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Citizens share concerns as Paonia drafts letter to BLM

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The Town of Paonia Board of Trustees will make changes to the town's draft comments on the BLM Resource Management Plan after hearing numerous concerns and comments from citizens at a special meeting on Oct. 5.

The public comment period on the draft plan, which will guide the federal agency in land management for 20 to 30 years, ends Nov. 1. The town plans to submit comments and will present a final draft at the Oct. 25 board meeting.

At the special meeting, almost 20 citizens and representatives of local organizations spent more than an hour expressing concerns about the gas industry's impacts on air and water quality and the local economy.

The town's draft letter urges support of the North Fork Alternative Plan, described as a community-driven effort that "is highly protective of the North Fork Valley's many important features and resources." The letter stresses consideration for protection of the town's numerous drinking and irrigation water sources, wildlife and recreation areas when considering areas for leasing. It also encourages Special Recreation Management Area designation for Jumbo Mountain.

Trustee Chelsea Bookout wrote the draft. Bookout said comments are all based on letters and comments submitted to the BLM and other agencies by previous town boards. A copy of the draft comments was posted to the town website.

Western Slope Conservation Center executive director Alex Johnson thanked the town for calling the special meeting and said this is one of the most important letters the town will write this year. "Thank you for honoring the significance of this process," said Johnson.

Citizens expressed concerns over putting money before the need for clean air and water, and the "boom and bust" nature of the industry.

Natasha Leger, executive director for Citizens for a Healthy Community, said CHC recognizes that gas drilling is occurring and that the group's focus is on preventing future drilling. The BLM's preferred alternative, said Leger, is a roadmap to industrialization for the area.

Trustee David Bradford, a retired rangeland management specialist with the U.S. Forest Service Paonia Ranger, asked if the economic impacts of eliminating lands from leasing have been considered. He asked, "What is the impact to leasing funds and mineral severance taxes?" which he said are a significant part of the Department of Local Affairs grant funding. He encouraged the town to include the subject in its comments.

"It's an incredibly difficult question," because no one knows all of the variables, including how much gas actually exists in the area or what it's value will be, said Johnson. It's a subject the organization is researching.

Trustee Suzanne Watson compared keeping the gas in the ground to keeping money in a bank account. "Sure, maybe there is some financial benefit that we could have, but once it's gone, it's gone."

Several citizens urged support from the town for Special Recreation Management Area designation for Jumbo Mountain and other popular recreation areas. They urged trustees to consider the benefits of the state's multi-billion-dollar recreation industry on the area and how recreation opportunities could be negatively affected if drilling is allowed on public lands.

Former town trustee Amber Kleinman said it's commonly known that the natural gas industry creates few long-term jobs. She noted the negative economic impacts the industry could have on recreation and tourism and the positive impacts of keeping drilling to a minimum. She asked how increased need for road repairs will be funded and where the "millions of gallons" of water the industry needs will come from.

Phyllis Swackhamer, a CHC board member, said that the draft RMP is based on outdated information and does not consider new information. Swackhamer, whose background is in science, highlighted some of the information about the industry that has emerged in the last three years.

Leger said one of CHC's main focuses "is on holding the BLM accountable. Many areas of concern are not covered in the draft. The BLM did not consider earthquakes, newer drilling technologies and the fact that rural gas gathering lines are unregulated."

CHC will host a community forum from 6-7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 12, at Paonia Town Hall.

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