Peter Hart: Guest opinion | AspenTimes.com

Peter Hart: Guest opinion

Peter Hart
Special to the Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado

The Thompson Divide, southwest of Carbondale, has lived under the threat of natural gas drilling for years. That threat is suddenly very real.

Last month, the biggest leaseholder in the area, Houston-based SG Interests, filed a proposal with the Bureau of Land Management for an exploratory unit on 32,000 acres in the heart of the Thompson Divide. The unit agreement would “unitize,” or group, 18 leases on federal lands stretching from Sunlight Peak to Coal Basin. It amounts to a long-term development plan.

The proposed unit poses a major threat to the 220,000-acre landscape that the Thompson Divide Coalition is campaigning to permanently protect from energy development. That effort has received nearly unanimous community support since it formally launched in 2009. The entire community should unite now in opposition to this proposal.

Especially troubling is that 13 of the 18 leases in the proposed unit overlay the Thompson Creek Roadless Area. Because these so-called gap leases were issued after implementation of the 2001 Roadless Rule, they should contain prohibitions against road-building within roadless areas, but they don’t.

The Thompson Divide holds extraordinary value to local communities. It contains the Sunlight Mountain Resort and Spring Gulch ski areas, vast snowmobiling terrain accessed via Marion Gulch, rock and ice climbing crags, mountain bike trails, and two of the best hunting units in Colorado. It provides summer range for livestock operators – ensuring working ranches on our valley floors aren’t subdivided – and clean water for domestic and agricultural users.

The Thompson Divide retains these values because there are few roads, the rivers run pure, and animals enjoy large, unfragmented swaths of land. If you zoom out from the Divide, you’ll see close to a dozen inventoried roadless areas connecting the Grand and Battlement mesas with the main stem of the Rocky Mountains. Thompson Divide is the piece that holds it all together.

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Nonetheless, the BLM issued gas leases over much of the Divide between 2002 and 2006. At that point the threat wasn’t clear. Few anticipated the boom about to hit. Few industry outsiders knew of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” There was little science showing dramatic declines in wildlife populations and habitat resulting from gas development. Newspapers weren’t filled with stories about people getting sick.

As development picked up in Garfield County, people got worried. Potential impacts were abruptly evident. Development of the leases in Thompson Creek seemed increasingly possible. People from all walks of life joined to figure out how to protect the area, and the Thompson Divide Coalition was born. The Coalition mounted a citizen-led campaign mirrored after efforts in Wyoming, Montana and New Mexico, with the goal of permanently protecting the landscape through federal legislation and retirement of existing leases.

Now SG Interests’ unit proposal threatens everything the Thompson Divide Coalition has worked for.

The company, which is facing 2013 expiration dates on most of its leases, is attempting to use a backdoor process to extend its development rights indefinitely. It acquired the leases for an average of $2 an acre, with 10 years to develop. Now, knowing that it can’t get approvals to drill all of its leases in two years, it’s trying to hold on to them with the least possible investment.

Lease unitization through the BLM is not an open and transparent process. There is no formal notification of interested parties unless they hold property rights, no analysis of potential impacts to the human environment, and no formal opportunity for public comment.

SG Interests’ unit proposal concerns leases of dubious legality, in an area the community agrees should be protected, and (unless we can change it) the process is being conducted outside of public view.

In the coming weeks, the Wilderness Workshop will work through bureaucratic channels to challenge this proposal. At the same time, federal land managers and our members of Congress need to hear citizens demand a formal public review process of the proposal. And they need to be reminded that the value of an intact Thompson Divide landscape far exceeds the value of speculative development – especially given the potential consequences.

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