North Fork Valley groups concerned about impacts to tourism, agriculture
A coalition of agriculture and conservation groups based in the North Fork Valley have released a plan that would drastically reduce the amount of land available for gas leasing in the region often called the “bread basket” of the Roaring Fork Valley.
The so-called “North Fork Alternative Plan” would apply to about 63,000 acres of land and 137,000 acres of underground minerals around Paonia, Hotchkiss, Delta and several smaller communities in the valley 60 miles south of Carbondale. The plan would put roughly 77 percent of those lands off limits to oil and gas development.
“We are recommending really strong protections for the resources,” said Jim Ramey, a lead author of the plan and the executive director of Citizens for a Healthy Community, a Paonia-based environmental group. “We decided as a community what sort of protections we needed to have in place.”
Ramey noted that more than 150,000 acres of land in the North Fork Valley already have been leased for oil and gas development, and the new plan would not affect those leases.
During the agricultural growing season — which North Fork Valley Farmers extend almost year-round with the help of greenhouses — many Roaring Fork Valley restaurants and farmer’s markets source produce from Paonia and the surrounding area.
Chef Chris Lanter, who co-owns the Aspen restaurant Cache Cache, has spoken out against drilling there in the past, and on Wednesday he said he still supports limits on gas development in the North Fork Valley.
“I know that our local farmers are against it, and I’m on the farmers’ side,” Lanter said. “About 95 percent of our produce in the summer comes from there. So if the farmer doesn’t want it, I don’t want it.”
Mark Fischer, a chef who operates the restaurants Town and Phat Thai in Carbondale and The Pullman in Glenwood Springs, said he too was sympathetic of farmers who worry that allowing gas drilling near their operations could mean bad publicity with farmer’s market customers.
“The PR issue is certainly huge,” Fischer said. “I don’t really profess to have an anti-corporate stance, but there are lots of places to drill. [The gas companies] should explore other alternatives.”
Mark Waltermire, who runs the “beyond organic” Thistle Whistle vegetable and goat farm near Hotchkiss, said he’s worried about the potential health implications of a gas drilling accident for air, water and the land.
Yet Waltermire, who also is the current president of a trade group called the Valley Organic Growers Association, said his broadest concern isn’t drilling per se, but industrialization. The traffic, and light and air pollution associated with water trucks and drilling rigs, he said, would change the character of the North Fork Valley. It wouldn’t be as compatible with agriculture there as it is in other parts of Colorado, he noted.
“The agriculture that we have in this valley is very different from what’s around Greeley,” Waltermire said, referring to the city in northeastern Colorado where both gas drilling and agriculture are major industries. “We are reliant on a much different clientele, and our reputation for purity and clean, healthy food is much more important to us than it is for a Greeley area farmer. Tourism is also extremely important to us. Industrialization here isn’t going to work.”
The North Fork Alternative Plan is more than a year in the making, Ramey said, and was funded primarily with donations from individuals and foundations in the North Fork Valley. According to Ramey, the Aspen Skiing Co. Environment Foundation also made a $10,000 contribution to the effort.
The plan is meant to prevent oil and gas lease auctions in the area like the two that were recently deferred by the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM). In 2012, the gas companies Baseline Minerals, Contex Energy and Gunnison Energy, nominated 30,000 acres of North Fork Valley land for gas leasing, but that lease sale was deferred in May 2012 following public outcry from valley residents, environmentalists, real estate brokers and farmers in the region.
Another lease sale that would have placed about 20,000 acres of North Fork Valley land on the auction block had been set for February of this year, but it was deferred again indefinitely at the 11th hour.
The three gas companies that recommended the North Fork land for leasing did so anonymously, but Citizens for a Healthy Community obtained their names through a federal Freedom of Information Act request.
During the twice-deferred lease sales, many criticized the Uncompahgre Field Office of the BLM for operating under an outdated 1989 management plan that didn’t reflect the small farm, vineyard and tourism-based economy that has developed in the North Fork Valley over the last 20 years.
The BLM is now in the process of revising its management plan, and has agreed to consider the North Fork Alternative Plan as one management option for the area. The North Fork plan was submitted to the BLM on Dec. 4.
“[The plan] is an attempt to be proactive about oil and gas rather than being reactive as we were with these recent lease sales,” said Ramey.
If enacted, the plan would ban any surface disturbance from gas drilling operations less than a quarter mile from agricultural land. It would ban gas leasing within a half mile of the Crawford, Hotchkiss and Paonia town limits, and within a quarter mile of several area schools.
There would be no leasing allowed within a quarter mile of municipal private water systems under the plan, and no surface disturbance from drilling allowed within a half mile of public or private water systems, including ditches.
The plan has been met with sharp criticism from the West Slope Oil and Gas Association, whose members include companies like Gunnison Energy, Encana and Shell, among many others.
David Ludlam, the group’s executive director, said the proposed plan would ban drilling in so much of the North Fork Valley that it “wouldn’t allow for any kind of scalable project.”
Although Ludlam acknowledged that the concerns of farmers like Waltermire were “not without merit,” he said many drilling-related impacts like traffic, light, noise, or interference with views could be mitigated through conditions placed on permits.
Ludlam also reprised an argument he has made during past discussions about local opposition to drilling in the Thompson Divide, partly located outside of Carbondale.
“Not every community can be too special for oil and gas,” he said. The authors of the North Fork Alternative Plan, he said, “believe their community is more special, more unique and less conducive to energy development [than other communities]. But the reality is if not there, then where?”
Ludlam said his group would submit formal comments when the BLM releases the first draft of its updated management plan for the area. That document is expected in late winter or early spring. A public comment period of at least 90 days will follow, and the final resource management plan could take up to two years to complete, according to Ramey.