More than 20,000 acres of public land in the North Fork Valley is scheduled to be leased for oil and gas drilling by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) next month, reinvigorating a local opposition that had previously succeeded in lobbying the feds to take the land off of the auction block.
A total of 20 leases in and around Hotchkiss, Crawford and Paonia are to be leased on Feb. 14. Ranchers and farmers in the area, which provides local food for Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley, are fighting the leases and some are going to Washington, D.C. this week to meet federal officials.
“We’re extremely surprised and totally horrified it’s back,” said Landon Deane of Aspen’s T-Lazy-7 Ranch and Crawford’s Eagle Butte Ranch, a family-run 900-head cattle operation adjacent to land proposed for gas leasing.
The same parcels had been included in a larger 30,000-acre planned BLM lease sale last year. That August 2012 sale, however, was canceled in May, weeks after Deane and members of the Citizens for a Healthy Community met with White House officials and both of Colorado’s U.S. senators as part of a vocal opposition effort.
Residents of the valley argue that its booming organic farming, agritourism and wine industry would be threatened by oil and gas drilling.
The August lease sale was canceled as the agency was flooded with comments on the BLM’s environmental assessment of the area. But in November, the agency announced it would proceed with an amended lease sale. The new offering cuts out more than 9,000 acres and two of the most controversial leases, including one 40-acre parcel abutting Hotchkiss High School, and some on high slopes that would impact views around the valley.
Deane and local representatives are heading back to Washington today to meet with Neil Kornze, deputy director of the BLM, along with representatives of Colorado U.S. senators Michael Bennet and Mark Udall.
“We’re going to try and duplicate what we did last time,” Deane said. “The group was extremely well received last time, so hopefully we can wow them again.”
The Paonia Town Council and the Gunnison County commissioners both wrote to the BLM late last year, protesting the new sale and asking that all local parcels be removed from leasing.
Despite the reduced size of the drilling area, local critics are no less opposed now than they were last year. While the closest site to the high school has been removed, several more nearby remain on the table, along with areas near farms, ranches and water sources.
“They have dropped a few of them,” said Deane, “but there’s a lot of key ones that are still in it — including the ones on our property — which is pretty key for us.”
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 finalized in 1989 and based on scientific analysis from the mid-1980s. They claim it is outdated and doesn’t take the current reality on the ground into account.
Locals called for new analysis last year, and many were surprised when the BLM brought the leases back without updating the management plan.
“It is questionable in most people’s minds over here that the agency failed to address that fundamental issue,” said Pete Kolbenschlag of Mountain West Strategies, a Paonia-based strategic consulting firm focused on environmental issues. “It’s being done under this ancient land management plan.”
Citizens for a Healthy Community has expressed a desire to work with the BLM to update the plan to reflect the growth in sustainable farming and winemaking in the area.
“We want to work toward a solution, but we can’t because they just keep trying to push these bad lease sales down our throats,” said Kolbenschlag.
The volume of letters and feedback from locals seemed to put off the lease sale last time, which Deane is hoping they can repeat.
“That’s one thing they said in Washington, that the letters had a huge, huge impact,” she said.
The BLM has not revealed who requested the local lease sale, but the agency moves forward with mineral rights auctions only after an extraction company expresses interest in specific public lands.
“Everything about this sale, when you look at it, is problematic,” said Kolbenschlag.
The 20 North Fork parcels are among 198 going up for lease in February, totaling about 115,000 acres across Colorado.
It’s the biggest lease sale in Colorado in at least six years. The North Fork is among a handful of communities around the state fighting the sales. Potential gas leases have also drawn protests from the National Park Service for acreage being offered around Dinosaur National Monument.