North Fork Community Delegation Travels to D.C.

Jun 25, 2013

A group of North Fork area residents traveled to Washington, DC last week to meet with the Bureau of Land Management’s National Office and Colorado Senators Bennet and Udall. It was the third in a series of trips to Washington led by area environmental groups aimed at building support for the North Fork Alternative Plan, a guidebook of sorts for how some locals believe oil and gas development should play out in the North Fork Valley. Namely, it’s a response to a proposed sale from earlier this year, which before it was postponed, would’ve opened BLM lands around the North Fork to oil and gas leasing. 

Jeff Schwartz is the man behind Delicious Orchards and Big B’s Fabulous Juices in Paonia. Seated with his daughter in his lap, Schwartz says he doesn’t see himself as an activist per say, but foremost a family man. As part of the DC delegation, he says he was focused on representing the area’s organic farmers, and protecting the lifestyle he’s chosen for himself and his family.

"We feel strongly that energy development needs to take place in a sane and sensible manner," says Schwartz. He's no stranger to energy needs, but says he still isn’t comfortable with the idea of bringing more industry to the region.

"We’re burning a lot of diesel on these farms, and a lot of coal…but the oil and gas extraction at this point hasn’t proven safe.’

That uncertainty surrounding the safety of energy development, specifically fracking, was a big part of the group’s message to Washington. Ralph D’Alessandro is an elected member of the Delta County Conservation District, and on the board for the Paonia-based Conservation Center. His message to Washington focused on oil and gas development’s potential impact on water supplies.

"There is no more valuable resource than water," D'Alessandro said."Without water, we don't have food, we don't have plants, we don't have people. This area is a desert." De'Alessandro says the water needs of the area's existing economy - its organic farms and wineries - "needs to be balanced against mineral extraction."

Virgil Franks, a retired Paonia resident, grew up farming in eastern Colorado, but moved to the North Fork area to work on the reservoir at Grand Mesa, and later the Fire Mountain Canal. As an Earth and Life Sciences teacher in the Boulder public school system for 23 years, he developed a keen appreciation for the environment. He says exploring the valley’s resources has to be done with the utmost care, but that if oil and gas are there, people should be willing to use it.

"I think we're obligated to produce our part of the energy," Franks says. "We are using these natural resources, and consequently we have a responsibility to the rest of the country too."

Virgil also feels that much of the debate surrounding energy development, from both sides, is relatively uninformed. He says most people have a certain degree of ignorance when it comes to oil and gas issues, yet still make decisions that have "far-reaching consequences."

Oogie McGuire heads up Desert Weyr Farms. Perched atop Garvin Mesa at about 6200 feet, her solar-powered farm is home to North America’s second-largest flock of pure-bred Black Welsh Mountain Sheep. Oogie says that flock is currently 3% of the breed’s population worldwide. And her concerns about oil and gas coming to the region are close to home, literally: her property is surrounded by BLM lands that would’ve been included in the February 2013 sale, leases that though postponed, haven’t entirely disappeared.

"For us it doesn’t matter whether to process of fracking is safe," Oogie says, "our business will be totally destroyed just from the development and drilling activity."

The North Fork delegation as a whole said the response they got from both the BLM national office, and from Senators Bennet and Udall, was generally supportive. Pete Kohlbenschlag says that acting BLM Deputy Director Jamie Connell appreciated the group’s community-based, collaborative approach to the North Fork Alternative Plan. Eric Goold, Paonia Town Councilman (and occasional newscaster for KVNF), also felt the group’s concerns were met with earnest consideration.

Ms. McGuire, however, isn’t so optimistic about the fate of the North Fork Alternative. She says the Denver BLM office isn't likely to take any action on the North Fork Alternative unless instructed to by their superiors.

The revised Resource Management Plan from the BLM’s Uncompaghre Field Office, which would cover the North Fork Valley, is due out sometime this fall, and will be accompanied by a 90-day public comment period before the plan is set in stone. In the meantime, the North Fork Alternative is sure to be a source of contentious debate here in the valley.

Airliner Audio courtesy