GLENWOOD SPRINGS - It's not about finding a route to access natural gas leases in the Thompson Divide area, it's a question of whether gas development should occur there in the first place, a packed house of citizens told Garfield County and Glenwood Springs elected officials at a town hall meeting Thursday night.
"The interest here is really broader than just to say that Four Mile Road is an inadequate haul route," said Carbondale-area rancher Bill Fales, who runs cattle in the high country region west of Carbondale known as the Thompson Divide.
"There are too many other really good uses in that area that support our economy on the east of the county," Fales said, referring to ranching, recreation and hunting, as well as protection of the watersheds.
Thompson Divide Coalition Executive Director Zane Kessler stated, "A lot of us are here to clarify that this is not about which way the trucks drive, it's about protecting that area.
"We all use natural gas ... this is not about being anti-fracking, or anti-natural gas," Kessler said. "It's about this area that we strongly feel is inappropriate for natural gas development."
The 221,500-acre expanse of mostly U.S. Forest Service lands stretches from Sunlight Mountain Resort south to McClure Pass, and straddles the Thompson and Divide Creek drainages. It has become the latest local battleground over proposed oil and gas development on federal lands.
More than 70 people packed the City Council chambers at Glenwood Springs City Hall for the town hall meeting.
The Garfield Board of County Commissioners hosts a series of town-hall meetings in each of the six Garfield County municipalities over the course of the year. The local town or city council members are typically invited to listen in.
Given the prospect of gas drilling in the Thompson Divide and plans by Houston-based SG Interests to use Four Mile Road and Glenwood Springs city streets as a haul route to access proposed gas leases in the area, the issue dominated the Glenwood Springs town hall meeting Thursday.
Four Mile Road resident Jim Hawkins said it's more than a "not-in-my-back-yard" position for he and others who oppose drilling in the Thompson Divide.
"It's not 'my' backyard, it's 'our' backyard, and I don't see any shame in protecting our backyard once in a while," Hawkins said.
"It takes strong stances by government officials like you guys, which can make a difference," Hawkins advised Commissioners John Martin and Tom Jankovsky, and all seven Glenwood Springs council members who attended the meeting.
In a work session prior to the town hall meeting, county commissioners and City Council members both reiterated their opposition to having Four Mile Road serve as a haul route to the lease areas.
SG Interests has already filed two applications for permits to drill in the Four Mile Park area, farther up the road from Sunlight Mountain Resort.
Each elected board urged the other to take the necessary steps to make their concerns known to Bureau of Land Management officials, who will eventually be deciding on the drilling permits now proposed in the area.
"That road is too narrow, too steep, and we don't have the money to turn it into a super-duper highway," Commissioner Martin said. "It just doesn't pencil out for us to have that as a heavy haul route."
For the city's part, Martin suggested that the council consider imposing weight limits and other restrictions on Midland Avenue and the 27th Street bridge.
Representatives from SG Interests have pointed out that Four Mile Road and Midland are already used by logging trucks and vehicles headed to the Wolf Creek natural gas storage facility near Four Mile Park.
But those trucks are usually lighter and fewer in number compared to the heavy equipment and volume of vehicles involved with developing a gas well, county officials point out.
While Glenwood Springs City Council has formally objected to SG Interests' proposal to combine several of its Thompson Divide leases into a single unit in an effort to keep them from expiring next spring, the county commissioners have not done so.
The commissioners have also suggested that access to the area could be possible from the Divide Creek side to the west, or from the south off Muddy Creek and McClure Pass.
Access into the forest lands from those areas, however, would require major upgrades to what are now a series of winding, rugged four-wheel-drive roads.
"The Forest Service and the BLM will do that analysis ... to see if there's an access that's acceptable, and at what cost," Martin said.
But several of those who spoke during the town hall meeting said the commissioners and other local and state elected officials need to take a stronger stand against the proposed drilling permits.
"I want to make sure we're all clear, that we don't want to just pass the buck to another neighborhood," Carbondale resident Sarah Johnson said. "It's not just Four Mile, we don't want any road to be an access road."
Former Garfield County commissioner Tresi Houpt said federal agencies do listen to local officials in making decisions about what happens on federal lands.