BLM officials came to Crawford, Hotchkiss and Paonia this week to discuss the proposed North Fork Valley oil and gas leases with the three town councils. Our community has been trying to get the BLM to come to the valley for the past 14 months.
We've asked the BLM to hold a public meeting, public hearing or an open house on the proposed lease sale that has the potential of surrounding our community with unwanted oil and gas development. Our requests have fallen on deaf ears. The BLM has not held, conducted or sponsored a single meeting in the North Fork. Why would they bother coming three weeks before the proposed lease sale, long after the public comment and formal protest periods have passed?
Despite supposedly coming to listen to the community's concerns, the BLM had no real intention of listening. In fact, as a condition of their attendance at the meetings the town councils had to agree to prohibit public involvement. You heard that right — while the BLM pays lip service to wanting public involvement, public participation and public comment, the truth of the matter is that the BLM would not agree to come unless the public was not allowed to ask questions!
When town officials asked at the Paonia meeting why the proposed leases could not be removed from the lease sale, the BLM deputy director of fluid minerals management stated "we have a mandate" to provide these leases. He clearly implied that the BLM had no choice in the matter and led the audience to believe his agency was legally bound to sell these leases. Nothing could be further from the truth. The law simply gives the Secretary of Interior the permission to lease pubic minerals by saying the secretary "may" lease public lands. In legal language the use of the word "may" means the BLM can lease lands for oil and gas development, but is not required to do so. The BLM has the legal authority to pull the North Fork Valley parcels from the lease sale for any reason whatsoever — including overwhelming public opposition.
At the Paonia meeting, the BLM described how oil and gas development in North Dakota has resulted in an increase in truck traffic to the tune of 8,000 additional trucks each day. Paonia's mayor explained that our roads are already in bad condition and the community did not have the financial resources to keep the roads from falling apart under this amount of additional traffic. The BLM's Uncompahgre Field Office director Barb Sharrow's response to our community's predicament was to say "that's your problem."
Twice in the past year a group of citizens from the North Fork Valley has traveled to Washington D.C. to express their concerns to our elected officials and higher ups in the BLM about the proposed lease sale. At the Paonia meeting Tuesday, Colorado BLM director Helen Hankins admonished the community for going over her head instead of working locally with the BLM. Ms. Hankins and her agency ignore our concerns. We have no choice but to seek other officials to listen. The BLM has received 3,700 letters from our community in two public comment periods, virtually all expressing opposition to oil and gas development. Yet, only a handful of acres have been removed from the sale as a result of our comments. Granted the proposed lease sale has gone from 30,000 to 20,000 acres. However, if the BLM had done its due diligence and given even a cursory look at a map of the nominated parcels, these 10,000 acres would not have been included in the original lease because they contain steep slopes that exceed 40 percent, are next to schools, or incorporate the town of Paonia's water supply. The BLM should be embarrassed for having not done its homework and proposing these acres to begin with.
In closing, the BLM has stooped to a new all-time low by attempting to try to divide the community and create some support for gas development. Shannon Borders, public affairs officer for the BLM's Uncompaghre Field Office, recently told the Montrose Daily Press that if they removed all of the parcels from the lease sale it would affect all mineral development, such as coal, in the North Fork Valley. This is a blatant lie. It appears that Ms. Borders has not read her own agency's analysis of the "No Action Alternative" in the Environmental Assessment. This analysis reveals that if the oil and gas lease sale does not take place there would be no impact whatsoever on coal mining in the valley.