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Tiny Paonia’s unlikely win in the war against fracking

PAONIA, Colo. — Nestled along the north fork of the Gunnison River just beneath two snow-capped Colorado peaks, the town of Paonia is a strange little secret — an eclectic mix of progressive people living a slow-paced, small-town life reminiscent of a bygone era.

On Main Street, there’s the ice cream shop right across from the all-organic restaurant featuring lettuces and beef raised just down the road. Up the block, there’s a crowd of 30-somethings, many with babies in tow, guzzling home-brewed ales on the patio of Revolution Brewing.

Five miles down the road, there’s a woman named Landon Deane who’s obsessed with her cows.

“Cows are my thing,” she says, smiling, as she walks us across her ranch. “This is my dream, this ranch. This is what I’ve always wanted.”

On the other side of town on a bluff above the Gunnison, Brent Helleckson is spending a sunny spring afternoon clipping dead branches from the grape vines that stretch across his vineyard.

An engineer and entrepreneur by trade, Helleckson moved his family here more than a decade ago; his winery, Stone Cottage Cellars, bottled its first vintage in 2003.

“It’s a magical place,” he mused, snipping away at the branches.

More than a year ago, Helleckson and Deane did something they didn’t ever imagine doing when they moved to Paonia — they became activists and, upon learning that the Bureau of Land Management was considering leasing parcels along the Gunnison for oil and gas development, went to Washington, DC to fight.

Their concerns are the community’s concerns: that a boom in oil and gas drilling in the area would change Paonia’s culture and hurt its serene, bucolic vibe; and, perhaps most important, that the potential contamination of the Gunnison River would be devastating to the grapes they grow and the cattle they raise — to their very livelihoods.

“In the last five-to-10 years, this valley has just blossomed into this awesome, amazing organic food production place,” said Deane. “Anytime you have drilling or tracking, there’s the potential for contamination of the air and water and agriculture. I believe it would be truly, utterly devastating to the industry of the organic agriculture — it’s just not a compatible industry for this area.”

Helleckson, who gets about 3,000 visitors to his tasting room each summer, concurs.

“It would be difficult to convince someone to come and and enjoy the wine in the place where it was grown, if they’re surrounded by the traditional style of oil and gas development,” he said.

Long ago, Paonia raged to fight against the coal mines located just up the valley, but that fight has eased. Today, those coal mines employ a few hundred people in the area.

But when the town learned back in 2011 that oil and gas companies had requested to lease B.L.M. parcels on the outskirts of Paonia, residents mobilized again.

Jim Ramey, a transplanted Ohioan, now oversees Citizens for a Healthy Community, a group that got residents to write letters to the B.L.M officials reviewing the lease requests and packed community meetings. Ramey’s group arranged for Deane and Helleckson to meet with Colorado Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet in Washington.

“For us as a small community group to be able to be heard in places like Denver and Washington, DC is really great,” Ramey said, “We’re a couple hundred folks in western Colorado that don’t have high paid lobbyists.”

Shannon Borders, a spokeswoman for the B.L.M. Uncompahgre Field Office in nearby Montrose, said they received 3,000 letters from the community — not bad considering Paonia’s population is somewhere between 1,500 and 1,800 people.

“We need to hear those concerns and we react to to those concerns,” Borders told FOX31 Denver.

In February, the B.L.M. went forward with a major sale of Colorado parcels for oil and gas development; but the parcels just outside Paonia were put on hold — a major victory for the citizen activists and the community, even if it’s a temporary one.

“It’s hard to believe that one person can make a difference, but if everybody is one person put together, then the voices come together and technically they’re supposed to be working for us, the public, not for the oil and gas companies,” Deane said. “And that’s what we saw.”

Preventing oil and gas development on government lands is likely easier than doing so on privately owned lands; but Paonia’s success may be instructive for other Colorado communities increasingly concerned about an influx of oil and gas drilling in their backyards.

“Getting involved early in the process makes a huge difference,” Helleckson said. “If you mobilize before the lands are leased, before that mineral right is created, you’ve got a better shot. Once that property right is created and you’re attempting to take it away, things get a whole lot more tricky.”

Ramey’s group has drawn up a proposal that it hopes the B.L.M. will consider, an outline of longer setbacks from water sources like the Gunnison and other restrictions on where parcels can be opened up for development.

But residents here, however isolated, are hardly naive about the challenges they’re continuing to face.

“You’re dealing with government,” Deane said. “It’s like a very large cruise ship, you can’t get it turned very easily.”

“The public process is set up strongly in favor of leasing,” Helleckson noted. “The B.L.M. is highly incentivized to go ahead and lease it — it generates income for the federal government.

“If you’re going to stop that from happening, you’ve got to be well organized and have a really strong case.”