One element that came as a surprise at the public information meeting hosted by Citizens for a Healthy Community (CHC) and NFRIA-WSERC Conservation Center on Dec. 5 was that a group of individuals have been strategizing and creating a North Fork Alternative Plan which will be presented to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) prior to the February lease auction.
The community group began this past summer and is co-chaired by Jim Ramey, CHC director, and Sarah Sauter, The Conservation Center. Members include Brent Helleckson of Stone Cottage Cellars and the West Elks AVA (American Viticultural Area), Mark Waltermire of ThistleWhistle Farms and the Valley Organic Growers Association (VOGA); Tom Stevens, a Crawford rancher who moved here from Weld County and has experience with oil and gas development; Bob Lario and Nancy Wood of RE/MAX Mountain West; John Moore, The Conservation Center; Daniel Feldman, Citizens for a Healthy Community; and Pete Kolbenschlag of Mountain West Strategies.
According to the community group's literature, "The North Fork is an area reinventing itself as a food and wine center, a creative and cultural hub. A nationally-renowned agritourism destination, the North Fork is a blend of old and new, a producer of low-sulfur 'super-compliant' coal with a hundred-year mining heritage, and home to the state's highest concentration of organic farms and orchards."
The North Fork Plan is "an alternative to the BLM Uncompahgre Resource Management Plan revision for managing oil and gas leasing and development."
"We are vulnerable to inappropriate management of our nearby public lands," Brent Helleckson said. The group believes the economic development in the last 25 years is not dealt with in the RMP. And yet, Helleckson explained, that is the document the BLM turns to when making and justifying their decisions. Helleckson encouraged those at Wednesday's meeting "to set the bar high to protect the North Fork."
The Alternative North Fork Plan only applies to approximately 85,000 acres of public land in the North Fork area. The plan is now ready for broader public input.
The management objectives of the plan are to support community and culture, safeguard existing and emerging economies and protect natural resources and wildlife. Helleckson said it takes organic farmers three years to gain their certification. If they lose their certification because of contamination, it takes another three years to be recertified.
This community option is an accepted part of the RMP updating process. Community alternatives have been proven valid in federal courts. If successful, the community option can result in more stringent restrictions. Helleckson concluded that the community option is only part of the entire issue, but it is a significant part.
The community group plans to have a time of sharing and revisions with stakeholders and others in January. It will then be finalized and submitted to the BLM before the February lease sale.
They are proposing that management zones be created to protect the North Fork Valley's key features and economies; maintain rural settings through protection of scenic corridors, key vistas and view sheds; enhance recreational opportunities and address sensitive resource issues.
The management zones would be developed to protect and maintain towns, schools and communities; coal mining; agricultural lands and operations; domestic water supplies; dams, irrigation facilities and water conveyances; wildlife habitat and river and riparian areas.
Visual Resource Management would preserve the rural look and character of the North Fork Valley. They would be managed with a mixture of 'No Surface Occupancy' and 'Controlled Surface Use' with stipulated Best Management Practices. Key areas in the valley and along road corridors would be protected by prohibiting surface-disturbing activities from oil and gas development.
Special Management Designations would protect unique recreational opportunities and sensitive resources. Recreation Management Areas would include the Jumbo Mountain Special Recreation Management Area and the North and Smith Fork Rivers Extensive Recreation Management Area. The 'dobies which have Mancos soils and areas with geologic hazards would be listed as Areas of Critical Environmental Concern.
Sarah Sauter, who co-chairs the North Fork Alternative Plan group, says they represent "a lot of different interests that have been working together for about five months. It's all informal and volunteer."
Sauter explained, "This North Fork Alternative Plan is geared at helping the BLM make good decisions in the Resource Management Plan."
She continued, "This strengthens the argument that the BLM should not lease these parcels before the Resource Management Plan comes out. We have a plan to manage our critical resources and we want BLM to be a part of that."
The 1989 RMP is outdated. "The old Resource Management Plan did not consider hydraulic fracturing, horizontal drilling or multiple wells at a single pad," Sauter said. "They forecast no more than 10 wells at any given time in the entire field office. The Bull Mountain proposal alone blows that." The Bull Mountain proposal is for 146 wells.
"We definitely hope to bring the coal mines in early in the year. One of the bullet points we have is a management zone that would protect and maintain existing coal mining. So, this is not a tool to try to curtail coal mining in any way, shape or form. This is only about gas," Sauter said.
"We are keeping BLM informed every step of the way, because we have to work with BLM in order to have the best chance possible to adopt some of the recommendations we are making. So, we hope to create a good working relationship with BLM.
"We hope the BLM will recognize this proactive community planning and make the right decision to withdraw the parcels from the February lease sale pending the revision of the Resource Management Plan."
The plan is targeted for the 90-day comment period when the draft RMP comes out in April. "This is trying to move from the reactive approach . . . to take some proactive steps to dealing with resource conflicts related to oil and gas in the long term."
Regarding the information meeting on Dec. 5 at Paonia Junior High School, Sauter said, "I was thrilled to see so many people come out and people that are still engaged. We need everyone to keep up the pressure so we can be successful."
Citizens were able to look at poster-size maps of the parcels proposed for the lease sale and see how close potential drilling would be near their home, community, schools and recreation areas. Citizens could sign a petition going to the White House. If the petition has 25,000 signatures, the White House will look into the subject of the petition. That must be submitted by Dec. 20. Citizens could also sign official protests that will be submitted to BLM by 4 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 17.
Alex Johnson of The Conservation Center created another Google Earth flyover of the North Fork Valley showing the parcels scheduled for sale. The plan is to have the flyover available at the Conservation Center website and their YouTube account.
Jim Ramey, Citizens For A Healthy Community director, explained that the protest period is a more formal administrative process. CHC along with Western Law Center are filing a protest, as is The Conservation Center. Other protests are being filed by VOGA, West Elks AVA and a group of realtors. Anyone can file a protest.
Pete Kolbenschlag of Mountain West Strategies said the group who went to Washington, D.C. earlier this year were encouraged to put Rita Clagett's scrapbook of the North Fork Valley online, so others could view it. That has now been done. It can be viewed at northforkscrapbook.org. "We're not going to let BLM's bad idea stop our good idea," Kolbenschlag said.
If the protest by The Conservation Center and others are not accepted as valid by BLM, appeals can be filed to the IBLA, which is the Interior Board of Land Appeals that is still within the agency. There are other parallel lawsuits that can be filed.
Citizens For A Healthy Community through the Western Environmental Law Center would seek an injunction if their protest is not accepted by the BLM.
Kyle Tisdel, an attorney for Western Environmental Law Center (WELC), said they would pursue the injunction because of two reasons. Pending a decision in an IBLA appeal the decision by BLM could not be stayed. The lease holder would have the right to surface occupancy.
"We do not need to have an IBLA appeal to give us standing in court. It is a more efficienct use of our time to go directly to court where we have the option to seek an injunction to prevent surface disturbing activities that could create harmful impacts to the environment," Tisdel said.
How likely is it for parcels to be deferred a second time following the protest period?
"In our protest and previously we have identified several dificiencies with BLM's process in how potential impacts are analyzed. So we are hopeful that the state office will get all the problems we are pointing out and will agree this lease can't go forward," Tisdel said. Going to court is always the last option. "It's shocking that the agency is pushing forward with this lease sale in the face of nearly unanimous public opposition."