BLM to allow copious oil and gas development in North Fork Valley

“Undermines years of collaboration…”

By Katherine Nettles

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released its final decision on the Uncompahgre Field Office Resource Management Plan (RMP) on April 10, after a decade-long process of input from local government, the public and from state and federal leaders. But many of those involved in the long process are not pleased with the outcome.

While the BLM made some changes from its proposal phase to address concerns from the governor, the final decision is receiving significant pushback from environmental advocacy groups and from U.S. Senator Michael Bennet for opening up a majority of BLM public lands to potential extractive industries. These lands include the North Fork Valley, west of Kebler Pass and home to extensive agricultural production on Colorado’s Western Slope.

The RMP will provide guidance for the agency’s future. It applies to the management of approximately 675,800 acres of BLM-administered public lands and 971,220 acres of federal mineral estate across Gunnison, Montrose, Ouray, Mesa, Delta and San Miguel Counties. The April 10 record of decision describes how the BLM reviewed and dismissed 86 protest letters last year (including one from Gunnison County) for its proposed planning decisions.

“The BLM director denied the protests, and that decision is the final decision of the U.S. Department of the Interior,” says BLM Colorado State director Jamie Connell in an open letter to the public attached to the document.

The BLM did add some new stipulations for fluid mineral leasing based on concerns submitted by the governor’s office last year. The stipulation requires developing a mitigation plan in coordination with Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), “to demonstrate that the overall function and suitability of big game winter range, migration and production areas will not be impaired.” It also stipulates that, regarding Gunnison sage grouse, CPW must be consulted on any proposed modifications to the birds’ habitat.

Matt Reed, public lands director of High Country Conservation Advocates, said this final decision is a “worst case scenario,” that could open up 95 percent of public lands in the area to oil and gas development and disregards the local input, to which the federal administration had promised it was committed.

“This plan really goes against everything that the North Fork Valley has asked for,” said Reed. “That’s troubling for a number of reasons. It compromises the integrity of the food systems. It also exposes front and center the hypocrisy of the Trump Administration. You hear this mantra of local control, echoed in moving the BLM headquarters to Colorado. Then you have this local initiative on how to balance the needs of local stakeholders and environment, and when a local initiative doesn’t line up with his interests the community overwhelmingly was ignored. It is totally unreflective of the best interests and desires of the community.”

Reed emphasized the ways the North Fork Valley is connected to Gunnison County, both geographically and culturally. “The North Fork watershed supports Crested Butte and Gunnison County for a number of reasons. Even though it’s a different watershed, that watershed is critically important.”

HCCA and the Crested Butte Farmers Market conducted a survey in 2018 that showed about 75 percent of the weekly farmers market products are sourced from the North Fork Valley, including wine, meat, dairy and produce.

“Our two valleys are increasingly connected. So many people from Crested Butte and Gunnison hunt and fish there, take trips to go to the farms and the wineries, and they come here to recreate. This relationship between these two valleys is important. So much opportunity for a sustainable future is being ignored. It’s not a reflection of the two communities that have a stake in this,” said Reed.

Representatives from the North Fork Valley Organic Growers Association (VOGA) visited Gunnison County commissioners in February to discuss the region’s economic ties to Gunnison County and urging continued advocacy to protect the North Fork watershed from oil and gas development.

The Western Slope Conservation Center, which worked on the North Fork Alternative Plan and included VOGA, released a response to the final BLM decision on Friday afternoon.

The response read, in part, “The most disappointing aspect of the final plan is that it undermines years of collaboration and local engagement, completely disregarding a community crafted plan for the North Fork Valley. In 2014, a diverse group of North Fork stakeholders, including agricultural, tourism, realty, business and conservation organizations, came together and developed a ‘community alternative’—essentially a locally grown vision and set of guidelines—for oil and gas management in the area … The balanced proposal would allow for the consideration of regulated energy development on up to 25 percent of the area’s federal lands with additional protections for lands important to hunting, fishing, and other outdoor recreation activities. The agency’s final plan ignores this community proposal, and in turn, dismisses the community’s own vision for a sustainable future and diverse economy.”

Reed says the question now is litigation. “I don’t have any details on that. But this is the end of the administrative process for this. So that is a consideration,” he said.

Senator Michael Bennet also released a press release stating his objections to the BLM decision. “Rather than do the hard work to build consensus and balance interests, the Trump Administration’s energy dominance agenda in Washington overruled the concerns of Colorado counties. While this is a disappointing outcome, I will continue to work with the community on a path forward.”

It is not certain whether demand for oil and gas development will warrant any production in these areas. “Demand fluctuates,” said Reed. “But this plan allows a placeholder for it and encourages development, should that be economically desirable by the oil and gas industry. It created the idea that would be the primary focus of these BLM lands…. This strips away all the conservation, such as the alternative that would have created 177,000 acres of ecological emphasis areas, and that’s totally abandoned. Again, nothing surprises me in this administration but the degree of hypocrisy and ignoring community will is something I don’t understand.”

Reed concluded, “Because this plan will potentially be in place for decades, you can see a scenario where a lot of this area is developed for oil and gas. But we will be diligent in battling and fighting for this. It’s not like nothing can be done from here on out, but it’s certainly a rotten foundation.”

HCCA is also focusing on other planning processes under way, like the U.S. Forest Service planning for the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre & Gunnison National Forests. Reed says he is optimistic that there is potential for more local input there, “so we don’t necessarily have an entire landscape saturated with this energy-first plan.”

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