Guest commentary: Rep. Scott Tipton needs to be more invested in Thompson Divide

George Newman and Tony Prendergast
Guest commentary

A couple of weeks ago, we had the pleasure of attending a gathering of communities from both sides of McClure Pass in a show of unity for protecting our shared public lands from disruptive new oil and gas development.

The second annual “Stand at the Summit” — hosted by Wilderness Workshop and Thompson Divide Coalition of Carbondale, Western Slope Conservation Center of Paonia, and High Country Conservation Advocates of Crested Butte — brought together more than 65 residents and several local and federal elected officials representatives.

It was an effort to permanently stop new oil and gas leasing in Thompson Divide, as well as to protect the integrity of the roadless areas contained within it, including the Huntsman Roadless Area near the top of McClure Pass.

Stretching across five counties and 12 National Forest roadless areas within the White River, Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison national forests, Thompson Divide is a pivotal landscape for nearby ranching and farming communities that rely heavily on its clean air and water and unfragmented habitat for their livelihoods.

Recreationists of all types, too, flock to all reaches of this massive landscape to enjoy its award-winning hunting and angling opportunities, hikes with stunning vistas, rock climbing, snowmobiling and backcountry skiing, among others. Our local communities see many direct economic benefits by these users.

The Huntsman Roadless Area stands out as an example of ecological importance among its roadless counterparts in the Divide, providing calving areas and summer/winter range for elk, black bear, mountain lion, mule deer, turkey and moose. It also supports habitat for lynx, Colorado River cutthroat trout, the northern goshawk, flammulated owl, purple martin and American marten.

It’s also a source of municipal water, and is depended upon by folks downstream for clean drinking water and water for agriculture and irrigation.

Communities on both sides of McClure Pass have worked together for more than a decade to protect this economically important, shared landscape from oil and gas development. Though years of engagement, advocacy and compromise across a broad-spectrum of diverse stakeholders has led to lease cancellations in the Divide, with compensation to those lease holders, the area is still not permanently protected from future oil and gas development.

The only way to ensure permanence is to pass federal legislation that removes the threat of future leasing — an effort that has been championed by several of our federal elected officials over the years, most recently through Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Joe Neguse’s Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act.

As a rancher from the North Fork Valley and a Pitkin County commissioner who represents the Crystal River Valley, we were excited to join so many of our friends and neighbors from both sides of the pass in an expression of gratitude for those who are working to protect the Divide, as well as disappointment for those few who continue to stand in the way.

Though we commend Congressman Scott Tipton for having a staff member present at the event to listen to his constituents’ pleas for support, listening is not enough.

Our message has been loud, clear and consistent for years — so loud, in fact, that we’ve captivated the support of people throughout the region for protecting the Divide. And yet, Rep. Scott Tipton continues to oppose permanent protection for Thompson Divide, making no mention of it in his own public lands bill, which is focused on the 3rd District, and also coincidentally supports a permanent withdrawal from future leasing in the San Juans.

Rep. Tipton, protecting the Thompson Divide is not a partisan issue, it’s an economic, social and environmental issue. Your constituents, including all the county commissioners and municipal governments on both sides of the Divide, who are impacted by decisions made for the Divide, agree that this unique landscape should be permanently protected.

We ask you once again to join us and your colleagues in Congress as a champion for this broadly supported local cause.

As former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said in regards to the Thompson Divide: “You can’t do oil and gas development everywhere. There are some places that should be off limits.”

George Newman is a Pitkin County commissioner and Tony Prendergast is a rancher in the North Fork Valley based in Crawford.