Conservationists: Obama decision will help shield Thompson Creek from gas industry |

Conservationists: Obama decision will help shield Thompson Creek from gas industry

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

CARBONDALE ” A decision Thursday by the Obama administration will help prevent the drilling of natural gas wells in 40,000 acres of national forest southwest of Carbondale for at least the next year and possibly longer, according to conservationists.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack issued a one-year moratorium on road-building and development on about 50 million acres of roadless lands in national forests across the country.

The directive reinstates a 2001 rule by President Clinton that protects roadless areas. President Bush overturned the protections, and conflicting court decisions since issued have left the rule’s legal status in doubt.

Vilsack said the interim ban on development, and an option to extend it for another year, will give the Obama administration time to develop a long-term roadless policy. In the meantime, Vilsack will have the sole authority to approve projects in roadless areas in national forests of all states except Idaho, which adopted its own rules. The decision is designed to remove confusion the U.S. Forest Service faces in land management.

Peter Hart of Wilderness Workshop, a conservation group in the Roaring Fork Valley, hailed the decision as a boost in the effort to prevent gas development in part of the Thompson Creek area, where oil companies hold 81 gas leases.

“At least for a year, it’s going to make development of these gas leases more difficult,” he said.

Other than the Wolf Creek natural gas field, which was developed in the 1950s about 12 miles southwest of Carbondale, there has so far been little exploration in the Thompson Creek area. Sagging natural gas prices have relieved immediate concerns about exploration, but some observers fear the area could be targeted for drilling in the inevitable next boom. A coalition of cowboys and conservationists formed the Thompson Divide Coalition last winter to protect about 122,000 acres.

Jock Jacober, one of the founders of the coalition, said the Obama administration’s directive will protect about 40,000 acres which are designated roadless by the Forest Service in Thompson Creek. The decision is another tool the coalition can use to try to get the gas leases rescinded, he said. Of the 122,000 acres that the coalition hopes to protect, only about one-third is designated roadless and is affected by Thursday’s directive.

The coalition members believe the Thompson Creek lands are too valuable for recreation and cattle grazing to allow gas drilling. They don’t want the pristine area to suffer the same fate as lands in western Garfield County, ground zero for natural gas production this decade. The construction of gas well pads has created a network of roads on public lands in areas south of Silt and Rifle.

Thursday’s directive is “an indication” that Obama might feel there is a higher use for certain lands, Jacober said. The additional hurdle erected to drilling on roadless lands might be enough to steer oil and gas companies out of marginal areas like Thompson Creek, he said.

“The practical implication to oil companies is, ‘Holy crap, do we have to go out and hire a bunch of lawyers to fight this, too?'” Jacober said.

Colorado has about 4.4 million acres of roadless lands in its national forests. Like Idaho, the state is working on a specially tailored plan for management of roadless lands.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.