Thompson Divide stance looms large in 3rd CD race

John Stroud
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
Scott Tipton

A recurring argument in former state Sen. Gail Schwartz’s campaign to unseat three-term incumbent Republican Scott Tipton in the 3rd Congressional District race is her opinion that Tipton turns a deaf ear to the desires of certain constituents.

It’s something she says has rung true on a variety of issues, from “finger-pointing” and attempting to lay blame for job losses in the coal mining industry instead of working to rebuild the affected communities to, as she frames it, pulling the plug on funding that could help Silverton and the Animas Valley deal with the Gold King Mine spill.

In the Roaring Fork and Crystal river valleys, Schwartz says Tipton also didn’t listen when a coalition of ranchers, recreation groups, back country outfitters and conservationists banded together to seek protection against oil and gas drilling on federal lands in the Thompson Divide region.

“These watersheds are so critical to their livelihood, and we have to protect them,” said Schwartz, a Democrat from Crested Butte who used to live in Snowmass Village when she represented Senate District 5 in the Colorado Legislature from 2007 to 2015.

“I get that this (energy) resource is also there, but we don’t need to undermine our outdoor recreation economy or our agriculture by threatening our watersheds and our water quality,” she said of her support for canceling gas leases in the area immediately west of Carbondale, as the U.S. Bureau of Land Management now plans to do.

Before Tipton defeated former 3rd District Congressman John Salazar in 2010, the Thompson Divide Coalition had been working with Salazar on legislation aimed at buying out the undeveloped leases that were set to expire and withdrawing the area from future leasing.

Tipton was reluctant to continue on that track and has been opposed to the notion of permanent withdrawal, arguing that the resource should not be locked up in perpetuity.

He counters that he did hear out ranchers and others who have wanted to prevent drilling in the Thompson Divide area. But the companies that invested in those leases also have certain rights, he has maintained.

“My approach was to come up with something we thought to be solutions-oriented,” Tipton said of a lease exchange proposed by the leaseholders, where they would give up the two dozen or so leases in the Divide area in exchange for new leases in Delta, Mesa and other nearby counties.

“If we start canceling contracts, that creates some challenges,” Tipton said. “And the one sticking point for me is ‘in perpetuity.’”

On the other hand, he said he was listening to constituents in Mesa and other parts of the 3rd District that welcome energy development on federal lands within their counties.

“They’d be happy to have some of those swapped leases, and would like to be able to see it take place there,” Tipton said.

Tipton was criticized when he put forward a lease-swap bill, the language of which was lifted verbatim from the proposal put forth by the affected energy companies.

Schwartz said the lease swap would have merely transferred the same concerns to another watershed that also deserves protection.

“You have people on the other side of the hill saying, ‘don’t make your problem our problem,’” she said of residents in the North Fork Valley who also oppose drilling in certain sensitive areas.

Schwartz noted that the North Fork Valley is home to some 80 organic farms that also stand to be impacted.

When it comes to energy leasing policy on federal lands, a variety of factors need to be considered, from existing use of those lands to wildlife impacts and other environmental factors, she said.

“We need to identify areas of critical habitat and contiguous landscapes that are important for migration,” Schwartz said. “We cannot have these areas fragmented with oil and gas activity.”

There’s also an achievable balance that includes oil and gas development and other mineral extraction where appropriate, she said.

“There should be special places,” Schwartz said in reference to places like Thompson Divide. “We need balanced use of our public lands, and that includes recreation, oil and gas and mineral development, and agriculture.

“And we have to have a balanced conversation about that,” she said.

Tipton said the Bureau of Land Management’s own policy of “land of many uses” already recognizes that approach.

“There are a variety of different opportunities in order to be able to use the public lands, and that is central part of the mission of the BLM,” he said.

“Sure, you want to be respectful of the areas, but you also want to make sure that what we’re doing in the use of those lands can put people to work in our part of the country,” Tipton said.

Mineral leasing is just one part of his own position on energy policy, as stated in his proposed Planning for America’s Energy Future Act, or “all of the above” as Tipton often refers to it.

That includes finding ways to further renewable energy options such as wind, solar, hydroelectric and geothermal alongside advances in fossil fuels technology, he said.