Driving down Highway 133 from the craggy wilds of the West Elk Mountains in central Colorado, one of the first signs of civilization is a mile-long coal train on a siding, along with the rusting steel framework of a canyon-spanning loading station that still dumps the black rock into trains at the rate of 50 cars per hour.
This nearly relict fossil fuel infrastructure is an improbable gateway to the orchards and vineyards of North Fork Valley. The few miles between the mine and Paonia mark a transition from the fossil fuel era into an uncertain post-carbon age, defined by climate change.
In Paonia, the air around Big B’s fruit stand is scented sweet-sour from the harvest of ripe apples. There are four types of cider on tap and nearly all the food on the menu is grown within a few miles of the local gathering spot.
The Mountain Harvest Festival is underway, and the place is buzzing, as community catalyzer Pete Kolbenschlag starts explaining how Paonia is building a sustainable future.
This community once relied heavily on coal mining jobs. Now it is developing a path toward a sustainable local economy based partly on organic agriculture and local renewable energy. It also must find ways to navigate challenges like global warming—and the growing threat of new fossil fuel development.
About eight years ago, the federal government proposed major oil and gas drilling in the North Fork Valley, and the plan roared to life this past summer, just as the organic food industry was really starting to take off. New drilling would take up land and threaten to bring more air pollution and potentially groundwater contamination that could put organic crops in jeopardy, while also contributing to climate change.
That’s not a mix that can work, said Kolbenschlag, who’s been working on community sustainability in the North Fork Valley for 20 years.
Many proposed drilling areas are right next to organic farms or ranches, and even directly on top of community drinking water springs, according to the Western Environmental Law Center, which is supporting the community’s legal challenges to fracking. Leaks from drilling could threaten local and regional water supplies. Industrial emissions and dust from increased traffic could taint fruits and vegetables, and energy infrastructure could harm wildlife habitat and diminish the area’s tourism appeal, along with the direct climate-harming impacts of more fossil fuel development.
“Leases were proposed in a ring around my house for 2 miles in every direction,” Kolbenschlag said. “We were able to stop that lease sale twice because the underlying land plan was outdated. There’s millions of dollars of agriculture on the line, even in a small area like this.”
Even after years of successfully fighting the fossil fuel industry, Kolbenschlag fears what this latest assault under the Trump administration’s “energy dominance” agenda could do to the valley’s sustainable agriculture industry.
“This administration isn’t just pro oil and gas. It’s inimical to protection,” he said. “But everybody knows oil and gas isn’t economical right now. Nobody in their right mind thinks this is the economic path forward for these rural communities.”
Natural gas prices have fallen, there’s a glut of gas on the market, and drilling permits are down by 20 to 70 percent in nearby counties. Gov. Jared Polis is also focused on cutting greenhouse gas emissions—all good reasons to take the North Fork drilling plan off the table, Kolbenschlag argues.
Delta County has seen the risks that come with the economically disruptive boom and bust cycles of fossil fuel development. Coal mine layoffs have put about 700 people out of work in the area since 2008, and a plan to possibly expand the West Elk Mine just up the highway has been tied up in court.
By contrast, a local economic study suggests that organic agriculture and related tourism helped stabilize the local economy after the 2008 recession and shows how they could be an important part of the foundation for building a sustainable local economy going forward.
Since 2008, “agriculture has been a key driver of the local economy, remaining relatively consistent despite declines in a number of other industries,” the report concluded. Leveraging that strength can provide for higher wage jobs and diversify the local economy.
The Growing Climate Risk
North Fork farmers aren’t just facing a potential fracking threat. They also have to deal with global warming that’s driven by burning of those fuels. By many measures, Colorado is heating up much faster than the global average — about 2 degrees Celsius in the last 50 years.
“Early warm spells and late killing frosts are one of the biggest threats to fruit trees in this valley,” Kolbenschlag said. “If it warms up too much in February, the trees get excited. And now, the February thaw lasts a week and a half, now it’s 40 degrees instead of 35 degrees.”
That can damage the fruit before it has a chance to develop. Some varieties can compensate for that some because they bloom and set fruit at different times, “but if you don’t know what things are going to look like in 15 years down the line, it’s really hard to plant for that,” he said.
Some farms have started shifting to crops that are less sensitive to extremes, and they are trying to adapt and protect the land with more sustainable practices, said Beth Karberg, vice president of the board of the valley’s organic growers association.
“We’ve seen an increase in extremes, even just in the last five years,” she said. “The people who are going to flourish here are going to have to be careful stewards of the land and water. The more you take care of your soil, the better you’re going to weather the extreme events.”
AJ Carillo, for example, is experimenting with agricultural methods that can benefit the climate and boost food security. On his 18-acre Deer Tree Farm and Agroforest, chestnut and hazelnut trees that store carbon grow alongside berry bushes that thrive in woodlands, and they’re restoring their section of the local watershed to help ensure water supplies.
Such a diverse agricultural landscape is likely to be more resilient to global warming extremes, he said. The plants complement each other to help keep the soil balanced and fertile, their fields aren’t as thirsty as more intensively farmed lands, and perennial plants store carbon as they grow, meaning a well-managed agroforest could become a carbon farm, Carillo said. Organic farming that focuses on natural ecosystems could also help agriculture break out of the vicious cycle of using more climate-damaging petroleum-based fertilizers.
“I wonder when are we going to start acting like we want to be here for a while,” he said. “Sustainability doesn’t mean just preserving the status quo. It has to be ecologically sound, along with being economically profitable.”
Building Energy Independence
Along with expanding its organic agricultural economy, Kolbenschlag said there is widespread support among the valley’s farmers for moving to renewable energy sources.
The state has a goal of reaching 100 percent renewable power by 2040. And locally produced renewable energy would be a big step toward building a sustainable local economy because it means keeping money within the North Fork Valley, rather than watching it flow off to a giant energy company in Denver or Kansas, Kolbenschlag said.
Right now, the community buys energy from a regional energy wholesaler under an agreement that caps local energy production at 5 percent. The local energy co-op, after years of regulatory battles, recently negotiated a buy-out so it could expand its renewable energy use.
Freed from the 5 percent restriction, the energy co-op will now be able to buy power from regional wind farms, and it can develop new local sources of renewable energy, including micro-hydropower plants in irrigation pipes, as well as solar and wind.
The latest Delta County economic development plan envisions working with Paonia-based Solar Energy International to solarize Delta County. Solar Energy International already provides training classes for installing and maintaining solar and microhydro power systems and works with classes at the local schools. A regional or national carbon market could even make it economically feasible to produce energy from the methane now being directly vented to the atmosphere at the West Elk Mine. There’s already a small-scale methane-capture project in operation providing energy for a regional ski resort.
It wasn’t just an issue of principle, Kolbenschlag said. It became a fiscal issue because it was becoming cheaper to buy local or regional renewable power than electricity from distant coal-fired power plants.
Sustainable Ag Ideas from the Past
Other communities in the Southern Colorado mountains face similar challenges related to sustainability and federal land choices, including Durango, where heat waves, insects and wildfires have killed surrounding forests, and droughts have harmed rivers relied on for irrigation and recreation.
Like Paonia, Durango is surrounded by federally managed public lands, so its fate isn’t entirely up to the local community. Decisions by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management play a big role in the future of the region.
Those agencies are currently developing management plans for about two-thirds of their territory, San Juan Citizens Alliance Director Mark Pearson said in September in Durango.
“They control more than half the terrain in the San Juan Mountains,” he said, but “they are not equipped to deal with adaptation and resilience very well.” The Trump administration’s moves to strip requirements that the government fully assess and disclose the future impact of fossil fuel development on climate change will only make it harder to protect the land, he said.
About 40 miles west of Durango, Jude Schuenemeyer is looking to the past for answers to a more sustainable future. The Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project, which he co-founded, aims to restore the area’s lost fruit-growing economy to help diversify local food supplies.
On a crisp fall day, he tells students at a local school where he is planting an apple tree that Cortez used to be an orchard paradise with dozens of varieties of apples, pears, plums and peaches.
Planting multiple varieties of fruit trees that can tolerate different climate ranges can help buffer the impact of a long dry spell, or unusual heat and cold snaps, he explains. As global warming cuts flows in Southwest rivers and sucks moisture out of the soil, there won’t be as much water available for thirsty low-value crops. To keep land in agricultural production means switching to less water intensive crops.
Schuenemeyer knows that planting trees helps the students connect with, and learn to respect, nature—qualities that will also help societies become more sustainable.
“Everybody can do something to make the world a little better,” he says. “And there’s no reason to wait. We should all start right now.”
Top photo credit: Jutta Strohmaier