For sale: The North Fork Valley


A few weeks ago, a Texas oilman cornered me at the Ouray Brewery.

My friend and I were in Colorado’s “Little Switzerland” for a hike, a hot spring and a beer. When some attractive young women from Moab took the table next to ours, a camo-decked, rosy-faced older fellow who had been singing the “Green Acres” theme with his buddies at the bar came over and insisted on buying the next round.

Eventually, he revealed that he worked for ConocoPhillips. This didn’t go over well with the Moab ladies, so Mr. ConocoPhillips mounted his defenses. Did they think the vehicle they had driven here ran on rainbows? Their light switches, on fairy dust? When he found out I was a reporter who covered the industry, he leaned in tipsily and asked: “Can we have a conversation? A real conversation?”

The answer was apparently no, since what ensued ended up feeling like an energy-focused version of Rebecca Solnit’s essay, “Men explain things to me.”

If he had set aside his unwarranted assumption that I was some kind of airy hippie long enough to stop cutting me off, though, he would have realized I agreed with him: As oil and natural gas drilling edges in on more and more communities and their special places, those communities need to have “real,” critical conversations about that development – conversations that recognize their own role as consumers of energy.

Paonia, Colo. – HCN’s home base – recently became one of those communities. Last December, nearly 30,000 acres around the North Fork Valley’s three communities were nominated for oil and gas leasing. An election was coming up, though, so after a huge upswell of opposition, the parcels were deferred for further study. As of last Friday, the Bureau of Land Management announced its intent to move forward with the sale of about 20,000 of those acres on Feb. 14.

Given the spills, water and air pollution, habitat fragmentation, stacked up traffic on rural roads and other issues that seem to inevitably accompany this sort of energy development, many folks here feel there is much to lose if leasing goes forward. In the original proposal, some of the leases overlaid residential water supplies drawn from underground springs so clean they hardly require treatment; others sat atop popular recreation areas – from mountain bike trails to ORV routes. Still more were next to schools, or butted up against popular hunting spots, or surrounded irrigation ditches that supplied multi-generational ranches as well as organic farms and vineyards. As Peter Heller reported in an essay for Bloomberg BusinessWeek this July, the North Fork Valley “is home to the largest concentration of organic farms in the Rocky Mountains.… The valley produces 77 percent of the state’s apples, 71 percent of its peaches.” Nearly 3,000 individuals sent letters to the agency, mostly opposing the proposal. 

When Heller spoke to the Colorado state office of the BLM, though, the agency dismissed those concerns: “None of the issues you just raised are incompatible with oil and gas development,” communications director Steven Hall told him. “Look, one of the reasons these are probably so controversial is that if you walk out of the High Country News with your cup of herbal tea you can see some of these parcels.”

 (Actually, Mr. Hall, we prefer organic, fair-trade, shade-grown coffee.)

It’s clear from the latest proposal, though, that the agency decided some of those things were indeed incompatible with oil and gas development (and, perhaps, judging by the timing of the withdrawal and re-release of the parcels, that all of them were incompatible with Obama’s bid to re-win swingin’ Colorado). The agency removed the parcel closest to Paonia’s water supply, parcels that butted up against Hotchkiss High School and Crawford Elementary, and a parcel containing a popular mountain bike trail network, among others.

Still, most of the parcels remain. And, perhaps most frustrating for many locals: the BLM decided to continue with the sale under the terms of its 23-year-old Resource Management Plan -- which governs how development takes place on several-hundred-thousand acres of land and is three years overdue for revision – rather than simply waiting to re-examine the idea under the updated version, as many had asked. A draft of the latter is due out next spring, probably not too long after the proposed lease sale. In theory, the revised plan could take into account major advances in drilling technology as well as changes to the local area’s economy, demographics and environment, in ways the current plan and a smaller scale environmental study covering the leasing proposal cannot. That, in turn, would ideally mean a clearer balance struck between energy development and other interests.

When it hosted the Wild and Scenic Film Festival on Saturday night, the Conservation Center, one of two local environmental groups spearheading opposition the lease sale, walked the audience through a Google Earth tour showing which parcels had been removed and which will likely still go up for sale in February. The audience groaned and booed. But when a staffer mentioned that the BLM had withdrawn the mountain biking parcel from the auction block, their discontent appeared to grow, not recede – as if this were merely a petty attempt to placate their concerns. It also seemed clear that many in the room would accept nothing short of NO leases in the area under any circumstances.

Then, the films started. Among them was a short about a Pennsylvania couple who discovered plans to drill for gas in a local, beloved park and mounted a successful petition drive to defeat the proposal. The message of the film was clearly that some places are just too special for energy development, and that local action can save them. It’s the same sentiment I’ve heard in the North Fork Valley, and through many years as a reporter and editor covering issues related to oil and natural gas, as well as other forms of energy.

Though I recognize the validity of this viewpoint and often share it, I wondered again to myself on Saturday: Are there any places so unspecial that we can all agree they should be drilled? Mr. ConocoPhillips knows well that few among us in Paonia or anywhere else in the U.S. can say we don’t rely on this fuel in some way – for heat, for transport, for electricity, for the fertilization of our food. And every place matters to somebody. What patch of Earth isn’t habitat for a wonderful something, or for many wonderful somethings?

As Bobby Reedy, who runs a local gas station and auto shop in Paonia, told Heller: “Look, when I come home I wanna flick the light switch and know the lights are gonna come on. If it’s not in my backyard, whose is it gonna be in?”

After all, even when drilling is done as responsibly as possible, it will never really be completely “clean” or risk-free. It involves boring thousands of feet into the earth, blasting in water and chemicals, and drawing up substances from the deeps that are plenty toxic on their own – Mother Nature’s own energy-rich poisons.

So if we insist on continuing to live our lives as we do now, maybe having drill rigs and compressor stations visible out the kitchen window or from the hiking trail or even from the school playground is necessary. How else can anyone truly understand the costs and benefits of something they use than to be confronted with it directly, every day? After all, it’s not just the machinery of corporate greed – it’s the machinery of our collective and vast energy appetite, our need to be warm and comfortable and fed and entertained (or in my case, to drive dozens of miles to Ouray for a hiking trip on a lark). And if we can’t look at it, then it’s time to do more than just fight drilling. It’s time to go on a diet.

Sarah Gilman is HCN’s associate editor

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