There was traffic on Paonia’s main street, and it wasn’t even Mountain Harvest Festival weekend.
“Traffic” meant waiting for two other cars to pass through the intersection of Grand and 2nd, but on this cloudless late October day the increased midweek activity could be witnessed in the check-stands of Don’s supermarket, in the block-long line of work trucks parked outside Dependable Lumber, and in front of the Remedy café and adjacent bike “boutique,” where cold-pressed juices seemed to fly out the door.
New faces — and there are more of them these days strolling Grand Avenue — are greeted with a hearty hello or a slightly wary eye by locals who have seen folks come and go, most recently through the loss of mining jobs in nearby Somerset that has followed the fossil fuel industry’s decline.
Paonia has its share of Aspenites, current and former, attracted by the once-cheap housing and land, and close proximity to the Roaring Fork Valley for either a weekend place or full-time residence.
The area’s newcomers arrive from all directions. Some are eco-conscious, well-educated 20- and 30-somethings entranced by the valley’s organic appeal and favorable pot-growing conditions, while others are relocated Front Range retirees with fistfuls of cash to buy up the remaining reasonable housing stock.
This adds to the already diverse mix of ranchers, organic farmers and small business owners in the shadow of Mount Lamborn, and the sense that while just two hours from Aspen, Paonia can feel a world away.
A town and a valley that was naturally evolving through economics and demographics may see further changes after the Oct. 3 final record of decision (ROD) by the Bureau of Land Management to open up nearly 20,000 acres of federal and private mineral estate near Paonia to oil and gas leases.
“The plan provides a framework for developing up to 146 natural gas wells, four water disposal wells and construction of associated access roads and pipelines for leases operated by SG Interests I, Ltd (SGI),” according to a statement from the BLM that was part of the recent ROD.
“The plan is a part of the President’s America First Energy Plan, which includes environmentally responsible development of oil and gas, coal, strategic minerals, and renewable energy sources such as wind, geothermal, and solar,” it continued.
Study touts agriculture
Delta County, which includes the town of Paonia, had a median household income of $42,586 in 2015, making it the 19th poorest of the state’s 64 counties, according to census data.
In terms of percentage of residents who live in poverty, Delta County is 41st, landing it “somewhere in the lower middle,” according to Elyce Ackerman-Casselberry, the county’s community and economic development director.
In recent years, the county has received substantial federal grants to examine existing conditions, which include the near total closure of two coal mines and the loss of those high-paying jobs, but also the rise of the organic industry.
The Economic Development Strategic Plan for Delta County, completed at the end of 2015, holds that agriculture, government, including public education, and mining “have been key drivers for the economy from 2001-2013.
“Government and mining were especially important from 2001-2010 because of their job growth and above-average total payroll,” the plan said. “Both of these industries declined from 2010 to the present time, which is concerning.”
The study later noted that, “An economic development strategy for the county should address the declining employment in major industries by expanding emerging industries and identifying ways to increase the economic impact of the agriculture industry.”
Some locals, including retired journalist Ed Marston who, with his wife Betsy, ran High Country News for 19 years (Betsy Marston remains on the board of directors), suggest that county officials have been slow to embrace the rise of these new industries while they hold onto a dying past.
Marston used as a case in point a reclamation project at Paonia’s entrance that could negatively impact a critical irrigation canal, should the owners not be forced to restore the former coal rail load out to its original use. That would allow it instead to become what he termed “a heavy equipment junk yard.” The site was the focus of a contentious meeting last week.
Never one to mince words, Marston criticized the county commissioners for “doing a lot to strangle the new economy centered on agriculture, tourism, people attracted here by gigabyte speed broadband combined with the beauty of the place. They are doing that by enthusiastically backing gas drilling and fracking on BLM land outside Paonia,” he said in an email, referring to BLM’s Bull Mountain development plan.
The BLM’s October decision notes, “During the drilling phase, the Bull Mountain project could generate up to $100 million in employment income and 470 jobs annually. The production phase could generate up to $14 million in employment income and up to 135 jobs annually.”
For state and federal coffers, “oil and gas development directly contributed $796 million to the economy and produced $98 million in federal revenues,” the decision says.
How fracking fits in with the North Fork Valley’s burgeoning organic industry has people like Lynn Gillespie, whose family has farmed here since 1938, concerned.
Paonia’s agricultural heritage, which predates the coal mining era, can be traced to the early 20th century, when fruit trees were brought in on wagons from the closest train stop in Gunnison, according to the book “Images of America.”
“We’re not happy about the leases,” Gillespie said last week after herding sheep on her 200-acre spread called The Living Farm. Her concern in particular is what new mining could do to the watershed.
“I don’t feel one industry should take away from an industry that’s already here. You should never do anything to threaten your neighbor or their business,” Gillespie said. “That’s not how you treat other people and the planet.”
From this fourth-generation family business, which employs 9,000 square feet of greenhouse space, comes organic produce such as the gourmet bags of lettuce that are sold at Roxy’s Market in the Aspen Business Center.
Kelly Steinmetz moved from Snowmass Village to Paonia on New Year’s Eve 2002 to start what many say is the town’s best restaurant, Flying Fork Cafe & Bakery. He’s endured the economic ebbs and flows and prolonged winter off-seasons with a simple business model: “Make a good consistent product, have friendly, unpretentious and knowledgeable service, and serve it up in a nice chill atmosphere with old world ambience,” he said. Steinmetz is also no fan of fracking in the valley.
“I’m saddened that the BLM has chosen to allow the additional lease to come to be. I don’t feel the North Fork is an appropriate place to develop in that way,” Steinmetz said. “It does not fit with the sustainable agricultural practices, pristine open space, clean air, gold medal fishing, and two-lane road system.
“The potential for a catastrophic environmental accident is too great.”
He uses natural gas in his restaurant and home, and said he is not against natural gas production or use.
But “I am against irresponsible practices and profits coming before our livelihoods and health,” he said.
Paonia’s government has taken a neutral stance toward the oil and gas leases, according to Mayor Charles Stewart and town administrator Ken Knight.
In the job since February, Knight previously worked in a Texas town that was ground zero for oil and gas operations and noted, “It’s not the employer in the way that the coal mines certainly are. Once the oil is flowing, it’s not a labor-intensive industry.”
The area’s three mine companies once produced severance taxes that annually approached six figures. Knight said this year that number is only estimated to hit $16,000. He also surmised that since so few wells within the permit are located in Delta County (the majority would be situated within Gunnison County), “They’re not going to have much impact on the severance tax.”
According to Stewart, the local population does not see the two extractive industries as equals.
“Miners’ families have deep roots in the community. They’re also the lifeblood who provide the volunteers” for local events, he said.
“The community is very supportive of the remaining coal mine that is still open. But oil and gas is more divisive. Some folks are absolutely opposed to it while others are more favorable,” he added.
Already there’s notice of a legal challenge to the Bull Mountain leases by the Western Environmental Law Center of Taos, N.M.
Paonia resident Pete Kolbenschlag, who has been involved in environmental activism on the Western Slope for over 20 years, said there are many reasons “to be concerned about this project. But to me, the bigger issue is, what’s the vision for the valley going forward? The vision isn’t yoking ourselves to boom-and-bust economics.”
From his office in a shared workspace building, Kolbenschlag said, “There’s a kind of nascent energy that’s growing. I think there’s a concern we still remain economically vulnerable to bad ideas, that if we don’t get things in place quickly enough, people will make decisions for us.”
In September, Colorado Creative Industries announced it had selected Paonia over Carbondale and Crested Butte for a collaborative effort that would help artists in rural mountain towns with affordable housing.
“Having felt the devastating effects of two mine closings and a recession that has lasted a decade, we are thrilled to have been selected for a Space to Create project,” Stewart said in a published statement last month. “The creative industries are becoming a major part of our economy, and the Space to Create project is a substantial step forward in developing this resource and moving us toward a sustainable financial future.”
This is the kind of development that people like Steinmetz, owner of the Flying Fork, believe will best serve the town and one that’s well entrenched in the community.
“I feel that the future of the valley will be best served by following the path of least negative impact on the valley itself,” he said. “That translates into taking advantage of and aligning ourselves for eco-tourism and overall sustainable practices, including solar-energy training [the Solar Energy International headquarters is outside of town] and wineries.
“I feel that if the oil and gas presence is increased the local agricultural industry and subsequent eco-tourism will be compromised.”
Real estate sales within both the town and the county are on the rise, according to numerous anecdotes, though actual numbers were not available from the Delta County Board of Realtors before publication. Two new bakery/coffee shops have opened this year, as has a Boulder-based herbalist.
The town’s general fund budget this year, supported by sales and property taxes, is a modest $620,000; while there’s been a recent resurgence in building permits, those revenues won’t be felt in budgets for at least another two years, according to Knight.
Which is why some locals wonder why Paonia doesn’t embrace the marijuana industry. According to Stewart, local voters have turned back both medical and recreational pot sales in two elections; in 2014 the issue was decided by about 50 votes. He suggested the voters had spoken and that it isn’t an issue the board of trustees will revisit in the near future.
This is despite Paonia’s longstanding reputation for growing high-quality pot that well predates legalization four years ago through Amendment 64.
“It’s already a brand the county could grow on,” said Kolbenschlag. “I just don’t understand why we don’t get behind the farmers.”
Marston, the retired journalist, noted, “A lot of marijuana is raised here which finds its way out of the county.” The lost revenues, he said, “are significant.”
As Paonia sorts out its evolving identity, some sectors seem oblivious to the outside forces that Kolbenschlag decried.
Down at Reedy’s full-service Sinclair station, after diagnosing the problem behind a poor fella’s broken Chevy, the talk among the men was of a recent dry spell that was making hunting tough. “The elk can hear you a mile away,” said one wag.
This small town, like others, demonstrates that it’s foolhardy to depend on a single industry for sustainability.
According to a book on North Fork Valley history, a tough freeze in September 1912 killed the early peach crops, and a mass infestation of the trees by insects followed.
As the good times appeared to be over, a rich coal vein was discovered: “Perhaps one of the answers would be ‘black gold,’” according to the “Images of America” book on the North Fork Valley.
Over a century later, increased demand on the land for natural-resource extraction may again be competing against an emerging new economy.
“People here think we have a great set of ingredients, quality of life, great scenery, a lot of public lands with recreation, and building out broadband” to allow for high-speed connections, Kolbenschlag said. “People see a different future for the valley than oil and gas extraction.”