As the U.S. Department of Interior initiated its review of oil and gas leasing on public lands, leaders from Colorado’s North Fork Valley “zoomed” into Washington, D.C., as part of their annual advocacy week.

Each year the North Fork Valley sends a group of business, agricultural and community leaders to Washington, D.C., to meet with elected officials and agencies. This decade-long tradition grew out of the valley’s long-endured, high-profile fights over oil and gas leasing and development in the region’s watersheds, public lands and national forests.

Although the meetings have been virtual this year, they could not have come at a more important time as the incoming Biden Administration launches a full review of the federal public lands fossil fuel programs.

“This year, it was especially important to meet with our decision-makers sooner than later as things are about to get very busy here in our agricultural community,” said Kristin Just, owner at Twisted Root Farm and representing the Valley Organic Growers Association. “We are supportive of the new direction this administration is headed, reinstating conservation efforts as a policy priority will go a long way for the stewardship of our local lands and water. As farmers who rely almost entirely on the integrity of our West Elk Mountain headwaters on the national forests to irrigate our crops and support our livelihoods, we support the leasing pause and a thorough review of the public lands leasing program.”

This year the group has met with Sen. Corey Bennet and his staff, staff from Sen. John Hickenlooper’s and Rep. Lauren Boebert’s offices, committee staff from the Senate Agriculture Committee, and with staff at the U.S. Department of Interior. The North Fork representatives will complete their visits with several more meetings in the coming week.

Surrounded by National Forest and other public lands, the North Fork Valley in Delta and Gunnison counties is regionally renown as a prime agricultural hub for Western Colorado. Referred to as “Colorado’s Farm to Table Capital,” the North Fork is home to over a dozen wineries, a cidery, two breweries, several farm markets, local food restaurants, as well as dozens of farms, ranches, and businesses catering to and benefitting from their operations.

“We are in support of the leasing pause, and the opportunity to reconsider the energy dominance agenda put forward by the last administration for our Valley,” said Shawn Larson, head cider maker at Big B’s and co-owner of Chrysalis Brewing. “We want to see public lands protected, for the water supply which is the essential ingredient for our ciders and our beer. These lands are also where we hunt, and hike and take our families for the weekend. They bring people here who visit our businesses.”

The meetings included opportunities to support legislation like the CORE Act —a bill that would protect 400,000 acres of forests and other public lands, including some around the North Fork.

“The public lands in the North Fork are at the core of so much of what we are about — from farming, to taking in the scenery, to hunting and fishing,” said Ben Katz, public lands director with the Western Slope Conservation Center, an organization focused on public lands and river health in Delta County. “The river we take our name from comes from and across our public lands, and all our irrigation. But they’re also our recreation lands, the views that bring tourists in the summer and leaf-peepers in the fall. We need to protect public lands for those things, and for wildlife and ecosystem health.”

The North Fork Valley began sending a delegation to meet with policy-makers in Washington, D.C., in 2012 when it was fighting an oil and gas lease sale on public lands surrounding the area’s three communities. Since then protection for the area’s public lands has been a central component of the annual trip, but the other issues they raise have shifted over the years to address current opportunities.

This year the group was able to talk about President Joe Biden’s Executive Order on Tackling Climate Change — which includes the oil and gas leasing pause, a robust “green jobs” program, and the so-called 30 x 30 Initiative. This is a goal to conserve 30% of America’s lands and waters by 2030. North Fork representatives were particularly hopeful that 30 x 30 could focus more attention toward regenerative agriculture, local economies, and public lands protection as ways to meet this goal, to spur rural jobs, and to provide carbon- and climate benefits.

“We were also there to support putting agriculture at the center of the necessary work to address climate change, to make our food systems more resilient, and to be part of the solution,” said AJ Carrillo, a regenerative farmer managing Deer Tree Farm & Agroforest, outside of Hotchkiss. “We appreciate the leadership of our Senators in addressing climate change and in supporting agriculture. We told them we would like to see Congress hold an inquiry into the relationship between American agricultural policy and the climate crisis, in order to collect the data necessary to create better policies that will help agriculture, and rural places, thrive as leaders in confronting these challenges.”

A unifying theme for the variety of topics discussed was the overall energy and economic transition taking place in the region, and how to create more prosperous, equitable and resilient communities. The group brought a message to Washington, D.C., that rural places, like the North Fork, are eager to be leaders in building back for a more sustainable, climate-forward future.

In addition to protecting the region’s lands and waters, the North Fork delegation urged officials to support regenerative agriculture and rural infrastructure. That investment should include renewable energy and local power development, to address climate change, keep money in local communities, and to create jobs.

“Regenerative agriculture, healthy lands, a good water supply, locally supplied clean energy, vital small towns, all these can come together to provide for a more sustainable future for rural places. We have all the ingredients,” said Pete Kolbenschlag with the Colorado Farm and Food Alliance. “We want our leaders to support that vision, and the leasing review allows space to plan our future away from the threat of oil and gas knocking at the door. But now we need to see strong policy and follow through, we need to put real changes in place. We’ll stay engaged to make sure that happens.”

The annual North Fork trip to Washington, D.C., this year done virtually, is a collaborative effort of the Colorado Farm and Food Alliance, the Western Slope Conservation Center, and the Valley Organic Growers Association.

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