While agreeing to defer nearly 10,000 acres, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) finds itself as the target of strong opposition from local residents as it attempts to conduct an oil and natural gas lease sale in mid-February in central Colorado’s North Fork Valley.

Last month a five-person delegation, including state BLM Director Helen Hankin, state BLM communications director Steven Hall, and Montrose field office manager Barb Sharrow, met with city government officials from three Colorado towns — Hotchkiss, Crawford and Paonia — to the proposed leasing of 20 parcels totaling 20,555 acres for oil and gas development in an auction scheduled for Feb. 14.

“The majority of feedback cited opposition to oil/gas activity, especially the use of fracking [hydraulic fracturing] in the North Fork Valley and requested a permanent deferral,” said a BLM Colorado spokesperson, who added that other concerns tied to natural resource protections were addressed in the final environmental assessment through a combination of deferrals and site-specific mitigation measures.

BLM said 9,335 acres have been deferred to protect local watersheds and address resource concerns in “areas with steep slopes.” In addition, about 40 acres were deferred because of their proximity to a school.

BLM also cited supporters of the lease sale who point to economic benefits, including the creation of nearly 21,000 jobs directly and nearly 45,000 indirectly since 2011.

Local residents, as profiled in a New York Times report Sunday, however, said they fear the local economy for tourism and farming will be damaged by proposed oil and natural gas drilling. Local news media has quoted residents criticizing BLM for ignoring their concerns.

Jim Ramey, executive director of Paonia-based Citizens for a Healthy Community, said that at a Jan. 21 meeting in Hotchkiss, BLM “appeared to want to exclude comment from the public.”

Many of the 20 lease parcels are in close proximity to the three towns, and activists have voiced concern that drilling would threaten air quality, drinking water supplies, irrigation water, and more broadly, “the sustainable organic food and wine economy” that has flourished along the North Fork of the Gunnison River.

According to reports in local news media, the groundswell of opposition in the North Fork began a year ago when the parcels were nominated for mineral development by unnamed industry players, and resulted this year in lobbying by valley business people hoping to persuade BLM to remove the parcels from the auction block, at least until a new regional management plan is in place to reflect what they called the realities and impacts of drilling today.

BLM makes the case that oil and natural gas development in the area in question dates backed to the early 1900s, and most of it has occurred on private, split-status and U.S. Forest Service lands. A total of 116 gas wells have been drilled in the North Fork area on federally managed oil and gas leases. Among those, 15 wells are currently producing and 29 are shut in, BLM said.

The federal agency also cites recent statistics that indicate Colorado received $154 million in royalties, rentals and bonus bid payments for federal minerals in fiscal 2011, and oil and gas development overall contributed $6.5 billion in direct and $9.5 billion in total economic impacts during that fiscal year.

©Copyright 2013Intelligence Press Inc. All rights reserved. The preceding news reportmay not be republished or redistributed, in whole or in part, in anyform, without prior written consent of Intelligence Press, Inc.