Community awareness, resistance and persistence pays off
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — Persistence has paid of for residents of Colorado North Fork Valley. After citizens organized and marshaled their facts on a errant proposal to lease lands for oil and gas development, the Bureau of Land Management decided to defer the leases at least until the agency updates an overall management plan for the area.
The proposal drew howls of outrage from the rural area, where many residents say booming tourism and agriculture are the key to economic sustainability. Opposition to the plan was widespread in Paonia, Hotchkiss and Crawford.
In addition to formal objections from local governments and area businesses, farmers, ranchers, and food producers raised concerns about threats to the area’s rich agricultural heritage. Residents said the outcome shows that when communities stand and work together, citizens have an impact.
“The BLM made a good decision,” said Paonia Mayor Neal Schwieterman. “I am proud of my community and I am grateful that the BLM listened to what we had to say.”
Local businesses, from real estate brokers to restaurants and guest ranches raised concerns about the impacts oil and gas development would have on the local economy.
“We appreciate that the agency carefully considered what the citizens were telling it. I also think all of us in the real estate business are glad to pass this good news along to our prospective buyers,” said Bob Lario, owner of ReMAX Mountain West Real Estate in Paonia.
“Thank you first must go to the incredible community of the North Fork and to the restaurants and chefs and people in the Roaring Fork and beyond who understand that quality is important,” said Landon Deane, a Colorado legacy rancher. “We can all rest a bit easier now knowing that our food and water will stay clean and safe, and our valley will stay intact.”
The North Fork ‘brand’ is becoming increasingly known, as something unique, worth protecting, and marketable. Agriculture in the North Fork unites a century-old tradition with new and emerging trends and markets, and the changing value placed in high-quality, carefully produced food.
Growing numbers of visitors come to the North Fork as part of Colorado’s ‘agritourism’ industry. The North Fork is designated as American Viticultural Area — one of only two in Colorado. Twelve wineries in the area account for $2 million annually in direct sales and an additional $5 to 10 million in indirect sales.
Products from the area supply top restaurants in towns across western Colorado—including in Aspen, Crested Butte, Vail, and Telluride. This emerging economy, coupled with the area’s more standard tourist fare — hunting season — is a driving force in the rural community.
Last week, dozens of area residents attended a local meeting of the BLM’s Southwest Resource Advisory Council to voice their concerns to the stakeholder representatives that advise the BLM on land use matters.
“Usually a lot of the public does not attend these meetings—which are not the most exciting affairs,” said Andrea Robinsong. representing conservation interests on the council. “So when this many people showed up, with these well-thought out and credible statements, the council noticed. BLM noticed too.”
And at the end of last month, a delegation from the North Fork travelled to Washington, D.C.to meet with White House environmental officials, the BLM, Colorado’s Senators and members of the Congressional Delegation and staff.
“We live in a wonderful valley and are passionate about preserving it. It is a special part of Colorado worth protecting,” said Ty Gillespie of Azura Cellars. The community came together with a message it delivered in Montrose and Washington DC, that leasing these lands for an industrial use in the middle of and surrounding our wineries, our vineyards, our farms and communities raised awareness,” Gillespie said. “And it raised the stakes, bringing the issue to people who, perhaps, had not been paying attention to seemingly routine or faraway details.”
Announcement of the lease sale late last year triggered a flood of 3,000 comments during the scoping period. Many people pointed out that the leases were proposed under an outdated land use plan that failed to protect the land, water and people of Colorado’s North Fork.
The parcels proposed for oil and gas leasing — included water sources, major irrigation canals, grazing permits and ranching operations — and were scattered among and surrounding farms, wineries, markets and restaurants, and school.
The plan did not include any management prescriptions aimed at maintaining the area’s agricultural operations, its businesses, or any of the other unique community features.
Community advocates said that, so far, the BLM hasn’t explained why it deferred the leases other than saying it plans to more analysis.
Comments from all directions consistently and credibly claimed that the BLM’s existing management plan for the area could not be used to support the decision to lease these lands, that a more robust Environmental Impact Statement was needed, and that that the BLM should first complete its revision to the Resource Management Plan.