Some answers to some questions about Colorado's North Fork Valley, threats it faces from oil and gas fracking and development, and why this special place should be protected.
Where's the North Fork Valley?
The North Fork Valley is located in western Colorado, on the flanks of the the Rockies as they drop toward the Colorado Plateau. It takes its name from the North Fork of the Gunnison River which drains it, and includes the towns of Paonia and Hotchkiss in the central and lower valley, and the historic coalmining hamlet of Somerset in its upper reaches.
Although the Town of Crawford is actually in the Smith Fork (of the Gunnison River) valley it is often included as an important part of the North Fork region.
The mountains that dominate the view to the east are the West Elk Mountains, while the Grand Mesa rises to the north. The view to the west drops off as the Rocky Mountains quickly transition into a landscapes of canyons and plateaus.
Colorado Highways 92 and 133 are the main routes in the North Fork. The closest Interstate is I-70 at Glenwood Springs, and the nearest stoplight is 30 miles away in the City of Delta.
What makes the North Fork Valley special?
The North Fork Valley is world renown as “Colorado’s Farm to Table Capital,” with the state’s highest concentration of organic and sustainable farms and ranches, and home to a growing agritourism industry comprised of farms, wineries, markets, shops, restaurants and a season full of festivals.
Our valley has been proudly providing some of the highest quality fruit in the nation for 120 years, when the North Fork’s produce won ribbons at the 1897 Chicago World's Fair.
The North Fork Valley (West Elks region) is one of only two federally-designated wine-growing region in the state, due to its unique “terroir,” and a Colorado Creative District, home to a growing number of galleries and creative industries.
There is a growing agritourism economy and the area’s long-term economic stability depends generally on the undeveloped nature of the valley. The bucolic landscape is a defining feature of the lower valley and surrounding mesas, while exceptional public lands -- from National Forests and Wilderness to National Parks and Conservation Areas -- rise above, and in every direction. The North Fork Vally’s lives and livelihoods, our happiness, and our identities, are tied directly to these valley’s lands and character.
How does oil and gas fracking and drilling threaten the North Fork?
Concerns over oil and gas development include contamination and degradation of water and air quality, increased heavy traffic, triggered earthquakes, harm to the tourism economy, loss of open space and public recreational lands, and impediments to long-term economic stability. Private property issues, loss of tax value, local water supplies, traffic and infrastructure impacts, and related matters are a major concern for many area governments.
In Colorado the daily equivalent of about one-and-a-half “spills or releases” are reported, according to state oil and gas commission records. Several “incidences” have been logged in the upper North Fork watershed, including pipeline leaks, unnoticed flaring, equipment failure, and fluid spills.
Induced seismicity from oil and gas operations ("frackquakes") near abandoned, shuttered, and active coalmines and the Paonia Dam--that sits at the head of the North Fork River and the entire populated valley--is a potentially significant issue that has yet to be properly analyzed. Increases in industrial, including over-size and hazmat traffic on a particularly dangerous and unstable section of a notoriously dangerous and unstable road, is a significant public safety as well as infrastructure issue.
What can be done to protect the North Fork Valley from oil and gas fracking and development?
There is no single solution that would prevent additional oil and gas development in the North Fork Valley. But there is a lot that can be done to keep this activity from expanding its footprint, keeping it out of sensitive places, and away from our farms and water supplies.
The strongest protections for the Valley's federal public lands would be an Act of Congress that "withdraws" the area from future oil and gas leasing, and seeks to regain the existing federal oil and gas leases that have been issued. Federal administrative protections--in a land use or resource management plan or through Departmental policy, for instance--would also provide strong, but less permanent, protection. But since oil and gas is regulated at different levels of government, and across several jurisdictions, community response must also be focused at the federal, state, and local levels-- and usually involves a long-term and an on-going effort.
At the federal level, and other than opportunities to withdraw lands from development, interim strategies can work to stop ill-advised leasing proposals from advancing, to challenge development, and to monitor agency and industry activity. At the state level, Coloradans can pass stronger protections at the ballot through propositions that change law or by amendments that alter the Colorado Constitution. The other usual avenues include state legislation, new executive policy, and through state agency rule-makings (via the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment, etc.).
In any case, staying updated on what is happening, in the North Fork Valley and more broadly on similar issues, at the local, state, and federal levels is always the first thing.