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BLM opens 95% of North Fork valley to harmful drilling, ignores community

Fall foliage in North Fork Valley, Colorado.

North Fork Valley, CO

Mason Cummings, TWS

Memo to Journalists

Last month, the Bureau of Land Management announced a plan allowing the gas drilling industry to dominate Colorado’s idyllic North Fork Valley with new oil and gas leasing. The plan was completely lopsided toward extractive industries, with 95 percent of BLM land in the region opened to leasing. The plan also virtually ignored a community-supported proposal that was under consideration by the agency to protect the water supply, wildlife and scenery. The North Fork Valley is thriving with recreation, tourism, and local food and wine production, and the threat of spills, pollution and contamination could deal a harsh blow to a region dependent on clean water. Advocates are appealing to Governor Polis to get Secretary Bernhardt and the BLM to reconsider their drill everywhere plan and adopt the community’s proposal to safeguard the valley’s clean water supply and agricultural heritage. The BLM is also accepting written protests through July 29. 

Previously, the North Fork Valley community has fought back three attempts to lease public lands for drilling close to the towns of Crawford, Hotchkiss and Paonia while the agency worked to complete its land use plan. The final resource management plan for the area will guide the management of public lands for decades to come.

Why is this so important to western Colorado?

Massive 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.

Protecting clean water is the highest priority

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 farmers and business owners in the valley, home to Colorado’s highest concentration of organic farms, an agritourism haven, and major headwaters to the Colorado River.

Previously included in the December 2018 lease sale were 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 a serious risk not only to water quality, but to the geologic integrity of the Paonia Reservoir itself and surrounding slopes.

Wildlife is being unnecessarily put at risk  

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 threaten 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 Colorado Parks & Wildlife 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 by drawing sportsmen and women from all over Colorado and the country each fall, not to mention the ecology of our landscapes.

The plan is deeply unbalanced

The BLM had been deferring leasing in the North Fork Valley while it revised the recently announced Uncompahgre Resource Management Plan.  The plan is consistent with the Trump administration policies referred to as “energy dominance” which aims to open as much of BLM land as possible to oil and gas drilling, regardless of competing local interests and values. “Energy dominance” for the purpose of enriching fossil fuel industry executives could well result in farmers, winemakers and ranchers losing their livelihoods. These policies are incredibly out of step with the desires of how Coloradans want our shared public lands to be managed. When asked if land management agencies should place more emphasis on conservation or energy development, nearly two-thirds of Coloradans said conservation according to the 2019 Conservation in the West poll

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.


The Wilderness Society, founded in 1935, is the leading conservation organization working to protect wilderness and inspire Americans to care for our wild places. With more than one million members and supporters, The Wilderness Society has led the effort to permanently protect 109 million acres of wilderness and to ensure sound management of our shared national lands. 

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