North Fork Parcels Back on the Auction Block

Despite Protests, BLM Says Oil-and-Gas Leasing Can Proceed
Telluride Watch
Peter Shelton

The BLM announced Friday, Nov. 16,  that it has put most of the disputed oil and gas lease parcels in the Paonia/Hotchkiss/Crawford area back on the block for the February 2013 lease sale.

The original 22 parcels, comprising roughly 30,000 acres in the North Fork of the Gunnison, had been nominated for auction at the Aug. 2012 sale. But following protests at the BLM Field Office in Montrose and a letter-writing campaign last spring, the agency deferred the parcels pending “additional analysis.”

That analysis has been completed, according to BLM spokesperson Shannon Borders; the Environmental Assessment is complete, and the parcels (pared to 20, and 20,555 acres) have been put back on the lease-sale schedule.

“It’s not surprising, but it is incredibly frustrating,” said Jim Ramey, director of Citizens for a Healthy Community, a North Fork group formed to fight the oil-and-gas development. “This was a bad idea last December [when the parcels were nominated], and it’s still a bad idea today.”

Both Ramey and NW Conservation Center Director Sarah Sauter cited BLM’s poor timing. “The BLM’s draft Resource Management Plan is due out in April,” Ramey told The Watch, referring to the agency’s long-awaited updating of its 1989 RMP. “Who knows what science was done in the 1980s” regarding air and water contamination, Ramey said. “They didn’t know about fracking or horizontal drilling then. We’d really like to see what’s in the new draft, which is the fundamental land use document” used by the BLM. “Moving ahead now goes against common sense, and the more than 3,000 comments submitted.”

“It is disappointing that the BLM would not make sure proper updated management is in place before it would even think about doing something like this” said the Conservation Center’s Sauter.

Citizens for a Healthy Community remains concerned for the organic orchards and other agriculture in the valley, for the vineyards and wineries, the burgeoning tourism and food industries, as well as municipal and irrigation water, should the energy companies move in. “Nothing about today’s North Fork was ever considered by the BLM in its 25-year-old management plan, and it is simply wrong, based upon that plan, to open these lands up for oil and gas,” said Ty Gillespie, owner and operator of Paonia’s Azura Cellars and Gallery, in a CHC release.

“We are pleased to see that the BLM has removed 9,000 acres, including Mt. Jumbo and Paonia's municipal watershed – but it just isn’t good enough,” said Sauter.

According to Borders, two parcels (of the original 22) were “deferred entirely due to steep slopes, proximity to a scenic byway (State Route 92) and proximity to delineated public water supplies.”

Thirteen others were reduced in size, due to steep slopes, the scenic byway, the water supply areas, conflict with the proposed Jumbo Mountain Special Recreation Management Area (mountain biking trails) near Paonia, and “proximity to a school.”

This last, said CHC’s Ramey, was “a 40-acre tract one-tenth of a mile from a school in Hotchkiss. Another parcel, less than a third of a mile from the same school, was allowed.”

To address water supply worries, Borders said that “eight parcels include application notices written to ensure the lessee proposes development in a manner that protects freshwater resources at the surface and sub-surface levels.”

It’s not enough, said Ramey, especially given the work being done now on the draft RMP. “It makes much more sense to wait until the new plan is out. And it makes sense that certain places, like the North Fork, should not be leased at all.

“We will be filing a formal protest with our attorneys at the Western Environmental Law Centers.”

Asked why the agency couldn’t wait until after releasing its new RMP, Borders responded in an email: “. . . leasing decisions cannot be based on draft RMPs.” 

On a related topic, Citizens for a Healthy Community and the WELC are expecting a hearing in January on their lawsuit to force the BLM to divulge the identities of the parties who nominate public and private lands for oil-and-gas development. The BLM has long maintained it is not required to release nominators’ names.

The 30-day protest period for the Feb. 2013 sale closes Dec. 17.

Click here for more information on WELC's work to protect the North Fork Valley's farming communities and clean water from fracking.