Land swap, potential drilling cause for uproar
The isolation of the North Fork Valley is under assault as residents pick sides on the issue of how the stretch of barren adobe, rolling hills of piñon and stark, rocky peaks will be treated.
Two main issues have roiled the solitude of the valley: the battle over expansion of Bear Ranch and a looming fight over drilling on 30,000 acres in the Paonia-Hotchkiss area.
Bear Ranch, owned by billionaire William Koch, whose Oxbow Resources owns the nearby Elk Creek Mine, has been a battleground for three years now.
Now a battle is set over whether the federal government should auction off the oil and gas leases in the valley in August.
Koch’s proposed Central Rockies Land Exchange would give him control of about 1,800 acres now managed by the Bureau of Land Management. He would give the federal government land overlooking Blue Mesa Reservoir, property in Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, mountain-biking access near Paonia and two yet-to-be determined trails through Buck Creek Ranch to the Ragged Mountain Trail.
Opponents of the swap are unimpressed and have set up a website, raggedmountainlandexchange.com to counter Koch’s centralrockieslandexchange.com, which details Koch’s proposed swap.
“Bill Koch wants to lock you out of this,” declares the opposition site in a headline over a photo of Ragged Mountain in high summer. It also features photos of the western town that Koch, an avid collector of Western memorabilia, is assembling.
“This private western village has been permitted by Gunnison County and by the State of Colorado and it is perfectly OK,” swap opponents say in the opposition site.
Still, the swap is being proposed so the public “won’t see this,” the site says over photos of the very same snowbound western town.
Brad Goldstein, director of corporate affairs for Oxbow, calls the opposition site “a string of lies.”
Ed Marston, the swap opponent whose blog is featured on the opposition site, says the swap amounts to the loss of the best existing access to the Ragged Mountain Basin, and the swap “is all about building an immense private village/toy in what used to be an intact ranch.”
Marston says Koch is trying to dial up support for the exchange with a push poll, in which North Fork residents are receiving phone calls with recorded messages that are intended to encourage the recipients to look favorably on the swap.
“I wouldn’t call it a push poll,” Goldstein said in an email. “It’s clear to us that the public doesn’t know a lot about the exchange. At the same time, we are tired of Ed Marston distorting the facts.”
Bear Ranch might do more polls, Goldstein said. The poll asks a series of questions, such as whether positive information about the swap might change the respondent’s opinion.
On his blog, Marston hammers on the western town theme, suggesting he would ask whether people’s opinions might change if they knew “the major purpose of the land exchange is to prevent you, Mr. and Mrs. Public, from seeing the Western Village of 50 or so buildings that is being erected on what had been a beautiful ranch.”
From western towns to organic farms, the acrimony is only the beginning.
Nearly 500 people turned out last month to oppose the potential lease of 22 parcels of North Fork land for natural gas drilling.
The Delta County Commission is sponsoring a daylong session with drilling and energy experts Saturday at Paonia High School intended to offer residents the opportunity to educate themselves about the likely effects of drilling. The meeting begins at 9 a.m. and continues through 4:30 p.m.
Opponents said drilling could endanger water supplies, obscure views, drive down property values and threaten the organic farming industry that has taken hold in the valley.
The furor over drilling reaches far beyond the valley and even Delta County, Commissioner Bruce Hovde said.
“I have over 2,000 emails from all over the United States,” Hovde said, adding that most of the emails are form letters of opposition from places as far-flung as Philadelphia and the Philippines.
“I’ve had to have IT come in twice now to have them clean out my email because it’s overloaded.”