The mystery, riddle and enigma of the North Fork Valley leases

The BLM plan to lease 30,000 acres of land in the North Fork Valley of Delta and Gunnison counties is, for many of the local inhabitants, “a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma.” BLM hearings, community sponsored meetings and extensive investigations since the announcement of the plan in December 2011 have failed to unravel the mystery, answer the riddle or explain the enigma.

Scheduled for August 2012, the 22 nominated parcels threaten the future of the valley’s flourishing organic farms because of the high probability of contamination of the air and water from drilling.

The towns of Hotchkiss, Paonia and Crawford could be virtually surrounded by gas fields.

The threatened areas encompass the watersheds these communities’ depend on for drinking water. They also supply irrigation water for the agriculture essential to both the economy and quality of life in the valley.

The mystery is who nominated this area for leasing? The Crested Butte News reports, “In the past the BLM has made the nominating party public.”

However, in this case, “We don’t know who nominated the leases and we can’t find out,” Matt Reed of High Country Citizens’ Alliance told the Crested Butte News. “The BLM … won’t make that information public.”

The riddle is why any energy company would nominate these particular parcels for natural gas development. Leaders of companies now operating in the region agree with the opponents of drilling that many of the leases are such poor prospects they don’t make sense.

This opinion is substantiated by the BLM itself. It said in a 1987 Resource Management Plan for the area, “The favorability for oil and gas production in the planning area is considered low to moderate as there has been little past and no recent production.”

Initially, William Koch, owner of natural gas company Gunnison Energy, and the Oxbow Corporation’s coal mines. Koch has been in conflict with local residents over his stalled attempt to engineer a land swap to consolidate his nearby Bear Ranch property.

But Brad Goldstein, speaking for Koch’s companies, said, “We don’t know who nominated the leases in Delta County. They’re all around drinking water areas so they’re suspicious.”

Goldstein also told the Gunnison Times, “Some of the leases nominated around Bear Ranch make absolutely no sense. We can’t figure it out.”

The President of SG Interests, an energy company in Gunnison, said, “It appears to us that a lot of these parcels may be outside the outcrops of productive formations in the Piceance Basin.”

Another candidate, according to Will Shoemaker editor of the Gunnison Times, is Paonia real estate broker Tom Chapman.

Shoemaker writes, “Chapman has been involved … in numerous questionable land deals, in which he’s used he threat of development on private property surrounded by public lands to force a sale or trade with the federal government.”

“He’s at top of the list,” Goldstein said of Chapman. “He’s certainly done something like that in the past.”

Chapman failed to answer an email from Shoemaker asking him to comment on the accusation.

The BLM is the enigma.

Under no compulsion to release these sensitive lands for drilling, why does the agency insist on allowing the auction to proceed?

Environmentalist and Paonia resident Pete Kolbenschlag charged that, “Allowing the proposed action under the stale, outdated and wholly inadequate 1989 RMP ...would be a violation of …FLPMA, the agency’s basic charter from Congress.”

Social, cultural and economic changes over the past two decades make the North Fork a different place today than it was in 1989. The organic farms, ranches and vineyards that today inspires comparisons with the Provençal country in France hardly existed then.

As Kolbenschlag pointed out, the BLM is working on an updated Resource Management Plan for the area, but it might not be finished before next year. That should not be too long to defer a controversial leasing program until changes not anticipated in the 1989 RMP are considered.

North Fork residents are right to resist this ill-considered leasing plan. Until the BLM acknowledges current conditions, responds to citizen complaints and reveals who is behind the rush to lease, opponents should keep the pressure on.

Bill Grant lives in Grand Junction. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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