Sen. Michael Bennet plans to reintroduce Thompson Divide protection bill
Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet is expected to reintroduce a bill after the new Congress convenes next week that would permanently withdraw U.S. Forest Service lands in the disputed Thompson Divide area south of Glenwood Springs from oil and gas leasing.
The move comes on the heels of a recent White River National Forest decision to remove 61,000 acres in Thompson Divide from consideration for new leasing as part of local forest plan guiding management decisions for the next several years.
“We do plan on reintroducing the bill in the next Congress,” said Erin McCann, communications assistant for the Democratic senator in Denver.
“As we do with all bills, we will evaluate the circumstances and determine whether updates or improvements are warranted,” McCann said. “While the Forest Service decision is an important interim step, our goal with the Thompson Divide bill is to facilitate a long-term solution to protect the divide and provide certainty to the surrounding communities.”
Bennet first introduced the Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act in March 2013, calling it a “middle-ground solution” to pave the way for lease holders to voluntarily retire existing natural-gas leases in Thompson Divide, ultimately withdrawing the area from consideration for future leasing.
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While the Forest Service decision is only in effect for the term of the local management plan, typically 15 to 20 years, “the way the law is set up, only Congress can withdraw areas from future consideration,” White River Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams explained in a recent interview.
The local forest may be asked for maps, lease documents, use permits and other background information related to any proposed legislation, but would not take a position on the matter, Fitzwilliams said.
Zane Kessler, executive director of the Carbondale-based Thompson Divide Coalition that helped to draft the bill, welcomed the news that Bennet plans to reintroduce the measure as the next step following the forest decision.
“We’re hopeful that Congress will recognize the broad community consensus on this issue and work together to protect this economic engine for future generations,” Kessler said. Kessler’s group often cites studies that suggest ranching, recreation and conservation interests could be compromised if drilling were to be allowed within the 221,500-acre Thompson Divide area.
While Bennet was successful in garnering support from fellow Democrats, including co-sponsorship from outgoing Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, the bill has struggled to gain bipartisan support since it was first introduced.
McCann said Bennet is confident that, with some modifications, the bill can earn broader support in the new Republican-controlled Senate and House.
“We have been working with a lot of different people regardless of party on the reintroduction of this bill,” McCann said.
The bill’s success could hinge on the support of Republican Sen.-elect Cory Gardner, who defeated Udall in the Nov. 4 election, and of 3rd District Congressman Scott Tipton, another Republican who was re-elected last month.
Tipton has repeatedly said that he is concerned about the precedent the bill could set in permanently withdrawing a particular piece of land from future leasing where there could be potential for energy development.
He also said in earlier interviews that he remains hesitant to support the bill until conservation interests and lease holders can reach a “market based” agreement for buying out and retiring existing leases that respects private property rights.
Gardner also indicated in interviews during his recent election campaign that he would take a look at any bills related to Thompson Divide once in office, but that the discussion needs to continue locally on how best to resolve the issues.
Early this year, Garfield County Commission Chairman John Martin, a Republican, joined county commission chairs from Pitkin and Gunnison counties in signing a letter asking Tipton to support some type of legislation that could lead to a market-based solution to acquiring the leases. However, the letter did not mention Bennet’s bill specifically.
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