Thompson Divide Coalition draws a partisan crowd | AspenTimes.com

Thompson Divide Coalition draws a partisan crowd

John Colson
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

CARBONDALE – It was a firmly partisan crowd that agreed this week that picketing might work to draw public attention to the issue of gas drilling in the Thompson Divide area northwest of Carbondale.

But other, less confrontational tactics also came up at a meeting Thursday night, called by the Thompson Divide Coalition (TDC), an aggregation of environmentalists, ranchers, government officials and others hoping to prevent gas drilling in what one advocate called the “the last relatively unfragmented, undeveloped, mid-elevation forest land in the state” and “an iconic Western landscape.”

At issue is 220,000 acres of public lands, 110,000 of which is already under lease to oil and gas companies working the massive Piceance Basin oil and gas fields.

Aside from 150 or so area residents, the meeting drew a number of elected officials, including Garfield County Commissioner Tresi Houpt; Frosty Merriott, John Hoffman and Pam Zentmeyer of the Carbondale council; George Newman and Rachel Richards of the Pitkin County board; and State Rep. Kathleen Curry (D-Gunnison.)

Several area governments, including Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, have come out in support of the TDC’s efforts, and the Garfield County commissioners voted in August to support the overall aim of the group, although the county is still working out the exact language of its resolution of support.

The Thompson Divide area is at the eastern edge of the Piceance Basin, which is known as one of the richest natural gas fields in the U.S. The Thompson Divide area, however, is believed by some to have a relatively low amount of accessible natural gas. Still, the area is a checkerboard of leases, including five leases that overlap into the Ski Sunlight ski area, according to statements made at the meeting.

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It has been a basic argument of the TDC that the value of the area in terms of ranching and grazing resources, wildlife habitat, clean water drainage and recreational opportunities outweighs its value as a source of mineral wealth, and speakers at the Carbondale meeting reiterated that theme.

among others.

But getting equal treatment Thursday were concerns about access, traffic, water and air pollution and other impacts that are anticipated if the area is opened up to exploration.

Peter Hart of the Wilderness Workshop told his audience that there are several likely access routes into the lease area – up Thompson Creek Road from Carbondale, past Jerome Park; up Four Mile Road from Glenwood Springs; and up the steep East Divide Creek road from south of Silt received the most attention.

But any route, Hart said, probably would see up to 1,400 truck trips per day just to meet the needs of the well pads themselves during drilling and completion of each well, not to mention ancillary activities.

‘You’re talking about industrial development, and a ton of traffic,” Hart declared.

Hart and another Wilderness Workshop official, Sloan Shoemaker, described the efforts in other states to do what the TDC is hoping to do, specifically zeroing in on the Rocky Mountain Front region of Wyoming.

Activists in that area, were faced with existing leases and potential for more leasing, just as with Thompson Divide, Shoemaker said. But they mounted a defense that was successful in getting the area withdrawn from future leasing, Shoemaker continued, and in convincing some gas companies to relinquish their leases in return for cash or tax breaks.

“The idea is not to take any action against the will of the lease holder,” Shoemaker said.

Given the current, depressed price of gas, the fact that some leases are nearing their 10-year expiration date, and the problems presented by the difficult terrain of the Thompson Divide, Shoemaker said it may not be hard to convince companies to go along with the TDC’s agenda.

Some at the meeting wondered about the possibility of getting U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, a former U.S. Senator from Colorado, to work a trade with the gas companies, taking back the Thompson Divide leases in exchange for leases elsewhere in the west.

No, said TDC steering committee chair Jock Jacober, “We’re trying to avoid … moving this problem into somebody else’s neighborhood.”

A key concern is the impact of gas development on the historic ranching and agricultural operations that depend on the federal land for summer grazing.

Rancher Bill Fales, a member of the TDC steering committee, told of one rancher who reported losing 10 percent of his herd during the time that the Bull Mountain Pipeline was being installed through the same general terrain as is now being eyed for drilling.

“If we have that amount of traffic up there,” said Fales, “It’ll decimate our grazing permits. It scares the living hell out of us.”

Local resident Judy Fox-Perry, described as the “grass-roots organizer” for TDC, tossed out a number of ways that local citizens can get involved in the TDC’s work, including mention of a fact sheet and sample letter to help voters write to their elected representatives.

“The kitchen table letter is one of the most powerful pieces of democracy,” Fox-Perry said.

“What about picketing?” asked a young woman at the back of the audience. She and another woman offered to help any who wanted to with the task of painting up signs to carry on a shoulder in a picket line, and got a warm reception from many in the audience.

As the meeting broke up, Fox-Perry said that anyone seeking more information about the group or its work should check out the website, http://www.savethompsondivide.org or call about volunteering, holding a meeting at which a TDC member could speak, and other ways to help.

“You’re the taproot that’s going to create all these connections,” she intoned.

jcolson@postindependent.com