Guest column: Protecting Thompson Divide for future generations | AspenTimes.com

Guest column: Protecting Thompson Divide for future generations

Jason Sewell
Guest Column

I am a father, a husband and a rancher. I am more comfortable on my snowmobile than sitting in a boardroom any day of the week. I don't much care for politics, but I am compelled to share the following story in response to a recent statement by Congressman Scott Tipton.

My story begins April 26, 1893, when President Grover Cleveland signed a homestead patent conveying 161 acres of farmland on the banks of the Crystal River to my great-great-grandfather, Miron P. Thompson. That piece of tattered paper formed the foundation of my family's farming and ranching history in an area that now bears my family name: Colorado's Thompson Divide.

For five generations, my family has invested — physically, financially and emotionally — in the future of this landscape. We've made these investments for our children in hopes of providing them with what they'll need to press on after we're gone.

But it's not just us. Many other families depend on these lands to put food on the table — directly or indirectly. Outfitting, ranching and recreation in the Divide support hundreds of jobs and some $30 million in annual economic benefits, according to independent economists.

Unfortunately, out-of-state interests threaten to jeopardize my family's investments and the viability of our operations going forward. Houston-based oil and gas speculators have acquired large swaths of public lands in Thompson Divide for bottom-dollar prices — $2 per acre for the majority of leases in the area.

The threat of development in Thompson Divide has galvanized our community in unprecedented ways. Snowmobilers and environmentalists, ranchers and mountain bikers, Republicans and Democrats have come together to ask our representatives for help.

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These strange bedfellows have earned the support of bipartisan town councils throughout the region, and all three affected counties: Garfield, Gunnison and Pitkin. Local governments have joined the chorus of stakeholders asking for a legislative solution to protect Thompson Divide for future generations of ranchers, hunters and snowmobilers. Hell, even oil-and-gas industry members have signed on in support of permanent protections for the area.

For nearly a decade now, our coalition has worked to find practical solutions that would protect Thompson Divide while making leaseholders whole on their modest mineral investments. We've focused unremittingly on the middle ground. We've pursued solutions that would avoid the long, drawn-out legal battles that have become so pervasive in today's American West.

We have offered market-based solutions that would avoid the need for Bureau of Land Management lease cancellation. We've worked to forge a path that would not require our members of Congress to choose sides. And we've only asked for one thing in return: the assurance that our children would not have to go through this again.

Sadly, the political contributions of a few appear to have outweighed my family's generational investments in this landscape. Tipton has chosen a side. He's chosen Texas speculators over his own constituents.

In a recent editorial, Tipton stated that he would not support "legislation that permanently withdraws federal land from future natural-resource development inside or outside of Thompson Divide."

Tipton's position is disheartening, yes, and we hope he changes his mind. But it is not the end of this story.

The U.S. Forest Service recently moved to temporarily protect the majority of Thompson Divide from future leasing. Its decision specifically noted the near-unanimous public and local government support for protecting this area. Now it's up to us to ensure that the Bureau of Land Management exercises its legal authority to cancel undeveloped, improperly issued leases in the heart of the Divide.

In the absence of a legislative solution, we will press on. We will re-examine our administrative options. We will petition our government for lease cancellation and we will consider permanent, executive solutions that can provide our children with the assurances they deserve.

Jason Sewell is board president of the Thompson Divide Coalition.