Bruell column: Taking the long view on our public lands

Debbie Bruell
Debbie Bruell.

When I spend time outdoors these days, I find myself smiling before I know it. The brilliant reds and yellows seem to be shouting, “Look at me!” As much as we all share a love for our beautiful surroundings, sometimes we need a reminder of what a treasure our lands truly are.

The nearly 2 million acres that make up Garfield County are not just a gorgeous place to call home, they’re also a precious resource that could support our economy for generations — if we play our cards right.

We have a lot to learn from Mesa County which has been investing in their outdoor recreation economy for decades, promoting activities from fishing and hunting to trail running and birdwatching, and attracting retail and manufacturing businesses that support these activities. Outdoor rec now accounts for 11% of their county’s workforce and over $480 million of economic activity each year.

The city of Rifle also has made great progress establishing itself as a popular destination for mountain bikers, trail-runners and climbers. 

If we’re smart, we’ll make sure we’re maintaining a healthy and beautiful natural environment that can support a robust outdoor rec economy across Garfield County. 

The revenue our county receives from oil and gas production is on the decline. The number of active oil and gas drilling rigs decreased by 91% statewide from 2008 to 2020 and by 86% in Garfield county around that same time. In 2019 Haliburton permanently laid off 178 workers in their Grand Junction office, preparing for the decreasing demand for Piceance Basin oil and gas. 

Jobs in the oil and gas sector have also diminished to a mere 3% of all employment in our county — with many positions held by people from out of state, not locals.

Outdoor recreation won’t replace all of the diminishing oil and gas revenue, but it’s a crucial piece of the puzzle for a resilient and diversified local economy that is free of the boom/bust cycles of the fossil fuel industry. Opening up all our public lands to oil and gas development could degrade our environment to the point where a robust outdoor rec economy is no longer an option for us.

Garfield County is already in the 85th percentile nationally for the amount of toxic water discharged into our environment. We have 12,000 active oil and gas wells releasing toxins into our air. Spills occur regularly; 15 spills were reported last August.

The Colorado Fiscal Institute estimates that pollution emitted by oil and gas operations in Colorado will cause over $13 billion of damages between 2020 and 2030. We’ll all bear the brunt of those costs.

Oil and gas production comes with costs to our health as well. Over 8,000 people in Garfield County, including over 2,000 children, are estimated to live or attend school within a half mile of oil and gas operations, exposed to dangerously elevated levels of toxic pollution. 

Fossil fuel development on federal lands is also a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. While Garfield commissioners continue to use our tax dollars to bolster climate-denying groups, most of us understand that climate change poses a grave threat to our planet.  

From now through Nov. 1 we have a rare opportunity to help protect public lands in our region. A 2015 Bureau of Land Management plan left 95% of our lands in Western Colorado open to future fossil fuel extraction — including natural treasures like the Grand Hogback, Castle Peak, Lower Dolores River canyon country, and the Book Cliffs. A judge required BLM to develop alternative proposals that actually align with their mission: “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.” 

The BLM’s new proposals would protect more of our public lands, while still allowing current leasing to continue and allowing future leasing in areas designated as “high yield” potential for oil and gas. 

Option F is the strongest of two new options. While keeping over 104,000 acres open to future fossil fuel development, Option F would close 95% of the planning area to new oil and gas development, including Wild and Scenic river segments, important wildlife habitat areas, community water sources, and Areas of Critical Environmental Concern. 

The BLM is accepting public comments on their proposals until Nov.1. You can find more details under Calls to Action on the Garfield County Democrats website (

Public lands belong to the public. We have the right and responsibility to speak up about how these lands are managed. Should we allow fossil fuel corporations to frack every last drop of natural gas from our home, degrading our lands, waters, and wildlife in the process and exacerbating the impacts of climate change? Or should we invest in the ongoing asset of a healthy natural environment? 

Debbie Bruell of Carbondale chairs the Garfield County Democrats and is a past member of the Roaring Fork Schools Board of Education.

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