Only a day after she collected her high school diploma, La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt moved to Durango with her family. It was June 1, 1981, and she remembers the day vividly.
Driving southbound from Silverton, Lachelt was struck by the “green, lush” trees enclosing the 50-mile stretch on U.S. Highway 550 and immediately fell in love with the land. So for the next 30 years, she invested in it through public service.
That began at Fort Lewis College, where Lachelt studied political science at her mother’s urging.
“I think she saw that being involved in the community was something that excited me,” Lachelt said.
An avid biker, camper and kayaker, Lachelt has dedicated the past three decades to protecting the great outdoors.
When she graduated in 1985, she worked briefly as a floater doing odd jobs at The Durango Herald before beginning work as a community organizer for Western Colorado Congress.
And then the natural-gas boom happened.
In 1988, Amoco, which later became BP, had big plans for gas wells in La Plata County.
“People were finding out they had gas wells, and companies were banging on their doors and drilling on their property,” Lachelt said. “My phone started ringing and never stopped.”
Working with local environmental watchdog group the San Juan Citizens Alliance, Lachelt spent the next 10 years helping local government address the gas impact. Through the alliance, Lachelt met Travis Stills, and the two founded the Oil and Gas Accountability Project in 1999. “We hit the road,” Lachelt said. “We toured the entire Rocky Mountain West to talk about forming the OGAP. Everyone embraced us, and a few organizations took a leap and invested in us.”
Blood, sweat and tears – literally, she said – was what expanded the organization from small-town Durango to California, New Mexico, New York, Texas and Washington, D.C.
“We started off with a whole lot of faith that we would be able to piece together funding to start creating an organization.”
The Oil and Gas Accountability Project published a landowners’ guide for oil-and-gas development, with basic instructions to protect property owners from oil-and-gas companies and help them craft use agreements. Lachelt pushed the state for landowner protections to become law, and in 2007, the Colorado Landowner’s Protection Act passed.
“It was a mutual idea, and at the time; we saw that there was no focused, dedicated effort to have a group on oil-and-gas issues, especially around the West,” OGAP co-founder Stills said.
“(Gwen) is very meticulous about making sure she has all the information before making a decision,” he said. “She very much knows the importance of hearing both from the experts and the laypersons. That’s recognized locally and nationally.”
Lachelt’s years of work, which ranges from co-founding Bear Smart Durango to helping pass legislation to protect New Mexico’s Valle Vidal from mineral extraction, has attracted the attention of The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CNN, Time and The Washington Post, among others. In 2005, because of OGAP’s work, the Ford Foundation named her a national finalist for the Leadership for a Changing World award.
As a county official obliged to support the natural-gas industry and the revenue that comes with it, and also as an environmental activist, Lachelt said the key is regulation.
“When you build oil-and-gas facilities with proper regulations and you operate under the best standards, you reduce your liability for blowouts and spills that end up costing you a lot more money,” she said. “I can take the long view after 30 years.”
County politics didn’t come calling until 2011 when a previous board of commissioners shot down a comprehensive land-use plan. The plan’s development cost the county three years, hours of labor and nearly $1 million. Lachelt felt the vote sunk La Plata County to an all-time low.
“I got a phone call from some Democratic Party leaders asking if I would run, and I felt strongly about taking La Plata County back,” she said.
“When you have so many people volunteering their time, to me, it just felt like dark days had come to La Plata. I wanted to work hard to turn that around.”
Giving up her director’s position at OGAP, Lachelt challenged incumbent Kellie Hotter and won in 2012 by 78 votes. Since then, the commission has picked up the land-use project again, which may be completed in 2016.
The past 30 years of work and the past three in office have left her with a resonant lesson learned: “Government moves at a glacial pace.”