Garfield County to weigh in on Thompson Creek wilderness

John Colson
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
John Colson/Post IndependentGarfield County Commissioners Tresi Houpt, left, and John Martin talk with U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, about a proposed wilderness designation for the Assignation Ridge area near Carbondale.

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – Local support, or a lack of it, for a proposed wilderness bill that includes some terrain in Garfield County is likely to be decided by the Board of County Commissioners on Aug. 9.

After a presentation on the proposal on Aug. 3, the commissioners appeared split in their feelings about the bill.

“It’s got a ways to go,” declared Commissioner John Martin, explaining that he was in favor of the preservation of wild lands for future generations, but not necessarily as wilderness in the way it is being proposed.

“I’m not trying to block it, I’m just trying to identify all the pitfalls,” Martin added.

Commissioner Tresi Houpt, on the other hand, said she supports the bill and plans to bring a draft letter to that effect to the Aug. 9 commissioners meeting.

The bill, proposed by U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, would designate an area known as Assignation Ridge, approximately 21,000 acres of the high country west of Carbondale, as wilderness. The ridge is in the area known as Thompson Creek, but DeGette’s proposal covers different terrain than the property subject to the work of a local organization, the Thompson Divide Coalition.

Only a small section of the 21,000 acres, about 1,600 acres at the northernmost end of the ridge, is within Garfield County.

The local area is part of roughly 850,000 acres in 34 different parts of the state that are included in the bill.

DeGette said it contains no private property, no oil and gas value and no mining claims, but Commissioner Martin argued that there is a gas pipeline and underground natural storage reservoir within the proposed wilderness boundary. She was skeptical of his claim, but said she would check and, if Martin is right, would see that the gas facilities are “grandfathered in” and do not have to be removed.

In the middle of the debate was Commissioner Mike Samson, who said he wants to listen closely to the arguments of both Houpt and Martin before making up his mind.

“I was really glad that she came [and] that she’s working with all the interests,” Samson said, referring to DeGette’s pledge to work with everyone from environmentalists to the mining industry to craft a bill that is acceptable to a broad cross-section of the public.

“This is in their backyard, if you will,” said Samson, who lives in Rifle and admits, “I don’t know that area.”

But he is well versed in the issues of another part of Garfield County that at one point was listed in DeGette’s bill – the Roan Plateau, “which we locally know as the Bookcliffs,” Samson continued.

DeGette said she has removed the Roan from her bill, preferring to see how things come out with a lawsuit aimed at keeping oil and gas leases off the plateau, which stands like a sentinel to the north of the Colorado River corridor between Rifle to Parachute.

“I was glad to hear that she’s backing off [from designating the Roan as wilderness] and is letting [the lawsuit] take its course,” Samson said, referring to the lawsuit.

DeGette said at the presentation that she has been working on one version or another of the bill for the past 11 years, after it was presented to her by a coalition of activists.

Acknowledging that a Denver legislator might seem an odd pick to push for wilderness designation outside her district, she noted, “I might be from Denver, but I’m a fourth generation Coloradan. I myself grew up in a lot of these wild areas.”

She said she has personally visited much of the area she hopes to designate as wilderness, whether by hiking, on horseback or raft.

“It’s important to have land available for a variety of uses,” she said of the wilderness idea, mentioning an array of recreational activities.

In addition to wilderness, she continued, it is equally important for public lands to accommodate such uses as mining, livestock grazing and oil and gas drilling.

“But all the uses don’t have to be on the same lands,” she declared.

As a member of the Natural Resources Committee in the House, DeGette is hoping to get the wilderness bill through Congress before the end of the current session.