Fracking the North Fork: Paonia residents rally against drilling assault

Thanks to the increasing push for more oil and gas drilling, communities once considered out of the fray are being drawn into the controversies over hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" -- even folks in the stunning North Fork Valley, an area better known for its organic farms, ranches operated by the same families for generations, and great hiking and fishing.

Here at the Culture Desk, we also know the area, which encompasses the towns of Paonia, Crawford and Hotchkiss, as an arts center and home to sci-fi writers Paolo Bacigalupi and Rob Ziegler. But to the Bureau of Land Management, it's just another prospect for drill pads. The BLM wants to offer up to 30,000 acres of federal land in the area for energy development at a lease auction next summer; see this CNN report and this follow on ColoradoPols.

But a community with a high quotient of ranchers and environmentalists (High Country News is based in Paonia) isn't one you want to frack with. Locals have already put up an informative Facebook page and are peppering BLM offices with inquiries, protests, and requests for more comprehensive review.

Last week Governor John Hickenlooper unveiled tough new state regulations for fracking and promised that Colorado would closely monitor the process, which involves injecting water and chemicals into tight formations to free oil and gas. But that's failed to allay concerns about possible contamination of groundwater and other threats from expanded drilling; even Commerce City officials are taking a second look at fracking in their backyard and weighing a moratorium on the activity.

Fracking fears, in other words, aren't just for the tree huggers. Don't expect the folks of the North Fork, where pristine water and untrammeled scenery are at the heart of a lot of livelihoods, to go quietly into the new era.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast