North Fork Valley: Too Wild To Drill

 Monday Update:

The recent decision to proceed with large-scale oil and gas development in the upper headwaters of the North Fork of the Gunnison river, at Bull Mountain, is gaining national attention, with coverage by AP and an article in the Denver Post.

BLM Approves Master Plan for Drilling in North Fork Valley

The Bureau of Land Management has approved a plan for oil and gas development in the works for nearly a decade in Colorado’s North Fork Valley.

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. (AP) — The Bureau of Land Management has approved a plan for oil and gas development in the works for nearly a decade in Colorado‘s North Fork Valley.

The Daily Sentinel reported Thursday that the master plan calls for eventually building 146 wells about 30 miles (48 kilometers) northeast of Paonia (pay-OWN’-yuh) to the south of McClure Pass…

Paonia is home to many organic farms and wineries. Opponents have said the BLM has failed to take into account the cumulative impact of several existing and other proposed drilling development on water consumption and the valley’s agriculture and recreation industries, among other things.

Citizens for a Healthy Community, a Delta County conservation group, has called the decision “unacceptable” although not unexpected. Opposition to the project, and the industrialization of these important public lands and community watersheds,  is wide-spread in the valley.  A Facebook group is keeping the community updated at

Too Wild To Drill

Colorado’s North Fork Valley has been included in The Wilderness Society’s Too Wild To Drill report for 2017. The Wilderness Society issues a new version of the report every few years to call attention to vulnerable places on public lands.

In the 2017 edition, places highlighted include the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge–one of the most remote and wild places left in the world, and Colorado’s North Fork Valley. Many locals are concerned that oil and gas development and the impacts it brings are not compatible with the emerging economy of the valley.

The North Fork is the home of Big B’s Delicious Juices and Hard Ciders.

The North Fork Valley, named for the North Fork of the Gunnison River that drains it, is renown for its bucolic and natural beauty, the state’s highest concentration of organic farms, family ranches, a vibrant creative community, and a thriving local food, winery, festival, and agritourism scene.

“This report is a wake-up call to people who love the wild backcountry and national forests around McClure Pass. And to those of us who rely on the clean water that flows from these mountain watersheds. Oil and gas development will enrich private interests but take too much away from the North Fork Valley and its ecology, economy, health, and recreation. These public lands and our water sources must be protected.”

Jeff Schwartz, owner of Delicious Orchards Farm Market and Big B’s Juices & Hard Ciders.

As if on cue, this week the U.S. Bureau of Land Management issued its long-expected Bull Mountain Master Development Plan decision, approving almost 150 new oil and gas wells on either side of the West Elk Scenic Loop, near Paonia Reservoir State Park. The October 4 notice in the Federal Register says, in part:

“The Selected Alternative approves a plan for the exploration and development of up to 146 natural gas wells, four water disposal wells, and associated infrastructure on Federal and private mineral leases within a Federally-unitized area known as the Bull Mountain Unit.”

Azura Cellars & Galley is an example of the massive investments that hundreds of valley businesses and residents have made over the years, and helps fuel a thriving agritourism industry.

The prospects of bringing new industrial, highly impactful uses to the North Fork’s public lands concerns many in the valley and beyond.

The Texas-based privately held company that wants to drill and frack in the North Fork, however, is pleased. Dennis Webb reports in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:

The Bureau of Land Management has approved a 146-well North Fork Valley oil and gas development plan that has been about a decade in the works and has been one of the flashpoints in the controversy over drilling there.

The agency approved what’s called the Bull Mountain master development plan for leases operated by SG Interests. The action included approval of a permit to drill just one of the wells, but the plan provides a framework for developing the nearly 20,000-acre area, with future drilling applications subject to site-specific review, the BLM said.

Robbie Guinn, an SG Interests vice president, said he’s pleased that the Trump administration got the environmental impact statement process for the project finished.

…He believes the project review had dragged out for too long.

Although the industrialization of this rural, agricultural valley could spell disaster for organic and specialty farming, and the burgeoning outdoor, agritourism and other amenity-based businesses in the valley, it is not just the visual scarring, in this highly scenic, highly prized landscape. Or the heavy and inevitable truck traffic, on an already busy and dangerous road. Or the loss of dark skies, clean air, and wild space–although all these impacts are grievous.

As early as the 19th Century, fruit from the North Fork was already winning national fame.

For over one hundred years the North Fork has been an orchard and argicultural community. It has also been home to coal mines for much of that period. One mine is still operating, due in part to favorable policy from the federal government.

Despite community pride in its history, most residents understand the coal industry is in long-term decline. And, as the economy changes, residents want to shape what comes next. Many see a future that relies more on protecting public lands and natural resources rather than in exploiting and developing them.

And this strategy of diversification and building for long-term viability has been working in the North Fork Valley. Despite a decline in the coal industry, real estate and new businesses are booming in Paonia, Hotchkiss, and the valley.

Economic development experts agree. The area’s clean environment, air, and water, and its rural pace and character with the superlative public lands, top quality farms, wineries, and organic agriculture, create quality products and the quality-of-life that attracts entrepreneurs, investors, and foot-loose economic activity.

“Based on its rich agriculture base, Delta County is well positioned to leverage the existing boom in organic food markets. …According to Better City’s research, Delta County is the hub of organic agriculture in Colorado, and ranks 44th nationwide. The proposed project would seek to create a strategic effort that combines marketing, infrastructure, and distribution. In addition, downtown revitalization – which will support new agritourist activity – was also identified as a complementary piece to this equation.”

Region 10: Better City presents economic development visions for Delta, Gunnison Counties

According to the Too Wild To Drill report, although many residents are building for this new future, the North Fork is facing a range of threats that could jeopardize that positive trajectory. This includes active fracking and drilling operations, and additional new oil and gas leasing and development, on key National Forest and public lands in the region. That sentiment is shared broadly by community members, businesses, and organizations.

“The closest you can come to a wilderness experience in a passenger car”

“Some places are simply too wild to drill. The federal government must resist pressure from energy companies and other special interests to open up our last remaining wild places for development. The Interior Department is required by Congress to manage, on behalf of the American people, almost 450 million acres of public lands for many different purposes, not just energy extraction. Yet oil, gas and coal have long had an outsized influence—and footprint—on public lands. It is long past time that we take some of these lands off the table.”

Jim Ramey, The Wilderness Society

Among the autumn drives that make lists wherever such lists are kept one can often find the West Elk Scenic Byway–which winds from Carbondale over McClure Pass into the North Fork Valley.

The drive: This byway circles the West Elk Mountains on a journey through PaoniaGunnisonCrested Butte and Carbondale. Touching three national forests, the drive crosses diverse landscapes of meadows, rivers, canyons and enormous aspen stands lit up in gold and orange.
Mileage: 205 miles

Pull over for: McClure Pass photos. Views to either side of the high mountain corridor spill out into a green, yellow and auburn canvas sprinkled with striking red scrub oaks.
Stretch your legs in: Curecanti National Recreation Area. The intersection of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park with Morrow Point, Blue Mesa and Crystal lakes is an unbeatable spot for picnicking and sightseeing.

On the Crystal Valley side, the route is bounded by the Thompson Divide area to the north and the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness to the south. Past the Town of Marble turn-off, the highway leaves the Crystal Valley and climbs toward McClure Pass.

EcoFlight: 09_27_2017_CO_NorthFork &emdash; Sheep Mountain

The eastern end of Grand Mesa is draped in colorful aspen and oak, on a recent flight over the upper North Fork. Photo by EcoFlight.

Just over the pass the Grand Mesa starts in an expanse of high-country, then stretches forty miles west flanked in a riot of gold and red.

The Ragged Wilderness to the south, looming ridge atop bright slopes, the lightest dusting of high and early snow. Beyond, mesas and mountains fade into a western sky.

Southwest of the pass, the West Elk Loop splits. One arm heads over Kebler Pass to Crested Butte, and the other winds down into the valley, through Hotchkiss and Crawford, then over Black Mesa, past Blue Mesa, to join U.S. 50 by Cimarron.

The landscape along the route, the public lands that connect the Roaring Fork and North Fork valleys, hold some of Colorado’s best backcountry. This area is home to a complex of roadless National Forest, protected Wilderness, and other public lands running from Battlement Mesa along I-70 in the north, south into the Gunnison Basin, and then to the San Juans and Cochetopa Hills beyond. At the heart of this geography and habitat lies the upper North Fork Valley.

The National Forests and public lands that straddle McClure Pass include headwaters that feed three rivers–the North Fork of the Gunnison, the Crystal River and Roaring Fork, and the Colorado. These public lands provide key wildlife migration routes and important habitat. The hunting opportunities provided are among the best in Colorado.

EcoFlight: 09_27_2017_CO_NorthFork &emdash; Coal Mountain and Mount Lamborn

From Grand Mesa to the West Elk Mountains and beyond. Photo by EcoFlight.

But despite their superior qualities as a public resource, the National Forests and public lands of the North Fork Valley remain at risk.

Looming threats include the Bull Mountain development schemes, but many fear that is just the tip of the spear.

A patchwork of plans, directives, and designations–some written long ago with little relevance to today’s needs–have fueled decades-long battles over the area’s future and continue to present management challenges for these important public lands.

Despite its natural solicitude and quiet, where the loudest sounds are likely to be a bugling elk or a peel of thunder,  battles have raged here in the past, over the Clinton Roadless Rule fifteen years ago, the Colorado Roadless rule a decade ago, in a string of land use planning processes, and over oil and gas proposals. These conflicts continue today, with many of these public lands also coveted by oil and gas companies that are used to getting their way.

Taking a Stand at the Summit

In early September, residents and leaders from the Crystal and Roaring Fork valleys joined their neighbors and counterparts from the the North Fork at the top of McClure Pass, in a show of solidarity and in recognition of the single, wild expanse of public lands that lies between and cradles their communities.

In mid-September, The Wilderness Society followed this gathering with its Too Wild To Drill report highlighting the threat the North Fork Valley’s and other public lands face from oil and gas development.

“We must protect our wildest places for future generations, and the upper North Fork is one of those places. Just up the hill we have world-class elk and mule deer populations, moose, bear, and even mountain goats, all thanks to the unspoiled streams, parks, and forests of the region. We can’t sell out this place for short-term oil and gas company profits.”

Alex Johnson, Western Slope Conservation Center

These public lands belong to the American people and are critically important for the watersheds they replenish, the wildlife habitat and migration routes they provide, and for the outstanding recreation–from hunting and fishing to epic mountain-biking, backcountry skiing, world-class photography, bird-watching, picnics, scenic drives, and family hikes–they offer. These lands are a rare and precious resource and all indications are they will be even more, not less, prized in the future.

People come from across the nation in hopes to get their Colorado elk from the North Fork.

Meanwhile more natural gas, as a commodity, is currently not needed in America. It is, in fact, glutted on the market. So much so that sugar-plum dreams of massive wealth continue to dance in industry association heads, over the prospect of being able to ship it off to our competitors in Asia–and drive the price back up for everyone.

The value of the North Fork’s public lands are not in their ability to make already wealthy oilmen wealthier.  It is not in the short-term boost it might provide in a handful of jobs–most not from the valley in any case, or in the revenue that might end up in Gunnison or Delta County coffers. It is certainly not for the energy resources, which are not needed in the current market.  Rather the value of these lands lies in their sustainable use and their ecosystem values.

This place is too wild to drill. The Bull Mountain project is not a wise decision, and the battle for the public lands here continue. For those of us that live, work, and love the North Fork, the stakes are too high not to fight to protect it. You can learn more and help at


EcoFlight: 09_27_2017_CO_NorthFork &emdash; DSC00856

Pete Kolbenschlag works as a consultant on energy, public lands, and climate issues from Paonia, Colorado. Photo by EcoFlight.


One Community Comment, Facebook Comments

  1. mamajama55 says:

    Urgent action needed to save gorgeous country. I have many fond memories of hiking and touring the Maroon Bells / Black Canyon areas. And the highest concentration of organic farms is surely worth preserving.

    Timely article, Pete – glad you were able to rescue it from Diary Limbo!

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