BLM eyes grassroots effort to close off Western Colorado to drilling

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COLORADO I Mark Waltermire squints in the winter sunlight, craning his neck to take in the view from his vegetable farm in Hotchkiss, Colo. He jabs his finger toward a mesa: “There,” he says. “And up in there.”
Palm to the sky, he makes a sweeping gesture, encompassing the flat-bottomed valley, the staggered mesas; the patchwork of ranches and farms, houses and towns, public and private land, all dead grass and mud after a midwinter thaw.
Waltermire is showing me a handful of the 30,000 acres that the Bureau of Land Management planned to auction off to oil and gas companies here in western Colorado’s North Fork Valley in 2012.
He represents the Valley Organic Growers Association in a larger group that opposed the leases and has thus far been successful in convincing the BLM to defer drilling permits. Not only that, but for the first time in recent history, the BLM has voluntarily agreed to consider a proposal written by residents of a small, rural community as a viable alternative to a regional resource management plan.
Near Paonia, Colo., farms, orchards and vineyards have diversified the local economy in recent decades.
Like many of Colorado’s public land offices, the Uncompahgre BLM — which oversees 3.1 million acres of western Colorado, including those surrounding the North Fork towns of Paonia, Hotchkiss and Crawford – hasn’t rewritten its resource management plan in decades.
Resource plans guide all aspects of land and mineral management, and updating them is expensive and time-consuming, says state BLM spokesman Steven Hall. For a while, the attitude was “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
But as Colorado’s energy boom took hold over the last decade, drawing more oil and gas companies to public lands, it became clear that policies written in the 1980s are ill-equipped to govern today’s landscape of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. New technologies have brought drilling to places that land planners of yore never anticipated.
Over the last six years, Colorado has been on “an ambitious planning spree; 70 percent of it’s 8.3 million acres of BLM lands have been or are in the process of having their resource management plans rewritten, Hall says.
“It’s been a tremendous workload for the BLM and for advocacy groups that follow these (issues),” he said.
The changes rarely come easily. In Grand Junction to the north and Tres Rios to the south, roadless wilderness proponents and motorized users have been sparring for years over new transportation guidelines included in the plans, and oil and gas leases have proven equally controversial. Middle ground has been hard to find.
Here in the North Fork, the Uncompahgre BLM was already in the midst of updating its 1989 resource management plan when the first oil and gas leases were proposed. There was some support for drilling.
“If it’s not in my backyard, whose is it gonna be in?” one resident asked. But others were horrified to learn that the parcels abutted schools, irrigation ditches and municipal water supplies.
They hoped the revised resource management plan would, as High County News Editor Sarah Gilman wrote, “take into account major advances in drilling technology as well as changes to the local area’s economy, demographics and environment, in ways the (old) plan and a smaller-scale environmental study covering the leasing proposal (could) not. That, in turn, would ideally mean a clearer balance struck between energy development and other interests.”
But early drafts didn’t satisfy residents’ fracking-related concerns. So they wrote their own, which was a 103-page alternative that would affect only a fraction of the overall Uncompahgre plan.
Its main focus is to keep drilling far from schools, communities and watersheds, and help preserve the rural character of a place where organic farms and vineyards now supplement an economy once based mostly on coal mining and ranching.
Surprisingly, in December, the BLM agreed to include the “North Fork Alternative” in its next resource management draft, to be released this summer. That’ll be followed by a 90-day comment period and then, barring litigation, a final plan. For many locals, the process has thus far been a huge success.
“What’s happening in the North Fork is somewhat historic,” says Pete Kolbenschlag, a Paonia-based environmental consultant who worked on the plan.
An Uncompahgre BLM representative was reluctant to discuss with me the agency’s reasons for including the North Fork Alternative, but Kolbenschlag and others speculate that it may have stemmed from a legal battle that unfolded 100 miles to the north, on the biologically rich Roan Plateau.
There, the BLM approved a plan allowing oil and natural gas development without including a proposal written by conservationists and Garfield County citizens that would have limited drilling to the plateau’s edges.
In 2012, a U.S. district judge ruled that BLM was wrong and needed to reconsider.
Mount Lamborn and BLM land outside Paonia, Colo., oil and gas leases in the area have been deferred indefinitely.
Though it was a forced victory, some western Colorado environmentalists are hopeful that it may nonetheless be indicative of an agency that’s becoming more willing to balance community values, conservation and recreation with mineral extraction.
Mark Waltermire is skeptical, but he’s nonetheless happy that, for now, at least, his view from Thistle Whistle farm will remain much the same and his high-end customers in Boulder will continue to want his produce, untainted by fracking.
“My markets depend on the reputation of my food,” he says. “I just can’t see the future of this valley being in extractive industries.”
Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2.