Fracking the North Fork: Protests pour in over BLM lease plan

When Colorado native son Ken Salazar became Barack Obama's Secretary of the Interior four years ago, it was widely expected that he would steer a more "balanced" course through the energy wars across the West, pulling back on the drill-baby-drill mantra of the Bush years. It hasn't worked out that way. Salazar's middle-of-the-road puttering has drawn howls from oil and gas interests that he's dragging his feet -- but it's also attracted a surprising rate of protests from environmental interests in his home state, too.

Today is the last day for public comment on the Bureau of Land Management's plans to lease more than 100,000 acres of public land across Colorado for oil and gas exploration, including more than 20,000 acres in the scenic North Fork Valley, an area rich in organic farms, ranches worked by the same families for generations, and tourism. Opponents have been active on Facebook and elsewhere, rallying the troops to file protests against the leases -- and particularly against the hydraulic fracturing process, better known as fracking, that has become one of the central flashpoints in the drilling debate.

The North Fork protests -- and related concerns about proposed leases on the doorstep of Dinosaur National Monument, including one adjacent to the park's visitor center -- have been building for months. The leases were originally supposed to be auctioned off in August, but a deluge of public comments critical of the plan prompted Colorado BLM director Helen Hankins to delay the decision, saying the agency would do more analysis of the proposed sites.

But opponents say the BLM is proceeding with its campaign to open up the North Fork to wide-scale drilling, despite lack of adequate study about the impact energy development would have on the emerging tourism, winery and agricultural enterprises in the valley. "They are basing their lease plan on environmental analysis done in 1989," says Elynne Bannon of the Checks and Balances Project. "I think that's one reason why people are up in arms about this."

The North Fork fracas is part of a larger trend that has seen an astonishing number of objections against proposed oil and gas leases in Colorado. According to figures supplied by Bannon's group, the percentage of protested leases in Colorado has jumped from 64 percent in 2011 to 93 percent this year. In many other western states, the number of protested leases is dropping and ranges from 23 percent down to zero.

Bannon suggests that's "indicative of a problem with the BLM leadership in the state" -- meaning Hankins -- rather than Salazar's policies as a whole. But it's ironic that Secretary Salazar seems to be finding more harmony and profit in BLM leases elsewhere, but lots of grumbling in his native land.

More from our Calhoun: Wake-Up Call archive: "Fracking haters and fans staging separate rallies in Boulder, Denver: What the frack?"

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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