05 Jun North Fork Community Leaders visit Washington
June 5, 2015 –
Group Calls for Balancing Energy Development with Conservation by Including Permanent Protection for Important Lands as Part of Any Legislative Lease Swap.
Washington, DC – This week elected, community, and business leaders from Western Colorado’s North Fork Valley brought their case to Washington DC: any oil and gas ‘lease swap’ must involve all stakeholders and impacted communities and include significant protections for the valley’s public lands.
The North Fork delegation met with Senator Michael Bennet, Rep. Scott Tipton, and staff with Senator Cory Gardner’s office about the drilling industry’s proposed lease exchange in the highly prized Hubbard Park area of the Grand Mesa and the community’s desire to balance any new drilling with meaningful conservation measures.
“The Town of Paonia is on record requesting help from our Congressional delegation to permanently protect the North Fork Valley’s public lands,” said Neal Schwieterman, Mayor of Paonia. “Public lands are vital to our way of life. These lands provide drinking water to more than 3,000 town and nearby residents, they support our hunting and recreation economies, and frame the scenic backdrop of our town.”
The delegation also met with U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Robert Bonnie, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, House committee staff, the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and national conservation groups.
The legislative lease exchange, proposed by drilling company SG Interests, could result in new drilling leases in the National Forest and the headwaters of the North Fork of the Gunnison River, an important driver of the North Fork Valley’s agricultural and tourism based economy.
“Ever since the 1893 Chicago World Fair when Paonia peaches won the top prize, the North Fork Valley has been a leader in agriculture,” said Mike Drake, president of the Paonia Chamber of Commerce. “Today we’re recognized as a leader in organic agriculture, as Colorado’s farm-to-table destination, and a leader in agritourism. We recognize that some drilling is going to occur, but our agricultural and valley business owners need certainty too by taking some lands off the table and permanently protecting them.”
In exchange for the new leases, SG Interests—a Texas-based privately held drilling company—would retire some of its existing leases in the Thompson Divide. The group urged that any legislative lease exchange that results in new leasing on public lands in the North Fork Valley area also include permanent protection of important public lands both in the Thompson Divide and the North Fork Valley. Staff members from all three congressional offices stressed that they want to hear from the community in the North Fork Valley as this conversation continues.
The Hubbard Park area is high quality elk habitat, prime recreational lands, and the source area for of several important creeks and their attendant irrigation ditches that nourish the valley’s award-winning agricultural production.
“Over the past few decades the North Fork Valley has built a model for organic agriculture,” said Mark Waltermire, owner of Thistle Whistle Farm near Hotchkiss and past president of the Valley Organic Growers Association. “The best way to provide certainty about the future, not just for farmers but for the oil and gas companies as well, is to bring a balance to future energy development by permanently protecting the most important public lands in the North Fork.”
Members of this group and others from the North Fork community previously travelled to Washington to stop a leasing proposal from the BLM that would have allowed drilling and fracking in close proximity to the North Fork’s towns, agricultural areas, and water supplies. Local non-profits Citizens for a Healthy Community (CHC) and the Western Slope Conservation Center (WSCC) sponsored the trip.
Members of the group who traveled to Washington include:
- Neal Schwieterman, Mayor of Paonia
- Mike Drake, President of the Paonia Chamber of Commerce
- Mark Waltermire, Past President and Representative of the Valley Organic Growers Association and Owner of Thistle Whistle Farm
- Jim Ramey, Executive Director of Citizens for a Healthy Community
- Pete Kolbenschlag, Paonia resident and owner of Mountain West Strategies – a Paonia-based strategic consulting firm
- Sarah Sauter, Executive Director of the Western Slope Conservation Center