NORTH FORK VALLEY – In a surprise announcement last week, the Montrose Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management stated that it had “deferred all parcels associated with the August 2012 oil and gas lease sales in the North Fork Valley.”
The agency had scheduled for lease approximately 30,000 acres in 22 parcels near the towns of Paonia, Hotchkiss and Crawford. The BLM’s Draft Environmental Assessment, released in March, had included a Finding of No Significant Impact to the lands and communities involved. The May 2 press release came just days before the BLM was due to post the parcels for leasing at the August lease auction.
Conservationists, members of the agricultural and tourism industries and area governments had objected to the FONSI, saying the Finding of No Significant Impact was fundamentally incorrect – that industrial gas development would have a profound effect on the valley, as it has on other Rocky Mountain communities – and called for more study. Objectors had also called for the Montrose Field Office to complete the revision of its out-of-date 1989 land management plan before deciding the fate of the North Fork parcels.
The agency’s release went on to say, “BLM has opted to conduct additional analysis of the proposed lease parcels based on public input.”
Reached by phone last week, BLM Public Information Officer Shannon Borders said she couldn’t comment on what aspect of “public input” may have been decisive or how long the deferral might last. “We have no further details at this time,” she said. She said the rest of the lease auction, held quarterly at BLM state headquarters in Denver, would proceed as planned.
“Everybody here is ecstatic,” said protestor and Paonia resident Michael Gwinn. “We’re breathing a little easier for a while. We’ll see what happens.”
“This is a tremendous victory and proof that we can have an impact,” read a statement by Citizens for a Healthy Community, a North Fork group formed specifically to fight the natural gas leases. CHC sent four of its members to Washington, D.C., earlier this spring to meet with Colorado’s congressional delegation as well as high-level BLM officials. As to whether the visit had an impact on the deferral, CHC member Daniel Feldman told KVNF radio news: “It’s hard to say what went on. Everything we did, from the letter writing campaign to the protest in Montrose to the trip to D.C. had an impact… But,” he cautioned, “we still have to be vigilant. The parcels are still in play. The BLM has left the door open by stating that they will be conducting further analysis.” No one is sure at this time what form that analysis might take.
Frank Smith, director of organizing for the Western Colorado Congress citizens group, said in a statement, “We’re pretty excited about the temporary win for the North Fork. BLM made the right decision in deferring leasing decisions until more information is collected, and we’re cautiously optimistic about that forthcoming research.”