Roaring Fork Valley conservation groups are the David versus oil industry’s Goliath

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times

Two environmental organizations with less than $1 million in war chests between them delivered an important first blow in the battle over oil and gas drilling in the White River National Forest.

The Thompson Divide Coalition and Wilderness Workshop, two separate but coordinated nonprofit groups, successfully organized and rallied people concerned about gas exploration in Thomas Divide. They rallied their supporters to get future leasing nipped in Thompson Divide, southwest of Carbondale.

White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams decided earlier this month to remove 61,000 acres of land in Thompson Divide with high potential for oil and gas reserves out of leasing eligibility. Elsewhere in the forest, Fitzwilliams determined no surface disturbance can occur on roadless lands that remain open to drilling.

The decision was hailed as a significant but not decisive victory by the environmental organizations.

“We are a coalition of strange bedfellows.”
Zane Kessler
Executive director, Thompson Divide Coalition

“This is still very much a David versus Goliath effort,” said Zane Kessler, executive director of the Thompson Divide Coalition.

The coalition and Wilderness Workshop pursue their common cause from different angles. The coalition staff and its board of directors generally avoid slamming the oil and gas industry and the political figures who set policy. The organization lets it be known it is taking a non-litigious approach. Wilderness Workshop officials rarely shy away from taking shots at the industry, and often criticize the Bureau of Land Management for its oversight and policy decisions. The organization also files an occasional lawsuit on issues.

It’s a classic good-cop, bad-cop approach between the partners.

Thompson Divide Coalition’s forte is rallying supporters to community events and rallying them to lobby local politicians and federal land mangers. Fitzwilliams said his decision to remove more land in the 2.2-million-acre White River National Forest from oil and gas development was partly due to the strong outcry from citizens concerns about the impact on natural resources.

Empowering cowboys to hippies

Thompson Divide Coalition is proud that it’s empowered everyone from ranchers who run their cattle in the divide to hunters and anglers who want the habitat protected to dirt bikers and mountain bikers who like the solitude of the area to soccer moms and environmentally oriented hippies. The coalition was formed late last decade.

“We’ve continued to build broad-based support from across the political spectrum,” Kessler said. “We are a coalition of strange bedfellows.”

The coalition isn’t membership based. It relies on voluntary grants and contributions rather than membership dues.

In 2012, Thompson Divide Coalition collected $179,012 in donations and grants, according to its Form 990 on file with the Internal Revenue Service. That form, the latest available, was posted on the website, which tracks information on nonprofit organizations.

The coalition had $134,011 in expenses in 2012. A little less than half of that, $61,276, went to salaries.

Kessler said the coalition’s budget has grown each of the past two years. In 2014, he estimated expenses were roughly double what they were in 2012. He was traveling for the holidays, so his budget information wasn’t immediately available.

As deadlines, such as the Forest Service’s new rules on oil and gas leasing, drew nearer this year, the coalition was able to raise more funds from donors so it could devote more effort to the battle. The organization relies on 2.5 full-time equivalent staff members and it hires experts for technical assistance. Two of its biggest efforts involved hiring experts to determine the economic value that Thompson Divide currently provides between ranching and recreation and the potential for oil and gas recovery.

Kessler said the coalition’s mission isn’t complete. In addition to removing lands from future leasing, it wants to get prevent drilling on existing leases by purchasing, exchanging or legislative approaches.

For that reason, the group is “proud of past successes but clear-eyed about the challenges ahead,” Kessler said.

Abrupt change in 2004

Wilderness Workshop was formed decades ago as an environmental watchdog — long before oil and gas development was viewed as a serious threat to the character of some forestlands. The Forest Service itself didn’t see great potential for drilling wells.

“We just weren’t paying attention to the issue,” said Sloan Shoemaker, the organization’s executive director.

That changed abruptly in 2004. Hydraulic fracturing made gas recovery more economical, so forestlands were suddenly being leased. Wilderness Workshop starting applying its technical, legal and regulatory expertise to work and contended some leases in roadless areas were illegally let. It objected to some prospective leases and got them removed by the Bureau of Land Management, which handles leases on national forest, as well.

“As the forest watchdog, that’s the role we played from way back,” Shoemaker said of analyzing the lease process. Oil and gas issues are now a major focus for the organization.

“It went from zero in 2003 to probably 50 percent now,” Shoemaker estimated.

It welcomed Thompson Divide Coalition’s entry into the fray a few years later. They work well together, but their missions are different, according to Shoemaker.

“Wilderness Workshop is concerned about a larger landscape than the Thompson Divide,” he said.

Wilderness Workshop raised $580,203 in revenues in 2012, according to its Form 990. It dipped into reserves to spend $621,639. About $390,387 was in salaries, according to the information on file with the IRS.

Shoemaker said Wilderness Workshop’s spending has decreased since 2012. It was about $550,000 in 2014, he said.

Unlike Thompson Divide Coalition, it depends on members and their dues. The organization has about 800 members from different age groups and locations throughout western Colorado, Shoemaker said. That’s up from about 100 members of mostly older Aspen residents when he became executive director in the late 1990s, he said. People saw what happened with oil and gas development in western Garfield County and were worried about that creeping toward the Roaring Fork Valley.

“Oil and gas certainly resonates in this community,” Shoemaker said. “People are saying, ‘No, not here.’”