View toward Mount Sopris from the Thompson Divide in the autumn.
Fall colors of the Thompson Divide
BLM Actions on the Thompson Divide
An industry led proposal could bring some resolution to the Thompson Divide conflict, but local environmentalists are not celebrating wildly. While the proposal would drop the gas leases owned by SG Interests and Ursa Resources in Thompson Divide area, it would give the gas companies an equal amount of land and leases in parts of Mesa, Gunnison, Delta and Rio Blanco counties. The leases were controversial from the beginning because the 25 leases approved by the Bureau of Land Management never went through a proper environmental review.
The gas companies would benefit from the deal, because the new area has proven reserves and is near existing pipelines, while the Thompson Divide leases are speculative and would need to have infrastructure (roads and pipelines) built. Garfield and Rio Blanco counties have already expressed their support of the deal in letters to Senators Bennett and Gardner and Representative Tipton.
The executive director of the Thompson Divide Coalition, Zane Kessler, said, "We're being cautious. We're not interested in creating any problems on the other side of McClure Pass." Officially, the Thompson Divide Coalition made the following statement: . “This is an important first step for a process that could result in the retirement of undeveloped leases in the Thompson Divide. If the industry’s proposal does move forward, it will be imperative that counties on the receiving end of this exchange, and their constituents, have a seat at the table.”
The gas companies lost much access to the area when the Forest Service decided to halt future leasing in the White River National Forest in December. The Bureau of Land Management is expected to make a decision on the lands they administer soon. With the low price of gas and oil, there is little surprise the gas companies are looking for better alternatives than the Thompson Divide area.
A conservation nonprofit out of Delta County, Citizens for a Healthy Community, released a statement “We just learned of the proposal. We plan to analyze the details of it carefully to make sure that it’s bringing enduring, meaningful protections and not creating new problems. Communities on both sides of McClure Pass cherish our public lands. … Folks in the North Fork Valley stand together with our neighbors in the Crystal River and Roaring Fork valleys. We look forward to reviewing the proposal, and continuing to work for the protection that all these important public lands deserve.”
During the week of December 13, 2015 the BLM held three public meetings to solicit input on what to do with 65 leases they issued between 1993 and 2003 with no environmental review or public input. Over 350 people attended those meetings in Glenwood, De Beque and Carbondale. All 70 people who gave public testimony asked the BLM to cancel all or many of the leases in order to protect the Thompson Divide and roadless lands further west. As we have done in the past, our community stood united in its resolve to protect the public lands on our doorstep. My organization, the Wilderness Workshop, asserts the 65 leases were issued illegally and should be cancelled. We also understand and respect the views of local governments and the Thompson Divide Coalition who advocate for cancellation of all or portions of 25 of those leases that overlap with the Thompson Divide.
In April 2016, the Bureau of Land Management unveiled a “Preliminary Preferred Alternative” that, if finalized, would fully cancel 25 undeveloped, improperly-issued leases in the Thompson Divide area. This is in lock step with the 2015 ruling by the Forest Service in their Final Environmental Impact Statement which protects Thompson Divide from oil and gas exploration or development. The BLM ruling is huge step, but not the final word as Oil and Gas companies and their supporters will no doubt challenge this ruling.
The Community Based Effort
The Thompson Divide area is 220,000 acres of backcountry situated in the heart of America’s most heavily recreated National Forest, the White River. Described as a “Colorado Crown Jewel” by former Governor John Hickenlooper, the Divide is home to hunting units that generate over 20,000 big-game licenses each year; summer range for thriving ranching operations; and one of the densest concentrations of inventoried roadless areas in the West. Surrounding communities depend heavily on agriculture and tourism, and independent economic analysis has shown that the Thompson Divide generates 300 jobs and $30 million each year in sustainable economic benefits. The designated area includes essential wildlife habitat and important migration corridors.
In his personal journals, written over a century ago after riding horseback into the Thompson Divide area, President Theodore Roosevelt, our nation’s first conservationist President, described the Thompson Divide area as “a great, wild country… where the mountains crowded together in chain, peak, and tableland; all of the higher ones wrapped in an unrent shroud of snow.” And to this day, the rugged, pristine character of the Thompson Divide remains largely intact. But these characteristics could change quickly if Houston-based oil and gas companies get their way.
In 2003, the Bush Administration issued dozens of leases covering some 100,000 acres of pristine backcountry in the heart of the Thompson Divide. Many of these leases were issued for the statutory minimum of $2/acre; by contrast, leases in the center of the Piceance Basin sold for up to $11,800/acre. In a 2007 case brought forward by Pitkin County, the Interior Department’s Board of Land Appeals held that leases in the Thompson Divide were issued in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Endangered Species Act.
Administrative Involvement The United States Forest Service recently issued a Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) which moved to close the majority of the Thompson Divide to future oil and gas leasing. The Forest Service’s decision noted the Thompson Divide’s “singularity as a special place,” and the outpouring of public and local government support for its protection. Their decision is also a clear indication that overwhelming public support for protecting the Thompson Divide can and should carry significant weight under NEPA.
The Bureau of Land Management is now conducting its own analysis to determine if the Bush-era leases should have been issued in the first place. BLM has identified its legal authority to void the existing Thompson Divide leases at the conclusion of that NEPA analysis. A final decision from BLM is expected by Summer of 2016.
The Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association has participated as a local stakeholder in the US Forest Service and BLM processes related to the Thompson Divide. The Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop and the Thompson Divide Coalition are actively engaged in the effort to conserve public lands in the Thompson Divide area.
Senator Michael Bennet Senator, John Hickenlooper and Representative Joe Neguse have introduced the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act--a comprehensive public lands bill that both protects the landscape and safeguards existing outdoor recreation opportunities to boost the economy for future generations. The Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act included in in this bill withdraws 200,000 acres from future oil and gas development while preserving existing property rights for leaseholders and landowners.