What would have been a sparsely attended regular council meeting turned into a crowded and contentious event when state BLM officials visited Paonia to talk about pending gas leases in the North Fork Valley on Tuesday, January 22. KVNF’s Marty Durlin talked to Paonia Mayor Neal Schwieterman on the morning after.
The mayor said he knew what to expect, since he spent the day collating comments and questions from constituents in advance of the meeting. "I wanted to make sure in the context of what I had, which was this room that wasn’t big enough, and time, which wasn’t near enough time, to facilitate the best I could the needs of the community. Many people have thanked me, and I appreciate that because as you saw last night I had to stymie the crowd multiple times to keep enough decorum so that we could continue a meeting. So (here's) what I heard this morning, we heard a lot from BLM on process, and it didn’t really answer people’s questions. People felt not heard, although we all sat here and we tried to convey. I’ve heard the word 'condescending'."
In response to a question from council member Amber Kleinman about protecting the watershed, Uncompahgre field office director Barb Sharow replied, "So your source water is protected with these leases, that’s why this blue parcel was removed. Because it was actually in your source water protection. That does not cover the entire watershed. If we protected all the watersheds for every town in the intermountain west, we’d have absolutely no industrial development whatsoever." The audience responded with hoots and hollers.
After multiple eruptions from the crowd of 200-plus, the mayor closed the meeting with a heartfelt speech that was met with a standing ovation. Schwieterman said, "This is a very emotional issue. I tried to convey in my closing comments, why this is so emotional. In my folksy way I say, it’s a pretty cool thing what we have going on here, and I really couldn’t articulate beyond that and it wasn’t until I talked to Chris Yates one day at Living Farm Café, and he said I know what it is. He said, "Everything that makes this Valley what it is, none of it has to do with money."