A group of farmers and business owners opposed to natural gas leasing in the North Fork Valley took their cause to Washington, D.C. last week and got an audience with the White House and both of Colorado’s senators.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is considering leasing 22 parcels on 30,000 acres of its public land surrounding organic farms, ranches and vineyards in towns like Paonia, Hotchkiss and Crawford.
The proposed lease sale has raised environmental concerns as well as fear about tainting the local food supply for Aspen’s restaurants, some of which have joined protest efforts.
Landon Deane, of Aspen’s T-Lazy-7 Ranch and Crawford’s Eagle Butte Ranch, characterized the leases as an existential threat to her family’s 900-head cattle operation in the North Fork. It is bordered on three sides by parcels proposed for gas leasing.
She went to Washington with Brent Hillocks, of Stone Cottage Cellars in Paonia, Marley Hodgson of Smith Fork Ranch in Crawford, public lands consultant Pete Kolbenschlag and James Beard Award-nominated food writer Eugenia Bone. All are members of Citizens for a Healthy Community (CHC), which formed to oppose the leases and now includes more than 900 members.
The coalition had in-person meetings with both of Colorado’s U.S. Senators and White House environmental officials.
“We were really encouraged by what we heard,” Deane said.
The citizens group and conservation advocates have focused their opposition largely on the fact that the BLM’s resource management plan for the area was written more than two decades ago. They claim it doesn’t provide adequate analysis of the potential harm gas drilling would cause for the area.
If the lease sale moves forward, as planned, in August, the group plans to sue the feds. Deane said the group was blunt about possible litigation in their meetings in Washington.
“They needed to know they were setting themselves up for a lawsuit,” Deane said.
Kolbenschlag said the primary goal of the trip was to inform the powers that be about the issue, and the locals’ concerns. But, he said, they weren’t shy about possible litigation.
“We certainly let them know that it’s a plaintiff-rich environment and that we’re aware of what the next steps are,” he said. “They got the message that the people are ready and willing to challenge this. We also made the point that nobody really wants to do that.”
While the trip clearly had overtones of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” the farmers took their job seriously: defending what they see as a dire threat to their homes, livelihoods and lifestyle.
Discussing the lobbying strategy this week, Deane quoted Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” noting the ancient Chinese wisdom that people fight hardest when attacked on their homeland.
The Gunnison County commissioners, in their official comments to the BLM, referenced a 2006 federal lawsuit that the agency lost on similar grounds.
Deane said she felt federal officials took the CHC seriously on the trip.
At the White House, the group met with members of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), including water quality and chemical contamination officials.
“I said, ‘Who do you report to?’” Deane laughed. “And they said, ‘Um, Barack Obama.’”
In each of their meetings, the group outlined their concerns and made presentations about the issue.
The group met face-to-face with U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall. In advance of the trip, Deane said both congressmen sent legislative assistants in Colorado to tour the proposed gaslands in the North Fork.
Earlier this month, Bennet and Udall successfully lobbied the BLM to extend the citizen comment period on the lease sale.
“As this area supports key aspects of Colorado’s economy, from tourism and resource development to agriculture and outdoor recreation, it is essential that management decisions regarding these public lands be informed by comments from all stakeholders,” they wrote to the agency’s Colorado state director.
In response, the BLM extended the deadline by two weeks. It ended April 20.
The group also met with Rep. Scott Tipton’s deputy policy director. They are not hanging their hats on Tipton’s support for scuttling the lease sale.
“Tipton’s the challenging one because he is pro-energy,” Deane said.
Agency officials are now evaluating public comments on the proposal. The North Fork citizens group is hoping that, based on the opposition of the local community, the BLM will withdraw the auction, which was requested by an anonymous gas company.
Kolbenschlag said they expect the BLM to post which parcels will be up for lease in early May. A 30-day official protest period will follow that announcement.
Deane added that she was pleasantly surprised at how seriously officials in Washington examined the issue.
“It was amazing how the little tiny North Fork Valley was the buzz in Washington,” she said. “On the plane over I was thinking, ‘What are we really going to be able to do?’ But on the flight back I was thinking, ‘I think we did it.’”