Advocates and Ambassadors: Western Slope Conservation Center, Paonia, CO

For 35 years, the Western Slope Conservation Center has been at the forefront of recycling programs, river restoration projects, responsible coal mining, natural gas issues, organizing hundreds of public events and outings, sustaining more than a decade of water quality sampling, and stewarding public lands throughout Colorado’s North Fork of the Gunnison River and Lower Gunnison watersheds. Last year, this Paonia, CO-based group joined the Conservation Lands Foundation’s Friends Grassroots Network – a 50+-strong network of non-profits around the West that support and advocate for the Bureau of Land Management’s National Conservation Lands.

This part of Colorado has three areas within the BLM’s National Conservation Lands: McInnis Canyons, Dominguez-Escalante and Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Areas. The Center is organizing locally to ensure that the BLM’s revision of a Resource Management Plan for the region just outside of these National Conservation Areas, currently underway, minimizes potential negative impacts from oil and gas development.

To achieve this goal, the group is:

  • Conducting monthly water quality monitoring and sampling, and providing this data to BLM staff.
  • Promoting a pro-active and community-based approach to landscape-level planning through the “North Fork Alternative,” which sets out to adapt existing BLM management tools to the North Fork valley and craft a framework for oil and gas leasing and development that is highly protective of the North Fork‘s important resources.
  • Generating state-of-the-art maps outlining the RMP project area, resources at risk, and recommended management zones to protect natural resources. The maps are based on the location of existing land uses, including coal and gas leases, special status lands (i.e. National Conservation Lands), sensitive wildlife areas, drinking water sources, rivers and riparian areas, trails, agriculture, grazing permits, and communities.
  • Briefing BLM staff and a broad range of community and elected leaders about the North Fork Alternative. They received letters of support from the Town of Paonia and Paonia Chamber of Commerce and took community leaders on a fly-over of the valley.
  • Growing a coalition that includes the Valley Organic Growers Association (VOGA), West Elk American Viticultural Association (AVA), Delta Conservation District (DCD), ranchers, realtors, business owners and at-large community members to participate in the RMP process.

All of this will help ensure that the RMP process, which is still many steps and months away from completion, plays out with the best mix of local community, agency and industry-balanced input as possible. But wait—there’s more: The group also has a suite of educational and outreach events planned to help teach people about these incredible areas and invite them to get out there.

Places like the Gunnison Gorge and Dominguez Escalante National Conservation Areas are world-class when it comes to hunting, hiking, fishing, backpacking, horseback riding, wildlife habitat—you name it. And in the face of restricted budgets, the uncertainty of sequestration, and limited staffing, it’s great that volunteers from the Western Slope Conservation Center are there to step in and help the BLM with community outreach and education.  Visit their website to learn more.

Volunteers with the Western Slope Conservation Center celebrate 10 years of water quality monitoring on the North Fork of the Gunnison River

Volunteers with the Western Slope Conservation Center celebrate 10 years of water quality monitoring on the North Fork of the Gunnison River. (Photo courtesy of WSCC)

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