Paonia considers letters to BLM on coal, oil and gas

By Tamie Meck

With time running out for North Fork citizens and municipalities to submit formal written comments on the Bureau of Land Management's draft Resource Management Plan for managing BLM-administered surface land and mineral estate in southwestern Colorado, Alex Johnson requested to speak at the July 26 Paonia town board meeting.

Johnson, executive director for the Western Slope Conservation Center, said he represents the organization's roughly 450 members, most of whom live in the North Fork area and Paonia.

As a community, Paonia spent the last five years doing much of the work needed to prepare for commenting, said Johnson. Those comments came out of the BLM's 2010 proposed lease sales on 30,000 acres of lands surrounding the three North Fork communities. There was huge public discourse and many meetings, said Johnson. During that time, the Paonia board of trustees submitted comments expressing concerns about possible extraction in certain areas. "A lot of those comments are still very relevant," said Johnson.

Johnson summarized the five alternatives being considered by the BLM. He urged the town to support the highest protection of lands across the entire Uncompahgre Field Office area. Those protections, he said, are included in Alternative B, and specifically Alternative B.1, which includes the North Fork Alternative Plan.

The NFAP is specific to the North Fork area and was a "huge community effort" put together by numerous organizations and individuals and submitted to the BLM in 2012. It is the most protective of the alternatives and calls for setting aside certain resources, including domestic and irrigation water, view sheds, buffers from surface water, and recreation areas and protecting them from oil and gas activities.

It also has a broad base of local support and was supported by the previous town board, said Johnson. Since other areas are not likely to comment on it, it's important for the local community to include it in their comments.

Of the other alternatives, Alternative A would require no action by the BLM and allow it to manage lands under management plans created in the 1980s. Alternative C, the "extractive option," would maximize extractive industries across the entire area.

Alternative D, the BLM's "preferred alternative," is seen as a "middle ground" alternative, said Johnson, but is not set in stone. "In fact, far from it," said Johnson. "Everything is still on the table." The BLM is encouraging all local municipalities, organizations and individuals to make very clear what their priorities are, he said.

Due to the size of the 2,000-page draft (its glossary alone is 42 pages long), Johnson said the BLM has agreed to to extend the comment period out another 60 days, to Nov. 1, but urged the town to submit its letter by the original Sept. 1 deadline.

The board supported a request by trustee Chelsea Bookout to have the town's Facilities and Development Committee work with Johnson on drafting the letter. The final draft will require review and approval from the board and will be subject to public comment, said Mayor Charles Stewart.

Town trustees also approved a draft letter to the BLM regarding the Environmental Impact Statement for the federal coal leasing program. The BLM issued a moratorium on new coal leases while it considers its options. The letter outlines economic impacts of mine closures to the North Fork area, the town, and all of Delta County. Comments were due last Friday.

Johnson said it was clear at the June 23 regional scoping meeting in Grand Junction to collect comments on the BLM's comprehensive review of the federal coal program, that the North Fork area was represented. "I believe we are on their radar as far as developing national policy," said Johnson. "The more the community can do to remain on the radar," the more attention they will get.

Johnson said that while federal review addresses the system on a national level, comments can be region specific. Johnson said he could see the BLM including language regarding legacy coal-mining communities or coal-mining communities experiencing negative financial impacts due to the downturn in mining activities. He encouraged the board to include economic resources to alleviate recent closures and their effects on the local economy in its comments.

"Miners don't want retraining," said Stewart. "They want to mine coal."

Trustee Bill Bear spoke against, including comments about mitigating the effects of mine closures. "What we want is for the coal to be released in a reasonable fashion," said Bear. "We want the program to run."

Stewart said he believes the community can find common ground when it comes to coal mining in the North Fork area. "It's an issue where we need to be together," said Stewart. "This is something that has a major, major impact" that needs to be dealt with as a community.

While Johnson encouraged comments from the town and spoke in favor of the local industry at the May 23 scoping meeting, he said WSCC has no plans to address coal. The BLM's draft RMP does include some coal designations, but they will likely not have a significant impact on how coal is managed like they will with oil and gas. "Whatever the BLM determines, we are in support of," he said. As it has in the past, WSCC wants "to work as closely as they can with mines and to support them."

Natasha Leger, interim executive director for Citizens for a Healthy Community, also addressed the board. Leger said the organization's focus is on protecting CHC's 450 members from oil and gas development, and in particular, in preventing new leases. Once approved, the RMP will dictate the future of the North Fork River valley for 20-30 years. If the BLM's preferred alternative goes forward, "it would be a road map to industrial-level oil and gas development," and would open up 95 percent of existing oil and gas mineral estates to industrial-scale drilling without addressing new technologies. "And that's something we don't want to see happen, for a variety of reasons."

While the NFAP is by far the most protective of the BLM alternatives, Leger urged trustees to consider supporting a "no-leasing alternative" in their comments, "because the clean water, air and food are the lifeblood of this community."

In considering comments, Johnson suggested the public refer to the maps included in the draft RMP. The maps, which detail current and proposed land uses, can be found at