Locals Celebrate Thompson Divide Lease Cancellations 10

BLM Cancels 25 Oil & Gas Leases in an Area Called “Too Special to Drill”

When local communities were first alerted in 2004 to leasing in what we now call the Thompson Divide, this incredible landscape didn’t even have a name. Now, it’s known nationwide because of what the people of the Roaring Fork Valley have done to protect it. The coalition that formed to rally to the Thompson Divide’s defense included local ranchers like Bill Fales, who runs Cold Mountain Ranch outside Carbondale, sportsmen like Casey Sheahan, former CEO of Patagonia Inc., and those whose livelihoods depend on tourism, like Jim and Sharill Hawkins. The couple owns the Four Mile Bed & Breakfast, which is located along Four Mile Road, the heavy haul route to the Thompson gas fields.

Eventually, the towns of Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Aspen all took stands against the oil leases, and the Pitkin County Commissioners also filed a legal action. In a testament to the diversity of the effort, Garfield County, arguably the political opposite of Pitkin County, signed on in support of protecting the Thompson Divide as well.

Zane Kessler, executive director of the Thompson Divide Coalition, noted that “oil and gas is a big payoff for a small few. Everyone else loses. Hunting decreases. Recreation decreases. People don’t go backpacking in a gas patch.” A study commissioned by the Thompson Divide Coalition and conducted by economic firm BBC Research & Consulting of Denver showed that recreation, grazing, hunting, and fishing in the Thompson Divide generate $30 million annually and support 294 jobs.

“People in this region,” says Wilderness Workshop staff attorney Peter Hart, “have seen what oil and gas development can do to the land. Areas just outside of the Thompson Divide have been sliced and diced with new roads and well pads. Those areas have been transformed from quiet rural landscapes to busy areas with lots of industrial traffic.”

Wilderness Workshop discussed the Thompson Divide victory in its bi-annual newsletter, Wild Works. “There’s so much to say about this decision and all the hard work that got us to this point, but the most important thing we can say is this: we are immensely grateful for all of the time, energy, and work that this community and our great partners have put into helping us achieve this momentous victory. Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

While the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) canceled 25 illegally-issued leases in the Thompson Divide, its plan also backtracks on protections the BLM had proposed to apply to other leases—some of them inside the Divide and others stretching to the western edge of the White River National Forest.

In a joint statement from seven environmental and civic groups, Peter Hart said, “We support BLM’s cancellation of 25 leases inside the Thompson Divide. The agency has abandoned its earlier proposal to protect the East Willow, Mamm Peak and Battlement Mesa areas. Much of Thompson Divide’s value is tied to the integrity of the surrounding landscape. BLM can’t just sweep those lands into the rubbish bin.”

Because oil and gas drilling threatens important wildlife habitat, pristine roadless lands, public water supplies and the Thompson Divide itself, more than 99 percent of the 100,000-plus public comments asked BLM to protect all of the illegally leased lands. The public “gets it” that all of the areas illegally leased are part of a single functioning landscape supporting wildlife across the region.

Wilderness Workshop is joined by Earthjustice, the National Wildlife Federation, the Wilderness Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Western Colorado Congress in its concern over BLM’s failure to properly address the rest of the illegal leases in the White River National Forest.

“While it’s wonderful that this will protect certain areas, this plan would also bring oil and gas development into one of America’s last remaining wild places,” said Amy Mall, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “This forest provides prime habitat for wildlife, unspoiled roadless lands, and drinking water for millions of people. The federal government should be protecting America’s national forests, not selling them to the highest bidder.”

“Municipal water resources in Garfield County seem to be under siege,” said Rifle resident and Western Colorado Congress member Leslie Robinson. “Any community that depends on the Colorado River and its tributaries for drinking water is at risk as more drilling is approved in our watersheds. Residents of Rifle, Silt, Battlement Mesa and Parachute find it problematic that the BLM may validate dozens of leases in our watersheds without even the minimum protections. The agency owes residents proper protection.”