The threat of oil and gas in the North Fork Valley has gone back and forth between victory and defeat for conservationists and farmers trying to keep drilling out of the region. In early 2012, 22 parcels were nominated for an oil and gas lease sale, the parcels were removed due to public concerns, but later added back in. Citizens rallied again to finally have the leases deferred again in early 2013.
The North Fork Valley, bordered by Grand Mesa National Forest, the West Elk Wilderness and Gunnison National Forest, is home to organic farms, orchards, vineyards and ranches and excellent hiking and fishing. The North Fork Valley was recently described as "an American Provence" by the author Thomas Huber. There are a number of coal mines in the area and a growing presence of oil and gas activity.
30,000 acres were nominated for a 2012 oil and gas lease sale in the Paonia, Somerset, Hotchkiss and Crawford areas. Some of these 22 lease parcels are in vital watersheds and in viable agricultural areas. Drilling opponents argue the agency should defer leasing until it updates its 1989 resource management plan (RMP), which was issued long before the region became a destination for agro-tourism. RMPs determine where and how BLM allows oil and gas development.
These small towns would be significantly impacted by the resource extraction, and the livelihood of farmers and ranchers producing organic or chemical-free food would be in jeopardy if any amount of chemicals were to contaminate their irrigation water.
Local citizens mobilized rapidly and urged the BLM to recognize the unique characteristics of the North Fork Valley. During the scoping period, over 3,000 citizens submitted letters to the BLM. More than 60% of the region’s households wrote to ask the BLM to withdraw these 22 parcels, but the BLM in its March 2012 Environmental Assessment, issued a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), stating that leasing will not result in any negative impacts to the community that warrant further analysis.
After another round of public comment, the overwhelming community consensus was that natural gas extraction of such scale and proximity to farming is unacceptable. As a result, the BLM announced in May 2012 that it would defer all 22 parcels from the lease sale until further analysis of the impacts is considered. The victory was short lived, the BLM announced in November 2012 that it would move forward with 20 parcels on 20,000 acres. Again, the BLM announced in February, 2013 that it would defer all 20 parcels from the lease sale.
The fight continues in 2016 with an industry proposal to swap leases in the nearby Thompson Divide for leases in Delta County. Citizens and conservation groups have opposed the idea of a swap, saying that it would just transfer the problem from one county to another, without any real gains for conservation.
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