How many of you have driven to the Western Slope to buy Paonia cherries or West Elks wines? How many have spent the night at one of our bed and breakfasts or guest ranches, fished the Gunnison, or biked the scenic loop? Maybe you’re a chef who has featured the North Fork Valley’s heritage pork, grass-fed beef, Avalanche cheese, Peak Spirits’ eau de vie, Ela Family Farm peaches, Thistle Whistle Farm vegetables, or purchased Big B’s ciders and juices at Whole Foods?
If you have been to the North Fork Valley or enjoyed its distinctive foods, I’m glad.
Because if the natural gas industry has its way on November 1, a deceptively routine process called a Resource Management Plan will start the industrialization of this special place.
The North Fork Valley, which includes the towns of Paonia, Hotchkiss, and Crawford, is home to the largest concentration of organic farms in the state. It’s also a designated Colorado Creative District and an American Viticulture Area. The region is a checkerboard of private farms and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) parcels laced with a web of irrigation ditches, many of which run through or by BLM land. And almost all the BLM spaces have been targeted for fracking, according to Natasha Leger, interim executive director of Citizens for a Healthy Community, a grassroots organization established in 2009 by residents concerned about the risks of large-scale oil and gas development in the community.
The Uncompahgre field office, which manages more than 900,000 acres of BLM land, has proposed opening 95 percent of the area above and below ground, including split estate leases under organic farms, to oil and gas extraction, Leger says. What does industrialization mean to our farms and vineyards? Drinking water contamination; health problems from methane pollution, ozone smog, and soot; well pads, roads, pipelines, and other infrastructure; heavy truck traffic on our two-lane country highway and subsequent road damage; water source depletion; increased demands on public services like 911 and police; and the plugging and cleanup costs of orphaned wells.
More broadly, home and farm values will tank, organic certifications will be compromised, irrigation water supplies will be more difficult to obtain, and livestock and crops will be exposed to pollution and wastewater spills. According to Environment America Research and Policy Center’s 2012 report, “The Costs of Fracking,” the “protections” for landowners and families are antiquated and inadequate. If fracking is permitted, the valley will pay the price in health and livelihoods, and the state will pay the price in decreased food production, in dignity, and in heritage.
But the pressure is on because “the industry has its plans,” says Leger. With gas prices expected to rise in the next two years, the oil and gas industry is looking (and even planning) for future sales overseas. Jera, a Japanese energy procurement company, is pushing for federal approval of a liquefied natural gas terminal proposed by Canadian energy company Veresen and based in Jordan Cove, Oregon. The gas, which would travel via pipeline from Colorado, would be exported to Tokyo. At times, it feels like fracking is a done deal: Twice in the last four years the valley has fought gravel pit proposals that many believe were aimed at providing the gravel to pave future well access roads.
People talk about energy independence, but at what price? These proposed leases are on or near agricultural land, as is the case throughout Colorado. It’s easy to forget that agriculture is the ultimate measure of a country’s strength and independence. So it begs the question: Why aren’t we having a conversation about food independence? It seems crazy to industrialize our established food sheds, and foolish to forget that “soil,” as Wes Jackson, founder of the Land Institute, pointed out in a 2012 talk at the David Brower Center, “is more valuable than oil.”
The industrialization of the North Fork Valley will mean the end of a unique and environmentally pristine region that has been producing fruit and families for more than 100 years. We have fought back the oil and gas industries twice already, and the valley is united, once again vigorously objecting to this plan.
But this time we are outmanned. The Secretary of State cynically crushed Initiative 75 and 78, which would have allowed local people a say in the industrialization of their communities. And in an election cycle, especially one as politically perilous as this, it’s practically impossible to get the attention of our elected representatives, some of whom are already antagonistic to the idea of limiting gas exploitation.
This time, the only thing we have left to fight for the future of the North Fork Valley is our voice. Please lend yours.