By @ColoFarmFood, crossposted at

Attention has been focused on Denver, as Governor Hickenlooper’s Oil and Gas Task Force finishes its work, mostly avoiding the contentious issues that surround the industrial realities of oil and gas—noise, pollution, traffic, and impacts to land and existing uses—which led to its formation 18 months ago.

Many of Colorado’s farmers, and the farm-to-table restaurants, craft breweries, wineries and sundry other businesses along those lines, meanwhile, were thinking instead of the weather.  Glad for snow, and the hope for a decent water year.

But watching the weather on the advent of spring does not mean many were not also watching what came out of the Task Force, and paying attention to oil and gas development generally, especially where it impacts or threatens business and operations.  And they always have an eye on their water.

Earlier this month concerned valley residents packed the Paonia High School to learn about and comment on the proposed Bull Mountain natural gas drilling and fracking project planned in the headwaters of the North Fork of the Gunnison River, and the source of most of the area’s irrigation water.


PAONIA — North Fork Valley residents are rallying again to try and stop oil and gas development involving tens of thousands of acres, but in this case face a daunting challenge because the land already is leased.

Some 200 people turned out at a Bureau of Land Management meeting at Paonia High School regarding SG Interests’ plan to drill up to 146 natural gas wells in the upper North Fork Valley, with many in attendance indicating their concern about the project.

…Residents Tuesday voiced concerns including possible air and water impacts, heavy truck traffic on Highway 133, the potential for harm to the Paonia area’s burgeoning organic farm industry, and whether the local economic benefits are enough to justify the risks.

…“There’s no reason to use clean water for dirty energy extraction,” Jere Lowe, who owns a local organic farming supply company, said Tuesday.

The Bull Mountain Master Development Plan proposes almost 150 new natural gas wells.  In addition to their potential impacts on the valley’s water supplies, they would lie along the world-famous West Elk Scenic Byway in the heart of its aspen country.

From there, public lands—many that could face future oil and gas development—stretch across Clear Fork Divide, Springhouse Park, Mamm Peak, and over into the Battlement Mesa area, where residents are raising similar concerns.


Among those concerned about both her water and the earthquake risk are Williams’ mom and Gardner’s aunt, Alberta Payton. She lives on a ranch that has been in her family since 1892, and uses her well for drinking and domestic uses. It’s also used to provide water for cows on her property.

Indeed, all across the state—from the San Luis Valley to the Four Corners—the increase in oil and gas development is bringing businesses, agricultural operators, rural (and other) communities face to face with questions about where this activity is appropriate, and about how much input local communities ought to have in deciding the where, when, and how it occurs.

Promoting Colorado Agritourism means Protecting the Value of Place

In Colorado, a growing number of businesses and communities rely directly on the health and beauty of the land, and on an abundant supply of clean water.  This includes numerous agricultural operators, organic growers, ranchers, wineries, and those that produce or sell food and drink: chefs, restaurants, breweries, markets and manufacturers. And rural communities across the state that rely on maintaining the quality of ingredients for products, also are recognizing the amenity that healthy lands and clean water represent in situ, as the character of place.

Agritourism is already a significant and potentially huge market, with everyone from the Western Slope pro-business lobby group Club 20 to the Colorado Legislature touting the benefits promoting the downhome, scenic, relaxed qualities a visit to rural Colorado can offer.  But talk can be cheap.  Increasingly communities are worried that looming industrial development, seemingly against their will and beyond their control, might hamper this economic development.

The Paonia Chamber of Commerce weighed into the oil and gas project staring down at the North Fork, with this guest column from its president:


Over the past 35 years, a new economic dynamic has developed around agriculture and will be a stabilizing balance against the boom and bust cycles. The North Fork is now home to the largest concentration of organic farms in Colorado, according to the USDA. This new dynamic … also includes increased recognition of the North Fork as an agritourism hotspot, dubbed Colorado’s “farm-to-table capital.”

In the last 15 years the North Fork has emerged as an award-winning federally designated wine region, one of only two in Colorado. The arts, music, and theater scene has flourished — with the entire North Fork designated by Gov. John Hickenlooper as the state’s only multi-jurisdictional Creative District.

All the recognition is paying off. Events like Ride the Rockies and other bicycle organizations now see the North Fork as a great place to bring their event and revenue…  However, huge traffic spikes on our two-lane highway and other impacts from heavy industry could nip our growing activities in the bud.

Solutions are possible that acknowledge some places should not be drilled

The Roan Plateau looms above the Colorado River across the valley from Battlement Mesa, where the residents’ current battle is with the county and state that has jurisdiction there.  And while the Governor’s Oil and Gas Task Force recommendations appear to have somewhat missed the mark as far as strengthening the ability of local communities to have meaningful input into oil and gas development, that should not deter communities from exercising their voices.

One famous saying is: “Don’t agonize, organize.”  And there is still plenty of space to get things done. For one thing, the state’s role is really only half of the story.The United States Bureau of Land Management (BLM) also has a critical role, as many of the resources—both public lands and publicly-owned subsurface minerals—are under its jurisdiction. The story of the BLM lands and resources at Roan Plateau show that there can be movement forward, in that case a settlement between conservation groups, oil and gas companies, and the BLM.

For public lands and minerals under its jurisdiction, the BLM can act to make sure local concerns are addressed in projects moving forward.  Important public and community resources must be safeguarded.  Some important public lands are simply better managed for purposes other than as an oil and gas field.

In Colorado’s South Park Basin, headwaters to the South Platte and the source for much of Metro Denver’s water supply, the BLM has committed to starting a Master Leasing Plan later this spring before considering further oil and gas leasing.

This step provides another layer of input and can allow local communities and good science to ensure more responsible oil and gas development and keep it out of those places it does not belong.

Back in the North Fork, while the BLM has agreed to consider the local community’s North Fork Alternative Plan that, when adopted, will provide strong protections for the public lands and resources in the valley for now many in the valley are looking to the Bull Mountain proposal.  Residents are urging that the BLM ensure it truly takes a big picture and ‘hard look’ at its proposed actions.  As the guest column from the Chamber of Commerce president notes:


We all want the North Fork to thrive. To many of our existing businesses, farms and ranches, and residents, a huge spike in drilling in our small valley is not a good fit, to say it mildly. We hope that like other places that started in conflict, such as Roan Plateau, we can reach a solution in the North Fork.

…For oil and gas development in general, that means accepting that communities must have more say in where, how, and when this activity occurs. Most of the North Fork agrees that new, large-scale industrial activity is a tough fit for Colorado’s Farm-to-Table Capital.  

The BLM has made progress in its efforts to better involve and give meaningful consideration to local communities and the need to protect resources, uses and values other than mineral development.

But the agency needs to do more and there remains a need for Coloradans and local communites to stay engaged.

For those that care about good food, good drink, and scenic rural landscapes, now is a critical time to consider what is happening with oil and gas drilling in Colorado.