Thompson Divide Coalition pens draft bill | AspenTimes.com

Thompson Divide Coalition pens draft bill

John Stroud
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

CARBONDALE – A grassroots group working to prevent natural gas development west of Carbondale could have legislation aimed at halting new gas leases in the area before Congress as soon as this summer.

A draft bill that would withdraw federally owned lands within the 221,500-acre Thompson Divide area from new mineral leasing was the main topic of discussion at a “roundtable” work session organized by the Thompson Divide Coalition (TDC) Friday at Carbondale Town Hall.

The bill would also set up a process for existing leases to be acquired from willing lease holders, either by voluntary donation, purchase, exchange or retirement of leases.

The proposed legislation would protect the rights of current lease holders, TDC President Jock Jacober said. But it’s main intent is to ensure that the area ultimately is not developed for natural gas extraction.

“We have some opportunities to work with these lease holders on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “But we need to get this bill to our congressional delegation as soon as possible.”

The TDC, which is made up of local ranchers, conservation groups and hunting and recreation interests, with support from local governments, was founded in 2008 to protect the federal lands in the Thompson Divide area from oil and gas development.

Recommended Stories For You

The area includes the watershed of Thompson Creek, Four Mile Creek, Three Mile Creek, as well as portions of Muddy Basin, Coal Basin and the headwaters of East Divide Creek, spanning portions of Garfield, Gunnison, Pitkin, Mesa and Delta counties.

There are 81 leases currently in the area, most of which were issued by the Bureau of Land Management at competitive auctions within the last 10 years. However, several have existed for several decades and are not considered active leases.

“Our goal is to keep this area like it is, and not shut it down to the uses that are currently up there,” TDC board member Judy Fox-Perry said.

In addition to the area being a critical source of water for domestic use and irrigation, it is also important for open space and wildlife habitat, hunting and recreation, and ranching, she said.

While the draft bill is a huge step forward, several people who attended the Friday work session advised that the group do some more legwork first.

Specifically, that means lining up support from lease holders and industry representatives first, they said.

“Whoever the sponsor is will need to have all the answers and all the details hammered down before this is introduced,” Garfield County Commission Chairman John Martin said. “I think you have a lot of work to do here, if you’re going to make this go forward.”

Pitkin County Commissioner Rachel Richards agreed that, to introduce a bill without first getting some level of buy-in from industry representatives, could result in blanket opposition as soon as the bill is introduced.

“You have to appeal to people on the values that appeal to them,” she said. “You don’t win these things by being more right about something, but by satisfying the needs of your partners.”

The effort to withdraw federal lands from future leasing is not unprecedented. Similar efforts have been successful in Wyoming, Montana and New Mexico.

Gary Amerine, a hunting outfitter who helped found the citizens and sportsman’s group that spearheaded a successful effort to remove about 1.2 million acres of the Wyoming Range from new leasing, attended Friday’s TDC meeting.

“We had a lot of broad-based support and very little opposition from the energy industry,” he said.

Bringing diverse groups of people with different interests together made the difference.

“If it had just been the citizen’s groups and the environmental groups, it wouldn’t have happened,” he said.

Garfield County Commissioner Tresi Houpt, who is also a member of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said the draft bill seems to protect the interest of lease holders while forwarding the goals of the TDC.

“You do have to make sure you’re bringing value for everyone to the table, and explain why it makes sense for all the partners involved,” she said. “I am impressed with the approach this group has taken.

“It will be hard to gain everyone’s support, and I would rather see a broader spectrum of participants,” Houpt added. “But it would be defeating to wait for everyone to sign on before you bring the bill forward.”

jstroud@postindependent.com