Memo: BLM opens lands in Colorado's North Fork Valley to potential drilling

Jul 2, 2018
Alan Levine, Flickr

Today the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced plans to include lands in Colorado’s prized North Fork Valley in its December 2018 lease sale. The BLM is proposing the sale of leases in lands surrounding the largest reservoir in the valley, as well as lands contiguous to Colorado Roadless Areas and directly above the town of Paonia. These are some of the same lands the local community joined together to oppose leasing in 2011 and 2012, prompting the BLM to consider a locally grown vision for the North Fork Valley that would keep energy development away from sensitive areas. The BLM is evaluating the North Fork Citizens’ Alternative in the ongoing Uncompahgre Resource Management Plan revision, however, this proposed lease sale ignores the local community, leaving the future of the North Fork Valley more threatened than ever.

Why is this so important to western Colorado? Oil and gas development is incompatible with a healthy future for the spectacular North Fork Valley of western Colorado. The communities of the North Fork Valley are strongly opposed to oil and gas development, largely due to the negligible economic gains and the significant irreparable damage that could occur from oil and gas activities in the watershed.

  • Paonia Reservoir: Included in the December lease sale are parcels surrounding the Paonia Reservoir. Surface spills would immediately and irreparably harm the farms and people of the North Fork Valley, who daily use water from Paonia Reservoir for irrigation needs. Additionally, one of the largest landslides in recent history is located just upstream from parcels nominated for lease. Oil and gas development in this area could pose serious risk not only to water quality, but to the geologic integrity of the Paonia Reservoir itself and surrounding slopes.
  • Clean Water: The North Fork Valley is a hub of organic agriculture and one of only two federally recognized wine regions in Colorado. Protection of the valley’s water supply relies on protecting the North Fork from source-to-use. Pollution must be prevented from entering this critical water system. For farmers and the agricultural economy, water quantity and quality are both of utmost importance. Organic agriculture, specialty crops, and high-quality hay all depend on abundant water free from contamination.

Surface contamination and spills, which occur regularly in Colorado oil and gas fields, could spread rapidly through the irrigation systems that water the valley. Oil and gas development is well-known to contaminate water supplies, both above and below ground, and to harm water bodies, rivers and source areas. That is a risk too great for operators in the valley, home to Colorado’s highest concentration of organic farms, an agritourism haven, and major headwaters to the Colorado River system.

  • Wildlife: Of particular concern are impacts to mule deer, elk, Canada lynx, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, bald eagle and greenback cutthroat trout. Coupled with the impacts of existing energy development, additional leasing and development directly threatens rare mid-elevation habitat and the wildlife which depends upon it. The state currently does not possess adequate data on elk and mule deer populations in the area of the proposed development, and CPW staff have indicated that recent elk population numbers in the area have been in steep decline over the last few years. The local elk and mule deer are essential to the local economy, not to mention the ecology of our landscapes.

The BLM had been deferring leasing in the North Fork Valley while it revised the Uncompahgre RMP and made a long-term plan for managing the many values of this special landscape, but under Trump administration policies the agency is plowing forward with highly controversial, short-sighted leasing proposals. With its drilling above all other uses strategy for public lands, the Administration is deaf to the voices and vision the local community has worked with the BLM on for years. “Energy dominance” for the purpose of enriching fossil fuel industry executives could well result in farmers, winemakers and ranchers losing their livelihoods. 

The North Fork Valley is too wild, too beautiful, and too productive to be sacrificed for oil and gas interests. Efforts to move forward with leasing in the North Fork Valley will continue to be met with strong opposition. The valley has produced energy for our country from public lands for over a century from its coal mines. Now is the time to protect remaining wildlands in the area for future generations to enjoy.

We urge you to write about how this proposed lease sale could have lasting negative impacts on the region and to again highlight the years of hard work put into a proposal put forward by the local community. To discuss the concerns around the proposed lease sale, please reach out to one of us:

Alex Johnson, Executive Director, Western Slope Conservation Center,, 970-527-5307

Luke Schafer, West Slope Director, Conservation Colorado,, 970-756-5854

Jim Ramey, Colorado State Director, The Wilderness Society,, 303-957-9183