Forest Service and BLM to introduce Thompson Divide Mineral Withdrawal to the public
The federal government will hold its first public comment and education meeting on a proposed mineral withdrawal in the Thompson Divide, a vast parcel of land that is mostly owned by the federal government in the Western Slope.
The U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management will host two public information meetings on the proposed withdrawal Wednesday, Dec. 14, at the Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District.
The meetings, at 5 p.m. and again at 6 p.m., will consist of a short presentation on the proposed withdrawal and next steps in the process, plus a short Q&A period. The 6 p.m. meeting will include Spanish interpretation.
Register here (https://blm.zoomgov.com/webinar/register/WN_kOqvlqQ7R_Kjo4dgFypoJg) to attend virtually and submit questions ahead of the meeting.
These meetings are very early in the process and are meant to be informational. Forest Service public affairs officer David Boyd said they will not be taking oral comments at this meeting, only questions. There will be opportunity to voice comments at later public meetings, he said.
“What we’re trying to do is help people understand more so they can firstly just understand the process. And then if they want to comment, they can provide more informed, effective comments,” he said.
Starting next year, the agencies will begin what’s called a NEPA process, or National Environmental Policy Act process. The Forest Service will work to put together an environmental impact assessment relevant to the withdrawal decision, and NEPA requires opportunities for public comment.
The Department of Interior accepted a petition for mineral withdrawal in the Thompson Divide from the Forest Service and BLM earlier this year. Secretary of the Interior Deb Halaand published a notice of the proposed withdrawal in the Federal Register on Oct. 17, triggering a 90-day public comment period and two-year segregation on the land.
The Thompson Divide comprises nearly 224,794 acres across Pitkin, Garfield and Gunnison counties. The vast majority of land, 200,518 acres, belongs to the Forest Service. Thompson takes up 78,000 acres of the White River National Forest. Portions of the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison national forests account for about 122,000 acres. The BLM holds 15,465 acres and 8,700 acres are privately owned land with federal minerals underground, according to the Forest Service.
While the Forest Service owns most of the land in the Thompson Divide, the BLM is involved in all mineral leases because the Department of Interior controls federal minerals.
“The Forest Service makes the decision about which of its lands are open or closed to oil and gas leasing, mineral entry, and all these kinds of things that we’re talking about with the withdrawal,” Boyd said. “But BLM is the federal agency that manages federal minerals. They’re the ones that do oil and gas leases.”
The two-year segregation prevents new mining claims or mineral leases on the land while the government collects environmental and economic data on the proposed withdrawal. Valid existing leases, water rights and activity on privately held land are not affected.
Currently, 23 active leases operate within the Thompson Divide, according to the BLM.
The primary term of an oil and gas lease is 10 years. The company must develop, or start producing, within that 10-year period or the lease expires.
In a press release from the Biden administration in October, officials said that current, active leases in the Thompson Divide constitute less than 1% of the more than 3,000 active federal leases in Colorado.
Activism in the Thompson Divide dates back decades. During an oil and gas leasing boom in the early 2000s, conservation groups like Wilderness Workshop, based in Carbondale, joined forces with outdoor recreation enthusiasts and ranchers to object to mineral leases in the area. The Thompson Divide Coalition advocates for the permanent protection of the federal lands within the Thompson Divide from oil and gas development.
“The threat of oil and gas development fragments the landscape by roads and pipelines and well pads to be built,” said Will Roush, executive director of Wilderness Workshop. “There’s actual significant impacts to air quality and water quality from the drilling backing process. And fragmentation has really big impacts on wildlife habitats.
Much of the private land within and surrounding the Thompson Divide is ranchland, Roush said. And the need to move cattle across vast stretches of land for grazing puts ranchers at odds with oil and gas development.
Environmental and economic impact assessment will be conducted by the federal government through the next two years. But in 2013 a Dever-based research group found that outdoor activities in Thompson Divide land generated nearly 300 jobs and more than $30 million in annual economic impact.
New mineral leasing has been trending downward, according to Wilderness Workshop. The White River National Forest closed its land in the Thompson Divide to mineral leasing years ago. And Wilderness Workshop dedicated much of its effort to canceling leases that should have already expired or were faulty in some way.
The Western Energy Alliance is a nonprofit member-based organization that represents oil and gas interests in the West. They oppose the withdrawal, saying that energy development and land protection are not mutually exclusive.
Vice President of Public Affairs Aaron Johnson issued this statement in an email to the Aspen Times: “Thompson Divide sits on part of the Mancos Shale, which this U.S. Geological Survey determined is the second largest reserve of natural gas in the United States. So there is significant potential in the region for energy development, particularly at a time when our economy is in a recession. However, the withdrawal is part of the Biden administration’s effort to halt oil and natural gas production on federal lands and his promise of ‘no more drilling.'”
Johnson also referred to the oil and gas industry’s efforts to fund much of the Great American Outdoors Act, funding which he says is endangered by the Biden administration’s energy policies. The group filed a lawsuit in conjunction with the Petroleum Association of Wyoming against the Department of the Interior, claiming they were in violation of the Mineral Leasing Act.
Should the Department of the Interior accept the petition to withdraw, new federal mineral leases on the Thompson Divide will be blocked for 20 years.
Only congressional action can permanently block mineral leasing on public land. The CORE Act, a piece of legislation backed by Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, aims to protect nearly 400,000 acres of public land in Colorado. It has passed in the House of Representatives multiple times but continues to stall in the Senate.
The Thompson Divide is part of the CORE Act, but without congressional approval, action from the Department of Interior is all that can prevent new mineral leases.
Wilderness Workshop says they will continue to do two things while awaiting Senate approval.
“Working for the passing of the CORE Act to get to that permanence that the community really wants,” Roush said. “And we’ll continue our work on the existing leases up there to try to figure out a way to get rid of those.”
The initial comment period will close Jan. 16, 2023. Comments should be sent to State Director, Bureau of Land Management, Colorado State Office, 2850 Youngfield Street, Lakewood, Colorado 80215 or email to: BLM_CO_Thompson_Divide@blm.gov.
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