A photo of the North Fork Valley, from the Delta County Tourism Cabinet’s Facebook page, shows the valley’s pristine environment and agricultural uses. Courtesy photo.

By Caitlin Switzer  REGIONAL—(February 6)  Since its formation in 2009, the non-profit advocacy group Citizens for a Healthy Community (CFHC) has grown exponentially, to a membership more than 300 strong. Members include some of the nation’s most respected writers and proponents of the emerging farm-to-table movement. And yet, CHFC Director Jim Ramey is concerned that its collective “voice” is still not being heard.


“It all boils down to the North Fork Valley,” Ramey said. “There is such a sustainable, agricultural food and wine economy here that it has become a tourism destination. Leasing public lands for oil and gas exploration is simply not compatible with that.”


According to a news release dated Jan. 25, CHFC is calling on the BLM to remove all 20 parcels and 20,555 acres in Western Colorado’s North Fork Valley from the BLM’s February Oil and Gas Lease Sale. The lease sale, originally scheduled in 2011, was deferred by the Bureau of Land management (BLM) in May of 2012, after the governmental agency cited the need for further research. However, in Nov. of 2012 the BLM announced that the lease sale would take place on Feb. 14, 2013.


CHFC members expressed consternation after a recent visit to Washington, DC, where they met with BLM Director Mike Pool and BLM Deputy Director Neil Kornze in an effort to stop the sale. According to a CHFC news release dated Jan. 17, the group told Pool that allowing the sale and thus permitting oil and gas exploration to proceed would destroy not only a fledgling industry, but a way of life.


“Our small winery is right next to a parcel, which is only 39 feet away from our water well,” commented Ty Gillespie, owner of Azura Cellars and Gallery in Paonia. “Last year we had visitors from every state in the union. This is really about protecting the bucolic nature of our valley, which is so fundamental to our business.” And yet, local BLM officials continue to offer a “full-fledged support of the oil and gas industry,” noted Ramey last week.


At a meeting January meeting of the Paonia Town Council, CHFC leadership asked Colorado BLM Director Helen Hankins what else could be done to stop the sale. “She told us that we could either pursue legislation, or prepare to file a lawsuit,” Ramey said, noting that “our community has shown up time and time again to make the statement that we don’t want this to happen. For us, a lawsuit is a last resort—something that takes years—we would rather the BLM listen to common sense and the outcry from the community.”


Absent the BLM’s deferral of all parcels, however, the groups are calling on BLM to issue its final decision so that they may pursue legal action as a last resort to protect the community.  While the BLM has decreased the acreage involved in the sale from its original 30,000 to 20,555, CHFC has announced that it will pursue legal action if all North Fork parcels are not removed from the auction block.


“Farmers, ranchers, sportsmen, small business owners, and other concerned residents in the North Fork do not want this lease sale to move forward. We’re asking the BLM to stop this bad idea in its tracks,” said Ramey in the news release. “If they don’t remove the parcels, we’ll be forced to file a lawsuit to protect the community while we work toward thoughtful management in a new resource management plan.”  Attorneys from the Western Environmental Law Center will represent CHFC should the BLM refuse to pull the parcels from the sale. Among the issues involved is the fact that the sale itself is based on a Resource Management Plan drafted in 1989.


According to the Jan. 25 news release, important developments have occurred since the plan, which guides the BLM’s management of the region, was drafted.  “The decision to lease these lands based on a decades-old and deficient RMP threatens so many of the valuable resources that make the North Fork Valley the thriving community it is today,” said Western Environmental Law Center attorney Kyle Tisdel. “There’s a very compelling legal argument to be made before a federal judge.”


“What’s the rush?” Ramey asked. “Why not do the right thing, and focus on updating the plan? We are not just environmentalists, but farmers, ranchers, and hunters. The BLM has a mandate to protect the land for future generations—you do not have to open up every acre of public land to oil and gas exploration. The BLM has argued that they don’t even know what is there in these parcels, and they have tremendous discretion under the law. We have the support of our elected officials—Scott Tipton has been very open, and very concerned, which is great to see.