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Thompson Divide gets 20-year protection from new oil and gas leasing: Part One

Amy Hadden Marsh
The United For Thompson Divide sign has cropped up all over Carbondale and beyond for years, a symbol of a community collaboration that resulted in protection for the area from new oil and gas leasing for the next 20 years.

Click here for Part Two

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Halland signed an administrative withdrawal on April 3rd that will close most of the Thompson Divide to new oil and gas leasing for the next twenty years.

Here's Will Roush, director of Wilderness Workshop, a Carbondale-based public lands watchdog group that has helped protect the Thompson Divide. Here he speaks at a recent celebration.

"It’s about our community and the fact that people said we’re gonna put aside our differences we might have now and in the future to work together…"

The Thompson Divide covers 250,000 mid-elevation acres of public land and watersheds, south from Glenwood Springs and west from Carbondale, stretching across McClure Pass and Kebler Pass to Crested Butte.

Peter Hart, attorney for Wilderness Workshop, has been working on the issue for nearly two decades, "The Thompson Divide, you know, is this 225, 000 acre sort of complex of roadless areas and there were about a dozen inventoried roadless areas within that broader complex. They're like these big chunks of unfragmented wild lands.
And, Thompson, not only does it have that high proportion of roadless lands…it's also - contrary to so much of the protected wilderness in this state - it's mid elevation, which means not as high. There's a lot more vegetation. There's a lot more, you know, habitat value. It's better territory for wildlife."

Hart told KDNK that the idea of protecting Thompson Divide began in the 1990s, "There was a forest plan revision that was underway. Basically, they're sort of the overarching plan that guide local land managers and what they can and can't do in particular areas within the National Forest, and they generally last for around 20 years. Anyway, so, folks like the Sierra Club and Sloan, and others, were out really familiarizing themselves with local public lands and the ecological values of those public lands and specifically looking for areas that they thought deserved heightened protection in this new forest plan."

In the early 2000s, natural gas drilling heated up in the Dry Hollow area south of Silt and began to spread to Rifle and further west.

"President Bush was elected, and there was sort of a leasing frenzy. And in addition to that, a lot of advancements were made in the oil and gas industry, which made previously uneconomic formations all of a sudden, like, economically viable for exploration and development. Things like fracking started to appear…"

At the time, about 80 oil and gas leases were issued throughout the Thompson Divide, according to Wilderness Workshop, and more in nearby roadless areas.

"So, you know, you've got this burgeoning interest in trying to get that area protected. And then all of a sudden, you've got an administration, which is sort of hell bent on opening everything for oil and gas development and leasing everything. By the time I got here, in 2007, I kind of walked in the door and started trying to brainstorm with Sloan, like, what kind of opportunities do we have now that these oil and gas leases already exist out there to try to protect this area? I mean, can we even do it? Are there even opportunities to protect this place? And it turns out that we weren't the only ones who were experiencing this leasing frenzy in a landscape of community importance and of ecological importance."

Hart said the idea for the Thompson Divide Coalition came from places like Pinedale, Wyoming, Valle Vidal in New Mexico and Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front - communities that were already dealing with heavy natural gas drilling. But, with a different approach.

"You know, there was some conservation community horsepower and brain power. But out in front of those efforts was sort of these non-traditional allies, these communities that were really authentic Western communities that were, frankly, much more compelling from a political perspective, than just the traditional enviros who say “no” to everything."

Hart said a wide range of stakeholders working together appeared to be a solid approach to opposing extraction and its impacts. He remembered ranchers from Wyoming traveling to the Roaring Fork valley to share their experiences, and that delegations from Wyoming and Montana eventually introduced legislation to withdraw their landscapes from future oil and natural gas leasing. They even proposed to buy back some of the leases.
Here's Hart again, "These are people who didn't just want to see trees protected because that's the right thing to do. They wanted to see trees protected because that's their livelihood and their livelihood is part of our traditional Western culture that everybody in Washington, D. C. wants to see protected"

In 2009, the Thompson Divide Coalition, with its wide range of stakeholders, emerged with a new director to figure out how to keep natural gas rigs out of the area.

In Part 2, KDNK will take a look at the rest of the story - from the Thompson Divide Withdrawal Act and public involvement in the cause to the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Economy Act and what's ahead.

Amy Hadden Marsh’s reporting goes back to 1990 and includes magazine, radio, newspaper and online work. She has previously served as reporter and news director for KDNK Community Radio, earning Edward R. Murrow and Colorado Broadcasters Association awards for her work. She also writes for Aspen Journalism and received a Society of Professional Journalists’ Top of the Rockies award in 2023 for a story on the Uinta Basin Railway. Her photography has also won awards. She holds a Masters in Investigative Journalism from Regis University.