Paul Andersen: Fair Game | AspenTimes.com

Paul Andersen: Fair Game

Paul Andersen
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

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The price of success in land conservation is vigilance. Fight the good fight with stamina and passion, and you’ll often outlast development interests. Keep up the momentum of local stewardship so that the resource imperialists will be hard pressed to get a foot in the door. Make enough uproar to let the drillers, miners and loggers know they can expect a fight.

In some places, citizen-advocacy groups recognize this combative spirit through a continuum of generations. Crested Butte is such a place. The battle for preservation of Red Lady Bowl against the repeated incursions of mining interests has been ongoing for 35 years – and still no mine has been opened.

Crested Butte and its activist arm, the High Country Citizens Alliance, now have a plan to retire forever the threat of industrial mining through land swaps and the buyout of mining claims. The willingness of the current mine owners to negotiate is the result of constant pressure to stop them. The town has proven intractable, so the mining company is ready to compromise.

Thompson Divide outside Carbondale is establishing a similar case history. The outpouring of community spirit for this place and the resulting ferocity of the community’s protective will have combined into a resilient front before energy and exploration companies.

Consider Willsource Enterprises’ efforts to develop oil and gas production in the Willow Creek Unit in the upper reaches of the Divide Creek drainage. The Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop joined with Earthjustice and three other groups protesting on the grounds that Willsource leases had expired.

The Bureau of Land Management recognized its mistake but failed to reduce the unit to a small parcel around the original test well. When Willsource applied for three permits to drill in the unit earlier this year, Wilderness Workshop staff attorney Peter Hart’s meticulous research revealed that the claims were no longer valid and that the company had lost its right to drill.

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“Dogged detective work by Peter Hart saved 6,500 acres in the Thompson Divide from drilling,” cheered Wilderness Workshop last week. “The Willow Creek Unit has become a poster child for the BLM’s lax enforcement of its own rules.”

Wilderness Workshop charged that the BLM had previously rubber-stamped five consecutive annual extension requests. When a sixth rubber stamp was about to extend the leases, the joint protest prevailed. The BLM was again forced to deny the Willsource applications. The agency did the right thing but only because of Hart’s scrutiny of its flawed process.

Willsource permits have now been reduced to 440 acres with a one-year deadline to drill the only lease that hasn’t yet expired. This has saved 6,500 acres, of which 4,100 acres lie within roadless areas, a major victory for the Wilderness Workshop and for all who value these wild lands.

“This is how the Thompson Divide is going to be saved: One piece at a time,” Wilderness Workshop stated. “Removing the threat of drilling from an area when so much of it has already been leased is an enormously complex and nuanced task, requiring multiple strategies. One of them is good old-fashioned vigilance.”

On Thursday, an Aspen Times headline sent an aftershock through the conservation community with the announcement that SG Interests, an energy and exploration company from Houston, is applying for drilling permits on the thousands of acres it holds on Thompson Divide.

The Times also reported that Encana, another large oil and gas developer with leases in Thompson Divide, is preparing to file notice for one or two well pads. Vigilance is again in need to stave off these threats.

What’s being labeled as a “showdown” between energy companies and the grassroots Thompson Divide Coalition is brewing. This showdown will eventually weigh the company’s rights to drill against the community’s rights to protect its environmental health, social stability and economic vitality – along with its very autonomy.

People who have the good fortune and good sense to live in communities adjacent to wild and beautiful places are left with the responsibility not only to enjoy them but to protect them. Such is a community’s lifelong mission when stewarding national treasures that are valued as a heritage from the past and an inheritance for the future.