Thompson Creek |

Thompson Creek

Mark Fox/Aspen Times Weekly

They look fairly innocuous – a series of squares and rectangles outlined in red ink on a map, each labeled with letters and numbers that can’t be read without young eyes or serious magnification.There are no red lines crisscrossing the forest floor, though, where lush grass, dandelions and a smattering of wildflowers catch dappled sunlight through aspens rattling in a stiff breeze.The topo lines and color-coded landscape of the map provide a woefully inadequate picture of what’s on the ground – impressive stands of aspen and conifers, gurgling streams and a pair of lakes perched unexpectedly below the ridge. Upon cresting the latter, commanding Mount Sopris juts into view with a grab-the-camera presence.

The map more revealingly depicts what is not there – yet. It lays out a potential future of gas rigs and, presumably, roads to reach them.The red squares represent existing gas leases plotted on a backdrop of blue that designates close to 30 square miles of roadless area southwest of Carbondale. Connected to six other designated roadless areas, including the adjacent Assignation Ridge, the Thompson Creek area is part of a 125,000-acre swath (that’s 187 square miles) of national forest land that constitutes the largest unprotected roadless complex in the state, according to the Citizens for Roadless Area Defense. It’s also one of 84 roadless areas within the White River National Forest, which surrounds the Roaring Fork Valley, that are under review. In all, that’s about one-quarter of the forest. Some are under consideration by the Forest Service for protection as wilderness; the agency may continue to maintain others as roadless while allowing road cuts for timber or gas extraction in yet others.

But for now, the very designation of the terrain as roadless – and the Forest Service’s power to keep it in that state – is in limbo. While the debate continues in florescent-lit meeting rooms, the reality of the little red squares hits home on Lake Ridge. The trail across the ridge in the Thompson Creek roadless area passes by a pair of lakes ringed in windswept rushes – a vibrant juxtaposition of blue and green that rivals the color key on the map. The lakes lie within one of the map’s red boxes, inducing visions of a drill rig reflected in the lapping water alongside a stand of firs that juts out between the lakes.For local mountaineer Aron Ralston, a Lake Ridge visit last month was his first – as are many of the treks into the mid-elevation roadless areas that have become his focus as a roadless advocate with the Citizens for Roadless Area Defense (C-RAD) and other organizations.

“It has sort of opened my eyes to areas that could be considered wilderness but aren’t marked on a map,” says Ralston, a self-described “peak junkie.”The area’s location outside a wilderness area is apparently both a blessing and a curse. It draws few visitors compared to highly trafficked wilderness lakes, but without wilderness protection, its thick forests could attract the lumber industry, and its natural-gas-production potential has already produced numerous leases. The key to accessing those resources, though, is probably roads.”When I’ve been up to Lake Ridge Lakes, I’ve never seen anybody there,” said Karin Teague, a Basalt resident and avid hiker.

“How much attention do we want to call to it?” she mused. “It’s a bit of a quandary, but it’s better than a gas rig.”The area has been recognized by the Colorado Department of Wildlife as high-priority habitat for a variety of species, and it contains part of what is thought to be the largest aspen forest in the world, according to C-RAD, but it also sees use by the North Thompson Cattlemen’s Association.For Carbondale rancher Bill Fales, the roadless debate is not about aesthetics or solitude, but cattle management. Thompson Creek, beyond his back door, doesn’t need added vehicular access cutting through grazing areas.

“It’s a nightmare for us to have more roads in these places,” said Fales, who’d prefer a ban on motorcycles and ATVs on the roads that border the area. For Ralston, the debate boils down to whether Colorado has enough places where vehicles don’t travel.”The groups that I’m involved with think we have enough roads, enough hillsides covered in homes, and too few places remaining that are still unspoiled,” he said.

For more on Thompson Creek and other roadless areas, go to the Citizens for Roadless Area Defense website at

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