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North Fork Fly-In to D.C. with Pete Kolbenschlag

Lisa Young

KVNF's Lisa Young talks with Pete Kolbenschlag, Executive Director for Colorado Farm and Food Alliance about the agricultural groups from the North Fork Valley who recently returned from another lobbying trip to Washington DC.

Each year the Colorado Farm & Food Alliance, Western Slope Conservation Center and the Valley Organic Growers Association sends a delegation to the nation’s capital to discuss issues impacting the Western Slope.

The group met with four federal agencies, including national leadership from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, senior climate and renewable staff at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, public lands and energy staff with the White House Council of Environmental Quality, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Topics included the importance of protecting public lands and watersheds, how to advance rural renewables in a way that benefits local communities, and advancing regenerative climate-smart agriculture in a manner that supports small, family farms and ranches.

And although this year the focus was on agency meetings, as Congress remains grid locked, the group also met with Senator Michael Bennet and his staff along with Senator Hickenlooper’s staff.

The members of the group agree that the meetings were all productive and insightful, and that the officials they met with were interested in learning how federal programs they oversee can impact specific places like the North Fork Valley. But the impact of this trip goes deeper than just the quality of these meetings.

The origins of this trip lie in efforts to defend against ill-advised oil and gas development on the public lands in and around the area’s water sources. Now as the BLM works to finalize several land use plans and other initiatives in the region, these issues have very much returned to high on the group’s agenda.

The message for the agency and elected leaders was direct: the valley’s delegation is eager to see real progress on public land protections in western Colorado.

The group was there to support several current proposals to protect the health of the landscape, the resilience of watersheds, and the value of wildlife habitat and of ecosystem connectivity. The delegation spoke to the BLM and the White House CEQ on the need for watershed-scale protection, expanding the vision of the Thompson Divide mineral withdrawal, and of their deep engagement, for more than a decade, in support of similar protections for the North Fork watershed, including through planning now underway at the BLM’s Uncompahgre field office.

The North Fork group also called for strong protections for the Dolores Canyons area through designation of a new national monument. They favor an approach that balances interests with a commitment to the type of conservation that supports communities, the local economy, as well as the wildlife and natural resources of this unique and ecologically critical area.

In addition to public lands, another recurring theme over many trips has been the energy transition now underway. The North Fork Valley has long been a coal-mining town and is still home to the state’s largest operating coal mine. To ensure the shift away from fossil fuels supports local communities and workers, the group brought lessons some of its members have been learning working to stand up a small agrivoltaic, community-solar project.

Land conservation, farm-based renewables and regenerative agriculture are all ways rural America can be climate leaders. The Farm Bill, which is now likely to be reauthorized in 2025, includes many opportunities to help boost all these strategies and the delegation was able to speak with Senator Bennet and Senator Hickenlooper’s staff about this sweeping legislation. But rural communities and farm-based economies have to stay viable to provide climate and conservation benefits. So helping small farmers succeed is key. And this means keeping farming viable for both existing producers and as an occupation for new farmers.

But as critically important as these topics are, the longer-term impacts of this annual trip point to an even more enduring impact. Since 2012, the first year the valley sent a group, more than 65 community-members and nonprofit leaders have made the trip. Each year has been meaningful, and this year was no different.

(Information taken from Colorado Farm and Food Alliance press release)

Lisa was born in Texas but grew up on a small farm in Olathe, Colorado and considers herself a “Colorado native after six years of age.” Lisa has seven years experience in media, beginning as a News Director for a small radio station on the Eastern Plains. Following her initial radio career, Lisa worked as a staff reporter for The Journal Advocate in Sterling, Colorado and most recently as a staff reporter for the Delta County Independent. Lisa is thrilled to join the award-winning News and Public Affairs team at KVNF.