in resource management decisions to strengthen the effectiveness of BLM programs.” That’s a great goal.

Imbedded in the report are important concepts like identifying “many of BLM’s current management challenges within a socioeconomic context, using the broad topics of communities, landscapes, and values.” Yes, values. Now we’re talking.

The report acknowledges that “over the past forty years the West has changed dramatically ... pushing residential development to the boundaries of federal lands and producing many land use conflicts at the wildland-urban interface.” Yup.

I also like the BLM’s realization that “it is far more difficult to quantify the economic benefits of healthy ecosystems.”

Welcome to the New West. While the Old West of wide open resource extraction prevails in Wyoming, here in Colorado energy issues and community concerns are complex. It’s time to “enhance the BLM’s collective ability to understand the human context and consequences of its decision-making.” I couldn’t agree more. Let’s put that BLM document to good use.

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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“[I]t is far more difficult to quantify the economic benefits of healthy ecosystems.”

Yes. It is so much easier to quantify grazing, farming, mining, oil and gas production, hunting and water extraction—-the old ways of defining our resources. But beauty, viewsheds, quiet, habitat, recreational potential, air quality and ecosystems don’t covert as well to the mighty dollar.

This disparity makes it difficult to understand the value of other public lands such as Monuments and National Parks. The New West doesn’t yet have a convincing way to describe itself, let alone an accurate way to value the difference between Colorado National Monument and Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce National Park.

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