Jeff Schwartz, the co-owner of Big B's orchards in Hotchkiss, has added a campground to his growing agri-tourism business and is hopeful the collapse of the oil market will hinder future energy development in the North Fork Valley despite a green light for oil, gas and coal industries in the BLM's new resource management plan for the region. (Provided by Big B's.)

Why is the state of Colorado suing the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and does it even matter now that the Biden administration is at the helm?

The answers are: For us, and yes! 

Filing suit against the BLM is something state officials are doing for the public good, and we’re grateful they are standing up for our local communities.

Wednesday, the Biden administration announced a pause on new oil and gas leasing while the federal leasing program is reviewed, granting a welcome reprieve to western Colorado’s North Fork Valley and public lands across the state.

Karen Ortiz, Emma Gregory

However, by definition a moratorium is not permanent, so our future remains uncertain. The BLM’s recently finalized Resource Management Plan (RMP) for the North Fork Valley will still be deeply flawed when the moratorium ends. This makes the state’s legal action as important as ever.

The process that created the RMP for a vast area of western Colorado managed by BLM’s Uncompahgre Field Office — a plan allowing expanded energy development in the region — was (arguably) an open, public process, not an administrative process (like a president’s executive order) and so it cannot be undone administratively by a new president.

Here in the North Fork Valley, we are grateful that the state is stepping up. The valley is more than just a region included in the BLM’s RMP. We’re a community of people whose health, businesses, local food systems and way of life rely heavily on the public lands that our homes are nestled between. 

That is why we thank Gov. Jared Polis, the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, and Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser for standing up to protect us by filing suit on Jan. 15.

The state of Colorado’s case will be the third suit filed against the BLM’s RMP. The Western Slope Conservation Center — a nonprofit organization based in Paonia dedicated to conserving the lands, air, water and wildlife of the Lower Gunnison Watershed —  is also party in a lawsuit against the BLM on this plan.

We argue in the suit that the public process leading to the plan was not done properly and the decision to open up 95% of our public lands to oil and gas leases was illegal. 

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It did not take into consideration almost a decade of public input where our community wrote comments and showed up to meetings, all while juggling busy growing seasons, starting up families, starting up businesses, facing health issues and the multitude of things we all do  when we are not engaging in meetings about public land management. 

We feel betrayed by the final decision that dictates management of the lands that surround us for the coming decades. 

Opening up so much of our home to oil and gas development endangers our economy and lifestyle in the North Fork Valley. Historically, the valley has been a coal mining and agricultural region whose economy was closely tied to the boom and bust cycle of coal. 

However, in recent years we have been successfully diversifying our economy with agri-tourism, renewable energy, outdoor recreation, creative industries, and other local businesses.

For decades, family farms and ranches have defined the landscape and provided food to neighboring high-mountain communities. Increasing water scarcity is beginning to stress local farms and ranches. Irrigation ditches have been drying up earlier and earlier in the season due to an extended drought that is only expected to worsen as the climate changes. 

Valley farms rely on clean, abundant water to maintain their organic certification and continue producing high quality, healthy food. Drilling for oil and gas stresses the system even more by eating up already scarce water supplies and risking the contamination of what is left.

This RMP threatens our outdoor industry by not adequately protecting us from the air pollution, harm to wildlife, and destruction associated with oil and gas development. Pristine wild places attract hikers, backpackers, rafters, mountain bikers, and cross-country skiers. 

A landscape scarred by oil and gas wells is far less enticing to these visitors. Hunters and anglers are also far less likely to frequent the valley if the wildlife and fish populations are harmed by oil and gas development. We worry that if these visitors dry up so will our local restaurants, businesses, and hotels.

Despite the uncertainty about how the lands surrounding us will be managed, our community continues to invest in itself. Our neighbors continue to support one another and our farmers continue to fill the tables at your farmers markets. We continue to build a future that promises healthy, sustainable opportunities for everyone who lives here and protects the natural resources that support those opportunities.

The Western Slope Conservation Center and other organizations have launched the Keep the North Fork Fruitful (KNFF) campaign to lift community voices and develop solutions that embrace sustainable economic opportunities. We hope KNFF can lend strength and make sure the voices that weren’t heard by the BLM continue to have a platform to speak from. 

We are grateful to the state of Colorado for using its voice to stand up and help protect us and our families, by demanding that the BLM rectify such a dangerous plan.

Karen Ortiz is on the board of directors for the Western Slope Conservation Center and has lived and advocated for public lands in the North Fork Valley since 1982. Emma Gregory is the conservation fellow at the Western Slope Conservation Center.

UPDATE: This essay was revised at 1:27 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 28, to clarify aspects of the Biden administration’s order on oil and gas as well as the BLM Resource Management Plan’s status.

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