Last week the local advocacy group Citizens for a Healthy Community announced it would file a lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management if the agency does not withdraw the remaining 20,000 acres in the North Fork from its February 14 lease sale. Along with other citizens’ groups and individuals, CHC has been fighting the proposed sale since it was announced in December of 2011, saying it jeopardizes the North Fork’s economy, its organic farms, orchards, ranches, wineries and way of life. KVNF’s Marty Durlin spoke with CHC director Jim Ramey.
If the BLM decides to go ahead with the sale of the North Fork leases, CHC and its partner, the Western Environmental Law Center, will file an injunction to stop it, claiming that the BLM’s 1989 Resource Management Plan is not an adequate tool for making
decisions about gas drilling in the North Fork Valley in 2013. "CHC views the lawsuit as a last resort," says director Jim Ramey, but he believes they’re on sound legal ground.
Ramey says, "The basic argument that we have is that federal law requires the BLM to do an extensive environmental analysis for this and they haven’t done so. You look through this 281- page environmental assessment that they did, and the constant refrain you hear from them is the act of leasing creates no impacts whatsoever. Which -- ask Bob Lario at Remax if that’s true. He’s already seeing significant economic impacts from the mere threat of leasing happening, not even the lease sale going through. But it boils down to: BLM has not done the required analysis, their analysis is deficient, and we think we have a very strong case if we’re forced to pursue that with a judge."
When asked whether BLM has a reasonable mandate that they’re just making errors in executing, or whether the idea of multiple use is flawed from the beginning, Ramey replied, "I think it’s really unfortunate because how BLM has carried themselves with respect to the North Fork leases seems to be to trying to justify at any cost why these lands should be leased for oil and gas instead of trying to look holistically, here are all the resource concerns and uses on these public lands, and how can we balance those with oil and gas. It seems like the BLM is really trying to justify, okay, we need to open all the public
lands for drilling, unless there’s a really really really good reason not to – and you know, we’ve been trying to make the case for over a year now that there are lots of really good reasons not to open them, and they’re only partially addressing our concerns."
BLM representatives argued on their visit to Paonia’s town council last week that the old RMP had been amended 16 times in the last 23 years, and that it is adequate to make all decisions about land use in the area even as the agency works on a revision. But Ramey says gas and oil development is in a class all of its own.
"I would argue that when you’re looking at a pipeline project across public lands, or a change to a grazing allotment, it’s very different than when you’re looking at a 20,000, 10,000, 5,000 acre lease sale of public lands for oil and gas development…because once those leases are issued, that under the law is the conveyance of a property right to that company to go and develop the minerals there. So once you issue the leases the horse is out of the barn – there’s nothing you can do to stop it, you can only try to mitigate the
impacts and negotiate with the company if there’s a significant resource concern."
According to Ramey, "When the decision to lease these lands was made in 1989, that couldn’t have foreseen what the North Fork Valley would be like in 2013. So from a common sense standpoint, let’s just slow down. Let’s focus on getting the RMP updated, getting really good, thoughtful management in place for the North Fork, and let’s let the companies who have federal leases in the North Fork, up in the Muddy and across the state of Colorado and the Rocky Mountain West -- let’s focus on developing those parcels that are already leased. There’s hundreds of thousands, millions of acres of land that are already leased and not being drilled on."
The BLM said it would make a decision about whether or not to defer the North Fork leases as late as two days before the sale on February 14.