I’ve covered a lot of public meetings as a reporter, but I’ve never been to one quite like the one at Paonia, Colo.’s town hall on Jan. 15. More than 200 residents packed the stuffy council chambers, sitting on the floor and spilling out into the hall. They were there to hear the Bureau of Land Management respond to questions about the proposed Valentine’s Day lease sale of about 20,000 acres in the North Fork Valley for natural gas development.
It’s a contentious issue here in the valley, which is home to coal mines, wineries, organic and conventional farms and ranches -- and High Country News. Since announcing the lease sale in December 2011, the BLM has received more than 3,500 comments and 150 protest letters – a pretty high number, the exhausted-looking manager of the BLM’s Uncompahgre Field Office, Barbara Sharrow, said at the meeting. Locals have also attempted a White House petition (which didn’t get enough signatures to merit a response), met with elected officials here and in Washington D.C., and had lively discussions on Paonia’s Facebook group (a lovely quirk of living in a small town) about the leasing. As a result of the outcry, the BLM delayed the lease sale and scaled back its initial proposal, removing about 1/3 of the parcels to protect water supplies, steep slopes and a local mountain biking spot.
The public input on the BLM’s leasing process wasn’t enough to satisfy locals who felt like the agency wasn’t considering their concerns, however; nor was it enough for the BLM, who felt that the comments they’d received didn’t accurately reflect the sentiment in the valley. Steven Hall, the BLM’s Colorado communications director, said he’s heard that supporters of gas drilling are afraid to speak up because of how vocal the opposition is. The desire for a fuller perspective prompted the BLM to ask for meetings with local governments. “Talking to elected officials is a good way to get an idea of where the local community is at on a given issue, so that we’re not just hearing from folks opposed to something,” Hall says.
In theory, the meeting could have given both sides what they were looking for—another perspective on the leasing and an opportunity to hear directly from and talk to the BLM. But that’s not what happened. Instead, BLM officials endured two hours of heckling, insults and booing as residents grew increasingly frustrated by officials’ bureaucratic responses and lack of empathy for their situation.
“They’re not answering the questions you’re asking, that’s why we’re getting pissed,” yelled one woman after Sharrow skirted a question on whether the agency considered the possible effect of hydraulic fracturing on organic agriculture when deciding which parcels to lease by saying that the BLM considers all types of agriculture in making decisions, not just organic.
The real problem was, most of the time the BLM was answering residents’ questions, just not the way residents wanted. Instead, BLM officials detailed, ad nauseum, the process by which they offer public land for lease. To a question about why the BLM won’t wait for the area’s 24-year old resource management plan (RMP) to be updated before deciding which parcels to offer for lease, State Director Helen Hankins gave a filibuster of a response on how the plan updating process works, then reiterated that agency policy requires them to use the existing plan, not wait for the new one.
But process was not what locals wanted to hear, Mayor Neal Schwieterman reflected the morning after the meeting. Their questions were emotional ones -- how do you ensure the gas industry will be a good neighbor? How much is a beautiful view of the mountains worth? -- and they merited emotional answers. Instead, BLM officials showed little empathy, and more infuriating to the crowd, they often toed the industry line, attempting to reassure people that “in the state of Colorado, there have not been any problems with hydraulic fracturing.” That quote came from Lonny Bagley, Colorado BLM’s deputy state director for energy, lands and minerals, which was met with incredulity, booing and this post by a Paonia resident on the town’s Facebook page the next day: “When one of them has the nerve to say that there has been no problem with any of the drilling sites in CO, it makes you wonder if they are stupid, think we are stupid, or are just being paid off.”
The incessant heckling was a shame, but so was the BLM’s misguided delivery, especially because they did have a few good points to make. It’s true that privately-held mineral rights in the North Fork valley could be leased for development regardless of what the BLM decides, and the town would be wise to prepare for that. It’s true that the BLM cannot guarantee a spill won’t occur or a well won’t blow out. But points like these got lost in the slew of defensive, wonky, and downright offensive answers -- Hankins criticized locals who spoke with their elected officials, telling them that by doing so they weren’t participating in the BLM’s process -- leaving the public wondering if they were really being heard.
Emily Guerin is the editorial fellow at High Country News.
Photos courtesy HCN's associate designer Andrew Cullen