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More analysis urged for proposed gas development

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North Fork Valley groups, citizens, and the Town of Paonia all told the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service that the agencies' preliminary environmental assessment on the proposed 35-well North Fork Mancos Master Development is inadequate to protect public health, safety, welfare, clean water supplies and the environment.

Center for Biological Diversity, Citizens for a Healthy Community, Colorado Farm and Food Alliance, High Country Conservation Advocates, Sierra Club, Slow Food Western Slope, Valley Organic Growers Association, West Elks AVA, Western Colorado Alliance, Western Environmental Law Center, Western Slope Conservation Center, WildEarth Guardians, Wilderness Society, and Wilderness Workshop, all submitted comments identifying deficiencies in the agencies' analysis of the proposed project. These groups represent thousands of impacted citizens including, farmers, business owners, recreationalists, and conservationists, raised numerous concerns about the plans that would bring new industrial development to the middle of three critical watersheds north of the Town of Paonia, and requesting a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement analysis to evaluate the cumulative impacts of this project.

This project, which contemplates a second phase of an additional 104 wells, is adjacent to the 146-well Bull Mountain Master Development Plan, also located within the same three critical watersheds, which did undergo a comprehensive environmental impact statement analysis.

"The BLM is not being consistent in how it is analyzing the scale and impact of this project," said Andrew Forkes-Gudmundson, associate program director at Citizens for a Healthy Community.

The North Fork Valley is world renowned as "Colorado's Farm to Table Capital," with the state's highest concentration of organic and sustainable farms and ranches, and home to a growing agritourism industry comprised of farms, wineries, markets, shops, restaurants and a season full of festivals. The North Fork Valley and West Elk region is one of only two federally-designated wine-growing regions in the state, due to its unique "terroir." The qualities and features of the valley merit such recognition.

As of 2013, the North Fork Valley is a state-designated Colorado Creative District and since 2018 a starring attraction on the Colorado Creative Corridor. Boom and bust economics of oil and gas development projects, which have long hampered many western economies by preventing diversification, could harm that. The massive new industrial presence in these rural towns and on farm-to-market roads from industrial-scale oil and gas development projects like the NFMMDP pose a real threat to what makes this area unique in the state.

"The North Fork Valley's farms, ranches, businesses, and residents deserve a comprehensive accounting, analysis, and public process around this project. We didn't get one with the preliminary environmental assessment," said Pete Kolbenschlag, Colorado Farm and Food Alliance. "The agencies clearly need to go back to the drawing board and prepare a meaningful and detailed analysis that takes a "hard look" at this project and its impacts."

The Town of Paonia identified 10 areas of concern which were inadequately analyzed, including surface and groundwater impacts, drought, traffic impacts, farmlands, air quality, health impacts, and local economy impacts.

"These are public lands, and how our public lands are used impacts more than just the project boundaries. The impacts of these decisions last generations, and I couldn't look my children in the eye if we didn't demand that the BLM undertake a more rigorous review of these issues," said Chelsea Bookout, Town of Paonia trustee.

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