Critics wants Thompson Divide Coalition to expand reach, get more aggressive

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Middle Lake in the Thompson Divide area has an oil and gas lease in place nearby. Special places like the lake are the reason Thompson Divide Coalition is focused on saving the 221,500-acre area.
Thompson Divide Coalition/Courtesy photo |

An environmental group that’s leading the effort to prevent natural-gas drilling in Thompson Divide has come under fire by other activists for not being aggressive or inclusive enough.

Activist Anita Sherman, of Glenwood Springs, claimed that the Thompson Divide Coalition has a flawed strategy of trying to save a relatively small portion of the White River National Forest without looking at the big picture of what’s happening in western Garfield County.

The coalition is focused on the fate of 221,500 acres of national forest that stretches from Sunlight Mountain Resort outside of Glenwood Springs to McClure Pass outside of Redstone. About 88,100 acres of that land is in Pitkin County, west of Carbondale.

Sherman said she first pressed Thompson Divide officials in 2012 on whether they would help prevent oil and gas development elsewhere in the national forest, in areas around New Castle, Silt, Rifle and elsewhere.

“I started expressing my concerns that Thompson Divide Coalition was sending mixed messages downvalley with people thinking Unified for The Divide would save their communities.”
Anita Sherman
Glenwood Springs resident

“I started expressing my concerns that Thompson Divide Coalition was sending mixed messages downvalley with people thinking Unified for the Divide would save their communities,” Sherman said. “Unified for the Thompson Divide shouldn’t include sacrificing other locations that no one on TDC or the legislators they were lobbying seemed open to talk about.”

Concerns boils to criticism

Her concerns boiled over to an all-out criticism of Thompson Divide Coalition earlier this month. She wrote an article for the website “From the Styx” that pulled no punches in criticizing the coalition’s strategy. The website is an exchange of information among opponents of oil and gas development in western Garfield County.

“Will someone from the Thompson Divide Coalition answer this question: What good is your strategy when the areas around the Thompson Divide wilderness area are drilled, spilled, fracked, and attacked?” Sherman wrote. The article was titled, “A ‘Unified’ whomp upside TDC’s head.”

The searing article came out on the eve of hearings held by the Bureau of Land Management in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Aspen to take public comment on the fate of 65 parcels in the national forest that were leased to gas companies between 1995 and 2004. A federal board found the environmental review process connected to the leases was flawed. The BLM is now engaging in an environmental study.

While only 25 of the 65 gas leases are in Thompson Divide, many of the comments delivered to the BLM focused on protecting that area. Thompson Divide Coalition was among groups that rallied members to the hearings.

Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop is also heavily invested in preventing drilling in Thompson Divide, though it has fought gas development throughout the White River National Forest.

Focused on a special place

Thompson Divide Coalition Executive Director Zane Kessler said he wouldn’t engage in a battle of words with Sherman in a newspaper article. However, he provided statements from himself and from Dorothea Farris, a member of Thompson Divide Coalition board of directors, that made it clear the coalition will keep its focus on one special place. It will continue to work with gas companies and Colorado’s Congressional delegation to try to end leasing of public lands in Thompson Divide and retire existing leases.

“We’re humbled by the overwhelming support — at the local, state and national levels — for our ongoing efforts. TDC will continue to work with all stakeholders to find common-sense solutions that protect this area for the enjoyment of generations to come.”

Thompson Divide Coalition is following a two-pronged strategy to try to prevent gas production in the area. It worked with U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet to get legislation introduced that would limit future leasing in Thompson Divide. U.S. Sen. Mark Udall later signed on as a co-sponsor with his fellow Colorado Democrat.

Meanwhile, Thompson Divide is negotiating with gas companies Ursa and SG Interests to try to buy and retire their existing leases.

The coalition’s staff and board of directors typically avoid criticism of the gas companies in any public forum. However, the group tried to apply not-so-subtle pressure by producing a third-party economic study that questioned if an economically feasible production of natural gas was possible in Thompson Divide. Pitkin County commissioned an independent study that reached the same conclusion.

The part of the coalition’s strategy that particularly rankles fellow activists is the claim that gas drilling is appropriate in some placed, but not Thompson Divide.

Pushing for tougher regs

Sherman is part of a faction that claims oil and gas opponents must take direct action in local and state politics to regulate the gas industry on all public and private lands. They claim that legislators on the local, state and national level cannot be trusted because they are under the influence of Big Oil.

“Our families, friends, businesses and properties throughout Garfield, Mesa, Gunnison, Pitkin, and Delta Counties — outside the Divide’s borders — are under legislative attack by the same toxic-trespasser-lovin’ legislators the TDC’s strategists want to trust,” Sherman wrote in her April 15 article.

Sherman does more than talk tough. She is a plaintiff in a planned class-action lawsuit that will challenge the constitutionality of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. She and other plaintiffs filed a notice of intent to sue in the U.S. District Court of Colorado.

Sherman also is involved in resident initiatives that will attempt to beef up regulations on the gas industry by asking voters to approve amendments to the Colorado Constitution.

In addition, she heads the Garfield Transparency Initiative, a watchdog group that monitors local government actions related to the gas industry.

When asked how many people share her perspectives, Sherman responded, “Based on local, state, national and global concerns, I’d say there are many people who share my belief that there are no appropriate places to poison people for profit.”

Her views are shared with others in Colorado. The Denver Business Journal recently reported “more than a dozen ballot proposals dealing with the oil and gas industry have been filed at the Colorado Secretary of State’s office for possible placement on the November election ballot.”

Well-intentioned but misplaced

Aaron Milton, a former gas-patch worker who is now an activist against drilling in western Garfield County, said he agrees with the view that Thompson Divide cannot be viewed as an island. His particular area of interest and expertise is air quality. Milton, a Glenwood Springs resident, contends that gas production throughout the Western Slope will pump hydrocarbons into the air — including in the Roaring Fork Valley. Focusing on prevention of drilling in Thompson Divide addresses only a small part of the problem, he said.

“They’re going to gas the entire valley. That’s what people don’t understand,” Milton said.

Milton shares Sherman’s view that Thompson Divide Coalition is wasting its time by trying to buy out the leases and not being aggressive enough in the political arena, but he isn’t as critical with his critique.

“I tried to work with the Thompson Divide Coalition from the get-go,” he said. “They didn’t really want to take a political stance on it.”

The money that Thompson Divide Coalition is collecting to potentially buy leases could be better-spent rallying residents all over the West Slope and pursuing regulatory action, he said. He would like to see the money used to establish baseline data on air and water quality — for a broader region, not just in and around the Divide.

Milton said its his opinion that the BLM illegally sold the 65 leases in the White River National Forest, so it’s the agency’s responsibility to address them. “All of those illegal leases should be voided and they should give them their money back,” he said.


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