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North Fork Coalition Presents Limited Drilling Plan to County Commissioners

Joanna Calabrese

Just weeks after the Bureau of Land Management announced it would consider some community-developed ideas for managing public lands in the agency's Uncompaghre region, concerned citizens and stakeholders from the North Fork Valley met with Delta County Commissioners in Delta.   

At a listening session on Tuesday organized by the commissioners, representatives from conservation groups and a variety of economic interests in the valley presented their suggestions for managing public lands in Delta, Montrose and Gunnison counties.

The North Fork Alternative Plan,as it’s called, sets up a framework for guiding potential oil and gas development in the valley with what its supporters call “strong protections” for the area's natural resources and economies, among them the growing agritourism and organic agriculture industries.

Members of the coalition behind the North Fork Alternative also say resources like scenic viewsheds, wildlife habitat and real estate are crucial to the valley's livelihood.

They worry those draws to the region, and even its marketable perception as a pristine agricultural hub, could be damaged if the BLM moves forward with oil and gas leasing on the roughly 20,000 acres that were previously put up for sale.

Those leases were deferred from sales two different times, but the agency hasn’t necessarily ruled out the possibility of selling them in the future.

At yesterday's meeting, which commissioner Doug Atchley emphasized was called just to gather information, the citizen group said it's working on a comprehensive map covering the specific areas it would like to see protected from oil and gas development.

County Commissioner Mark Roeber seemed most interested in that finished product, asking the Conservation Center's director Sarah Sauter what the map would look like.

Sauter says while it's still a work in progress, the group's final vision does “set the bar pretty high.”

“There’s a lot of land that’s covered by no leasing, a lot of land covered by surface occupancy,” Sauter says. “I can say with a straight face that it doesn’t cover all of the land. It’s not a no drilling plan.”

Commissioners also asked for details on how the group’s preliminary maps were put together and where data on things like wildlife and riparian habitat came from.

Atchley wouldn't say whether he and fellow commissioners Roeber and Bruce Hovde saw any merits to the group's proposal, or any potential problems, saying instead that the North Fork Alternative is just one of a handful of proposals being considered that the county will continue to look at.

Atchley did say there's “no doubt” that tapping the region's oil and gas resources would have an economic impact. But he acknowledged there's a host of competing land uses the county has to consider.

“It’s a balancing act between the things that many people live here for and ways for people to have an income,” Atchley said. “We view mineral rights as personal property rights, so we have to look at that side of the equation too.”

Jim Ramey, with Citizens for a Health Community, says the finalized version of the North Fork Alternative will be released early next month. Meanwhile the BLM says its draft Resource Management Plan for the region should be ready sometime in the spring.