I agreed to buy our 45-acre ranch sight unseen after my husband, Kevin, came back from a fishing trip to western Colorado's North Fork Valley. He'd been suffering from a kind of emptiness that couldn't be filled by our marriage, our family or his work. It turned out he needed to get back to the mountains of his home state. I signed those mortgage papers the same way I would have signed a release for Kevin to have life-saving surgery: It had to be done.
The North Fork Valley lies on the western side of the Rocky Mountains, due west of Colorado Springs. Its streams drain the Grand Mesa, the Ragged Mountains and the West Elk Mountains into the Gunnison River. The valley runs east to west, with the towns of Delta, Hotchkiss and Paonia situated in the fertile bottomlands at an elevation ranging from 5,000 to 6,300 feet above sea level. This area is home to the largest concentration of organic farms in the state. Our own ranch is in Crawford, a town of 300 or so perched on the southeast edge of the valley.
Even before I saw the area, Kevin believed that I would be fascinated by its rich agriculture. Beginning in June, the North Fork farms start pumping out magnificent fruits and vegetables, flowers, exceptional wines (the West Elks have their own American Viticultural Area); meats ranging from elk, deer, beef and bison to pork, goat and lamb; plentiful wild chukar partridge, pheasant and ducks; and disease-free trout from the Gunnison River and its tributaries. If there's enough rain, porcini and chanterelle mushrooms grow in such quantities that folks pack them out of the woods on horseback.
My husband was right; over the past 17 years, I've become deeply attached to the valley's unique beauty, food culture and independent-minded citizens, and more and more committed to the place. In many ways, the valley hasn't changed. It carries on in its own timeless time — connected enough to the world to be hip, isolated enough to be quirky. But it has also grown: There are new farms and vineyards, distilleries, cheesemakers, artisan bootmakers, potters, ironworkers and glassblowers, a microbrewery that has become a community destination and a guest ranch that has become an international one. Bike and wine tours dominate the summer economy, and farm and vineyard dinners attract locavores from all over the state. The valley has become a food-media darling.
But something else has happened, too. Oil and gas companies set their sights on the patchwork of Bureau of Land Management properties among the organic farms, bidding to build drill pads, roads and container ponds with a kind of abandon that indicated they had no concept of the local economy. There were bids to frack above the Paonia Reservoir dam, near an avalanche chute, and in a lot so close to the high school baseball diamond that if a kid hit a home run, he'd likely hit a drilling rig. We were told that fracking would bring jobs but not that the lasting jobs would be in pollution remediation. It seemed that just as the valley was becoming known for its agriculture and attracting smart, vital young farmers, winemakers and ranchers, the real battle for the rights to its future had begun.
But the industry folks underestimated the people and their ability to mobilize. Public meetings were swamped with concerned — and very vocal — citizens. Some of us went to Washington, D.C., to tell the BLM and Colorado's representatives and senators about just what was at stake. Making the case was not easy.
The natural gas industry is rich and influential. But the people of the North Fork Valley held the moral high ground, and the BLM listened. Those leases have been deferred, not once but twice. They may remain deferred as long as gas prices are depressed, but gas will become costly again, and the industry will return, willfully ignorant of the valley's sustainable businesses and backed by its powerful friends. Meanwhile, other leases proposed on nearby Bull Mountain constitute a threat to the valley's watershed.
I know it can be disheartening to keep fighting the same battles over and over, but each win is actually progress. The North Fork Valley has shown that rural communities can stand up to powerful interests. But we can't relax our efforts until the threat of industrialization is gone.
It's a long haul. But I believe that, like all endeavors in which citizens must fight for their rights in the face of entrenched privilege, our fortitude, our unity and our love of home will, in the end, prevail.
Eugenia Bone (eugeniabone.com) is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News (hcn.org). The nationally known food writer, speaker and author lives in New York City and Crawford, Colorado. Her current book, The Kitchen Ecosystem, is her fifth.