MONTROSE – A recent decision by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Uncompahgre Field Office is offering hope to some stakeholders in the North Fork Valley that agricultural portions of the valley may be protected from future oil and gas development.
According to Jim Ramey, director of Citizens for a Healthy Community, an organization dedicated to protecting the North Fork Valley from irresponsible oil and gas development, the BLM announced in late October that the agency would consider the North Fork Alternative plan in its environmental impact statement for the agency’s upcoming management plan revision.
After twice winning BLM deferment of a previously-scheduled oil and gas lease sale of the area’s lands, local stakeholders have worked the past year-and-a-half in a grassroots effort to craft the North Fork Alternative Plan, which is intended to protect the agriculturally-rich valley from future oil and gas leasing development.
According to Ramey, the North Fork Alternative Plan is a resource-based approach to future oil and gas leasing that seeks to protect the existing economy of the valley along with its water sources, rivers and wildlife areas, community and recreational areas, and sensitive and scenic features of the landscape. The North Fork Alternative Plan would close certain areas to oil and gas leasing and would impose strict surface use restrictions – including no surface occupancy – and development setbacks in places where leasing might be allowed to occur.
“This is a proactive attempt to get out ahead of proposed lease sales,” Ramey said. “There is a decent amount of land in the Alternative Plan that should be closed to oil and gas.”
The North Fork Alternative Plan was developed in response to earlier attempts by the BLM to lease public lands for oil and gas drilling in the center of, and surrounding, the towns, farms and residents of the valley. Various stakeholders, according to Ramey, representing agricultural, tourism, realty, and conservation groups involved in stopping the lease sale set out to craft a community proposal to present to BLM in conjunction with the forthcoming land use plan revision.
Ramey said the BLM’s current management plan in the area was finished in 1989; the fact that the plan was outdated was a major reason Ramey’s organization was able to force the BLM to defer its earlier lease sales. Those who were a part of drafting the North Fork Alternative Plan hope to avoid repeating that fight through this plan.
“The BLM’s draft management plan will be coming out early next year,” Ramey said. “The good news is they will include our proposal as one of the alternatives they will consider for their draft. I think there is tremendous support for it. The reason we went with the stakeholder process in drafting the Alternative Plan is so we could have buy-in from the start and to make sure that we had something ready that was acceptable to this community.”
Since being released as a set of recommendations in March 2013, the North Fork Alternative Plan has received the support of the towns of Paonia and Crawford, the West Elk Winery Association, the Valley Organic Growers Association, the Paonia Chamber of Commerce, and others, along with over 700 local residents.
“This is a tremendous opportunity for the communities in the North Fork to work with the BLM to ensure strong, protective management for these popular, heavily-utilized public lands,” said Brent Helleckson, proprietor at Stone Cottage Cellars, and a stakeholder representative for the West Elk Winery Association. “Although they are only a small percentage of the BLM lands in the region, the public lands in the North Fork are vitally important as our water sources, as wildlife habitat, and to our businesses which rely on the rural character of the valley.”
More details on the North Fork Alternative Plan can be found at http://bit.ly/NFAlt or http://www.theconservationcenter.org/what-we-do/natural-gas/north-fork-alternative.