Federal authorities have pulled more than 20,000 acres of public land in the North Fork Valley from an upcoming oil and gas lease sale, citing local opposition to drilling in the area.
“We’ve listened to concerns raised in numerous comments and public meetings and we are responding by deferring the North Fork Valley parcels at this time,” said Helen Hankins, state director for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). “We are addressing the deferred parcels through continued dialogue with the local community and with ongoing planning efforts in the Uncompahgre Field Office.”
In all, 20 parcels had been set for auction in and around Hotchkiss, Crawford and Paonia on Feb. 14. Ranchers and farmers in the area, which provides local food for Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley, have waged a well organized fight against the leases.
Residents of the valley argue that its booming organic farming, agritourism and wine industry would be threatened by oil and gas drilling.
“It’s a great day for the people of the North Fork Valley,” said Jim Ramey, director of Citizens for a Healthy Community, which has led opposition to the lease sale along with the Western Environmental Law Center.
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 They claim it is outdated and doesn’t take the current reality on the ground into account.
They’ve argued for a fresh analysis, which they’re hoping the BLM will now undertake, and with which they’ve offered to assist.
“We are going to keep up our work to bring to the BLM some thoughtful management ideas,” Ramey said. “And that may go on for a couple years.”
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.
A contingent of locals traveled to Washington, D.C. last month to meet federal officials, including the acting BLM director Mike Pool, and voice their opposition. The group included Landon Deane of Aspen’s T-Lazy-7 Ranch and Crawford’s Eagle Butte Ranch.
“Drilling in the North Fork Valley would destroy our sustainable local economy,” Deane said Wednesday in a press release. “The BLM’s decision today will help protect our ranching, farming, vineyard and tourism jobs.”
BLM officials also visited the North Fork last month and met with local opponents. That on-the-ground experience appeared to sway the feds to hold off on the leases.
“This decision is consistent with our reform efforts that emphasize a comprehensive approach to oil and gas leasing so as to ensure that energy development occurs in the appropriate places,” said Pool.
State Sen. and Snowmass Village resident Gail Schwartz applauded the BLM for dropping the North Fork parcels. She acknowledged that responsible oil and gas development is an “important part” of Colorado’s economy, but said drilling is inappropriate in areas like the North Fork.
“The proximity of these parcels to water resources and sensitive agricultural production is an important factor to be considered during the review process because of the potential impact to the local economy, agritourism, and the citizens’ quality of life,” Schwartz said in a statement. “I appreciate that the BLM state director listened to the concerns raised in the comment period and is embracing the importance of continued dialogue with the local community.”
Wednesday’s announcement marks the second time that an oil and gas lease sale has been deferred for the North Fork in the last year. A larger 30,000-acre area — including the 20 leases dropped Wednesday — had been scheduled for lease in August 2012, but was deferred in May after local push back.
Citizens for a Healthy Community has a pending Freedom of Information Act lawsuit asking the BLM to name the company that has nominated and re-nominated the parcels for leasing.
While the BLM has deferred their sale, the leases remain nominated, and could potentially come back to auction. Ramey and others hope the BLM will not do so before completing a new land management process.
Ramey said the North Fork residents’ success should give heart to those in the Crystal and Roaring Fork valleys fighting drilling in the Thompson Divide area, though the situations are quite different and the Thompson Divide parcels already have been legally leased to gas companies.
“Our success in being able to have these leases pulled is really a function of the community coming together and talking to the right people and keeping up the work that we do,” he said. “They have a steeper hill to climb than we do, but in some ways they’ve been doing better. ... They’re in a good spot.”
The BLM is still offering 151 parcels, totaling more than 88,500 acres of Colorado public land, for oil and gas development in their quarterly sale next week.