Eight days before the Valentine’s Day oil and gas lease sale in Lakewood, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced that all 20 parcels totaling 20,555 acres in the North Fork Valley would be deferred.
It is the second time the North Fork parcels have been deferred. Shortly before its August oil and gas lease sale, the BLM decided to defer all North Fork Valley parcels. Both announcements were counted as victories by those opposed to leases being sold prior to completion of a revised Resource Management Plan (RMP) and answering questions about the long-term effects of gas development immediately surrounding the towns of Hotchkiss, Paonia and Crawford.
Those disappointed in the news wanted to push ahead with the sale, citing the need for a boost to the local economy from oil and gas development while maintaining that enough regulations and safeguards already exist to ensure the safety of the towns’ watersheds, other economic drivers and the valley’s rural lifestyle.
“We’ve listened to concerns raised in numerous comments and public meetings and we are responding by deferring the North Fork Valley parcels at this time,” said Colorado State BLM Director Helen Hankins. “We are addressing the deferred parcels through continued dialogue with the local community and with ongoing planning efforts in the Uncompahgre Field Office.”
“This decision is consistent with our reform efforts that emphasize a comprehensive approach to oil and gas leasing so as to ensure that energy development occurs in the appropriate places,” said acting BLM Director Mike Pool. “I want to thank Helen Hankins for her leadership and efforts to work closely with local communities as this moves forward.”
The news spread quickly through the North Fork Valley with last Wednesday’s announcement.
Jim Ramey, director of Citizens For A Healthy Community (CHC) noted, “This deferral will buy us time to really come together as a community and continue to work to protect everything we love and care about the North Fork Valley.” CHC has maintained that there was no need to rush through the lease sale and that there is a need to spend time coming together on a workable plan.
Ramey believes encouraging people to contact the Congressional delegation in Washington, D.C. and the two trips by local residents to the nation’s capitol had an affect on the decision to defer the parcels.
Local videographer David Jacobson said the news was fantastic. “This is one of those times when you are at a loss for words because it’s so horrific what we have been dealing with in this area for so long. When it finally happens and it’s in your favor you are sort of taken aback and it’s a huge shock and relief.”
Realtor Bob Lario said, “Those of us in the real estate community can breathe a sigh of relief again, and look forward to the continued recovery of the real estate market around here. A large part [of the market] is due to the perception of the area as unspoiled, clean, safe, viewsheds, organics, things like that. So, we don’t have to worry now about putting these negative disclosures out there or the perceptions that all of that is going to go away. So, we’re real pleased.”
Lario understands that this doesn’t end the discussion about oil and gas development in the North Fork Valley, but that the next discussion will be shaped by the new Resource Management Plan.
Paonia Mayor Neal Schwieterman, commented, “It’s a deferral, so it’s not a permanent thing. On behalf of those 3,000 people who commented on the lease parcels, and then the next 700 who did the second phase of comments and the more than 150 who did protests — a very substantial part of this community that was not interested in the parcels being leased — on behalf of all of them I’m very excited that this is what has occurred.”
Sarah Sauter, executive director of Western Slope Conservation Center, wrote to their members, “This is a huge victory that is the result of our whole community’s tireless efforts to protect our water, land, air, and quality of life from a variety of serious risks posed by natural gas development in the North Fork Valley.
“Today we should celebrate, and then tomorrow we must continue our work to find permanent solutions. Those solutions include submitting a Community Preferred Alternative to the BLM as they rewrite the Resource Management Plan for the area, strengthening source water protection plans, and much more,” Sauter said.
State Sen. Gail Schwartz was in Hotchkiss for a town hall meeting on Sunday. In a written statement she said, “I am encouraged that the BLM is willing to consider a broader range of issues before offering their quarterly leases. Oil and gas development is an important part of Colorado’s economy, but the location and scale of development must be carefully considered. The proximity of these parcels to vital water resources and sensitive agricultural lands are important factors to be considered during the review process because of the potential impacts to the local economy, agritourism and quality of life. I very much appreciate that the BLM State Director listened to the concerns raised in the comment period and is embracing the importance of continued dialogue with the local community. You can be assured that I will continue to work diligently to ensure that future oil and gas development throughout the state is done responsibly.”
Steven Hall, communications director for BLM Colorado, said last Thursday, “In our conversations with the local governments we were hoping to hear what their concerns were and also try to explain some things that maybe were misrepresented or misunderstood and we tried to do that, but it became clear to us that before we move forward on leasing these parcels we definitely wanted to have more engagement with the public, more communication and more chance to have a dialogue about public land management in general.
“It’s a good time to do that because the draft RMP, as you know, is due out later this year. But I want to be absolutely clear that deferral was not based on the RMP. That was one of those things that we tried to address in those meetings and I think certainly [what] got lost in some quarters is the BLM’s existing land use plan is adequate for oil and gas leasing. That doesn’t mean we need to move forward with leasing those parcels at this time.”
When asked if the decision was made locally, at the state level, or if the national BLM office weighed in on the decision, Hall said, “There is one BLM. The Bureau of Land Management is consistent in decisions and policy, etc., from the local, state and national office. There’s been an attempt by some to paint different levels of that organization as . . . having a different point of view than others and that’s simply not accurate. So, it is safe to say that the BLM’s position at this time and that is the BLM — whether it is BLM Colorado, BLM Uncompahgre Field Office, BLM Southwest District or the BLM Washington office — did not defer these parcels due to the RMP.”
Exactly how long the parcels will be deferred is not known at this time. “I would be surprised if they come up in the near future given the dialogue we will be having around the draft RMP. That’s certainly going to provide an opportunity hopefully for a broad constituency to discuss public land management in their area,” Hall said.
“We certainly heard in our conversations with the community there are a lot of folks who are very opposed to any energy development in the North Fork Valley, and there are folks that support continuing energy development in the valley including coal and oil and gas. Having a broad discussion about what the people of the North Fork Valley want their future to be, I think, will be a really healthy thing for the community to engage in via the Bureau of Land Management’s Resource Management Plan,” Hall said.
The BLM does not plan to conduct any public hearings on the RMP, but rather open houses. “There’s already been, I think, 25 public meetings held as part of the RMP process dating back to 2008-2009. There will be chances for the public to interact with the BLM. I don’t know that it will the public rally sort of forum that CHC has advocated. We haven’t found those to be terribly useful or constructive. But there will certainly be chances for the public to ask questions of the BLM and have that broader dialogue. But in terms of setting up an opportunity for folks to grab a microphone and read prepared statements, we haven’t found that to be terribly useful,” Hall said.
The open houses will have BLM specialists there because “as you know, all of our decisions are science-based,” Hall explained. Citizens will be able to find out about particular aspects of the RMP from BLM biologists, hydrologists, air quality experts, planners and managers. Once the public is given an overview of the RMP they can then provide their comments.
“We want to provide the opportunity for people from all spectrums and all walks of life to have a dialogue with BLM and provide their input and also get their questions answered. That’s difficult to do if you have people there more to influence public opinion than to maybe learn what the BLM is trying to do or what the resources are in the area,” Hall said.
In conclusion, Hall stated, “The eventual offering or not offering of these parcels will not be incumbent on the completion of the RMP. If these parcels aren’t offered until the RMP is completed, that’s more a question of timing and coincidence than any sort of causal factor.”
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