PAONIA — The North Fork Valley has been compared to France's Provence region, but one thing you won't find in the pale browns and vibrant greens of Paul Cézanne's painting "Montagnes en Provence" are oil rigs.

They may, however, be coming to the North Fork, and this western Colorado valley is up in arms.

The federal Bureau of Land Management has proposed leasing 24,324 acres in 21 parcels abutting vineyards, orchards, organic farms and a dairy.

The valley now finds itself part of a wave of drilling activity — as oil companies scramble to unlock shale deposits — that has ignited community protests from Pennsylvania to Colorado's Front Range.

Click on image to enlarge
Click on image to enlarge (The Denver Post)

"We see this as a threat to our very existence," said Brent Helleckson, owner of Stone Cottage Cellars. "Organic farming, wineries, tourism, and oil and gas drilling are not a good fit."

Helleckson, 52, gave up a career as a Boulder aerospace engineer to make wine.

Mark Waltermire, 48, came to the valley — by way of agriculture projects in Pakistan — and set up Thistle Whistle Farm, which provides organic produce to restaurants such as Aspen's Montagna, Vail's Sweet Basil and Boulder's The Kitchen.

And Marley Hodgson, 71, sold his leather-goods business and moved from New York City 12 years ago to turn a "ghost ranch" into an upscale dude ranch.

All three are now near parcels proposed for oil and gas development.

The bureau has received nearly 3,000 comments from the valley's 9,500 residents — most opposing the leasing.

"This is clearly the biggest menace the valley has ever faced," said Richard Rudin, 60, who has lived here for 35 years.

Towns largely untouched

The meandering North Fork of the Gunnison River slides through the valley hemmed in by the Grand Mesa to the northwest and Mount Lamborn to the southeast.

Brent Helleckson tests wine at Stone Cottage Cellars on Garvin Mesa. But as high as the mesa is, the proposed oil and gas development leases are even
Brent Helleckson tests wine at Stone Cottage Cellars on Garvin Mesa. But as high as the mesa is, the proposed oil and gas development leases are even higher on the valley slopes, and that worries growers. (RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)

Remote from Colorado's urban centers or ski areas, the Delta County valley, with its three towns — Paonia, Hotchkiss and Crawford — has remained largely untouched.

For a century, coal mines have operated in the northern end of the valley. The three mines now running are major employers and give the place a mix of miners, farmers and people just seeking a rural life.

"The valley, by the rest of the world's standards, hasn't really changed," Rudin said. "We got our first fast-food franchise last year, a Subway in an old gas station."

The one transformation has been the rise in organic farming and wineries over the past decade, and with it a 4.2 percent uptick in population.

The broad, rugged North Fork Valley — with the sun cascading down from cobalt-blue skies — led Thomas Huber, a Colorado geographer and writer,
The broad, rugged North Fork Valley — with the sun cascading down from cobalt-blue skies — led Thomas Huber, a Colorado geographer and writer, to compare it to the land around Coulon River in north Provence in France. (RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)

Delta County now accounts for 60 percent of all the Colorado acreage for apples, 68 percent for cherries, 58 percent for pears and about 25 percent each for peaches and grapes, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The broad, rugged valley — with the sun cascading down from cobalt-blue skies — led Thomas Huber, a Colorado geographer and writer, to compare it to the land around Coulon River in north Provence.

"Two places thousands of miles apart (that) could be twins — fraternal twins," Huber wrote in his book "An American Provence."

But a key difference is the geology. Provence is rocky limestone, while the North Fork is underlain by Mancos shale.

Richard Rudin, a North Fork Valley resident for 35 years, isn’t sitting on the fence when it comes to his view of oil and gas development. "This
Richard Rudin, a North Fork Valley resident for 35 years, isn't sitting on the fence when it comes to his view of oil and gas development. "This is clearly the biggest menace the valley has ever faced." (RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)

While the shale weathers into what Huber describes as a "sticky, nutrient-rich soil" that is perfect for farming, it may also hold rich oil and gas deposits.

And so the valley has been swept up in the shale rush and drilling boom that have hit Pennsylvania with its Marcellus shale and the Front Range with Niobrara shale.

An individual or company, whose identity won't be revealed until after the sale, nominated 22 parcels covering 30,000 acres of federal land in the valley for an oil and gas lease auction in August.

The mere announcement set off a wave of protest, as the BLM began its preliminary environmental assessment.

The proposal has its supporters.

"Oil and gas development will provide revenue and jobs," said Thomas Anderson, who has worked in the valley's coal industry for 18 years.

Agriculture and oil and gas development have existed "side by side" for a century, as has recreation, said Kathleen Sgamma, a vice president with the trade group Western Energy Alliance.

"It is a balancing act, and it looks like that is what BLM is trying to do," she said.

Not enough analysis by BLM?But Citizens for a Healthy Community, a group that opposes oil and gas development, argues that BLM has not done enough analysis to go forward and that it is relying on an outdated 1989 resource management plan for the region.

"The BLM has the legal right not to put nominated parcels up for sale," said Robin Smith, the group's chairman. "Every piece of federal land does not have to be drilled."

The BLM has no choice but to consider the request, said bureau spokeswoman Shannon Borders.

"Because we are a multiple-use agency, we have to consider all the uses by law," Borders said.

The problem for Stonegate Cellar's Helleckson is this: What happens if the multiple uses aren't compatible?

Helleckson, his wife, Karen, and their two children made the valley home in 1997 and started making wine from 4½ acres of vines sitting atop Garvin Mesa, which features a panoramic view of the valley.

But as high as the mesa is, the proposed leases are even higher on the valley slopes, and that worries growers.

In a protest letter to the BLM, the West Elks Winery Association — 12 wineries with about $2 million in annual sales — focused on the risks to irrigation and processing of water.

The valley is laced in a web of irrigation ditches — Firemans, Farmers, Fire Mountain — that carry water from the mountains to fields, but many run by or through proposed parcels.

"Everything is so connected, one spill would spread all over," Helleckson said.

The prospect of drilling poses a slightly different problem at Waltermire's Thistle Whistle Farm.

The closest parcel is just over a rise, so he won't see the rigs, but his irrigation ditch runs by it and the road in front of the farm would probably be the path to the site.

"There is the traffic, dust, air-quality issues and risk of water pollution," Waltermire said.

All that puts at risk the valley's image as a pristine place, a key selling point for its 62 organic growers, Waltermire said.

Waltermire, his wife and their two sons live in a trailer on the 16-acre farm that produces 200 varieties of vegetables.

When Waltermire started in 2005, a big worry was marketing his produce. But given the restaurants and farmers markets, it was no problem at all.

"I can sell everything I can grow," Waltermire said. "I don't know if that changes with drilling."

The question hangs over others as well. The Avalanche Cheese Co., which four years ago set up its goat dairy on a 130-ace farm in the valley, has a contract with Whole Foods Market.

"Our business has been great," said owner Wendy Mitchell. "But, like everyone else, we are concerned about what drilling means. "

Anxiety over tourismThen there is the question of whether tourists will come to the valley.

Hodgson's Smith Fork Ranch — a restored and polished dude ranch with a $6,200-a-week price tag for a couple — draws guests from New York, Boston and Europe.

Buying local produce and with a staff of about 35 during the season, the ranch pumps an estimated $1 million into the local economy.

"One parcel is right next to us on Saddle Mountain," he said. "If it is developed, we couldn't possibly survive."

On March 7, the BLM, despite a volley of protest letters, issued a preliminary environmental assessment that would offer 21 of the 22 nominated parcels.

The proposal added conditions to limit drilling impacts — requirements such as banning pits, calling for closed-loop drilling systems and reducing activity to protect wildlife.

There will be another round of public comments on the draft, but if it is upheld later this spring, a lease sale is tentatively set for Aug. 9.

The assessment conceded there could be adverse air- and water-quality impacts, as well as an increase in traffic.

"These impacts could result in significant economic costs to the North Fork Valley that may or may not outweigh the benefits derived from well development," the BLM said.

Yet the bureau issued a "finding of no significant impact," which said: "The effects on the quality of the human environment are not likely to be highly controversial."

Citizens for a Healthy Community's Smith called that "laughable."

"We are going to keep up the pressure, and if they continue, there could be legal action," Smith said. "In the valley, this is controversial."

Mark Jaffe: 303-954-1912 or maffe@denverpost.com