For the past 20 years, Brent Helleckson and his family have been building a wine business on Garvin Mesa. They’ve constructed a home, a wine cellar a tasting room, and added to the vineyard. In those two decades, they also became a part of the North Fork community. When the Bureau of Land Management proposed 30,000 acres of leases for gas development in the North Fork Valley, Helleckson felt the threat to his winery as well as all agriculture and tourism-based industries. Although all the lease parcels have been deferred for now, Helleckson and others are working to protect the Valley from destructive gas development.
Last summer, Brent Helleckson joined a stakeholders group that has met regularly to create a North Fork Alternative Plan, designed to protect what local residents hold dear. The plan is in response to the BLM’s soon-to-be-released Resource Management Plan – the document that will govern public land decisions about energy development here for the foreseeable future. Helleckson talked recently about what he felt when the BLM first proposed to sell gas leases in the North Fork.
“Initially it was surprise,” he said, “there was no traditional geological structure here that would suggest there was a natural gas deposit to be exploited -- however the advances in fracking technology made other shale kinds of deposits more economically viable. And then as we began to move into the process a little bit, a little bit dismay. The process, at least from our point of view, seemed too heavily weighted towards development, at really any cost, and not weighted very heavily toward those who might want to be careful about how that was done.”
Because there’s precedent for the BLM to take seriously the concerns of residents that will be directly affected by their decisions, the stakeholders group tried to closely define what should be protected from a variety of perspectives.
“It was a small group,” Helleckson says. “What we attempted to do was to get a group of representatives in the room, and then identify the characteristics of the public lands in the area that we depended on for our livelihoods – characteristics such as the views, the underground water, the purity of the water, for example for the Paonia water system, the viability of the surface water and the watersheds which we all depend on for irrigation, the bucolic lifestyle – the low traffic, low noise, low dust, low pollution, low light pollution – all those kinds of things are values the public lands bring to the valley, that are depended on by the people who live here. And not all of those are accurately accounted for in the BLM process.”
Some things can’t be quantified. Helleckson wondered, “Is it appropriate to put a dollar value on a dark sky at night? I don’t think that’s the appropriate way to approach the problem. To try to put a number on it flies in the face of what many people are here for.”
Helleckson makes clear the group has no quarrel with coal mining in the valley, which has been here for more than a century, and is well regulated. “The coal mines strive to meet those regulations,” he says “and live up to their community responsibilities. And the natural gas people may also do that, but they are far less well regulated and there isn’t the history that there is in the valley with the coal mines. So it makes some of us pause. It is difficult to understand how the historical natural gas fields in the U.S. can be compatible with some of the tourism industries we’ve developed. If we’re going to have natural gas development it needs to be done in a much different way than it has been traditionally.”
When the BLM releases its own plan this spring, it will put forward a selection of scenarios, designating one as “preferred” by the agency. In the same way, the stakeholders group has created a preferred scenario -- and Helleckson wants other residents of the North Fork to weigh in on the Alternative Plan so that it can represent as many people as possible.
“My hope is that we will have captured much of what most of the people in the valley want,” says Helleckson. “If there are things that we have missed, overstated, understated, I hope people will raise those concerns. Specifically we’re concerned about activity that destroys something we value that is difficult to replace or recover from. And there is quite a bit of precedent now for the BLM being required to really take a close look at those kinds of things when they’re generated by the people who are going to be directly affected by their decisions. "