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Thompson Divide gets 20-year protection from new oil and gas leasing

Amy Hadden Marsh

Click here for Part One 

In April 2024, U.S Interior Secretary Deb Haalandofficially withdrew almost 222,000 acres of federal land on the Thompson Divide in western Colorado from new mineral extraction and geothermal leases for the next two decades. This victory was a long time coming, and involved people from all walks of life working together.

“In talking to people, I kept finding different ways that people were saying the very same thing: We’re blessed with an environment that adds to the health of our lifestyle,” said Dorothea Farris, local activist and former Pitkin County Commissioner, about the beginnings of her work to protect the Thompson Divide. Farris lives in Colorado’s Crystal River Valley. She was a founding member of the Thompson Divide Coalition, which came together in 2009 to figure out how to defend the Divide come hell or high water. “And we have a responsibility there that we are not taking…of keeping it clean, keeping the air, the water, the people responsible for what they’ve been blessed with.”

She told KDNK that the coalition started off as a disparate group of 10 or 15 locals having a conversation about the Thompson Divide. “We cannot allow the continuation of the extraction of minerals from a place that needs to be protected,” she explained. “We need to adjust what we need and how we look at things and how we do things, and make sure we can use the land without destroying the land and do it properly.”

Carbondale-area ranchers, such as Bill Fales, John Nieslanik and Marty Nieslanik, took part in those early conversations and, later, attended community rallies and events. All of them run cows in the Thompson Divide and depend on the land for their livelihoods.

At an event to raise awareness about protecting the Divide, Fales called the plan to drill for natural gas “ludicrous”. Marty Nieslanik agreed. “We don’t need to drill anymore up here, especially in our end of the county,” he said. “They screwed up the lower end so bad that we don’t want to deal with them. So I don’t know how we can stop ‘em but we gotta try.”

In 2013, U.S. Senator Michael Bennet introduced the Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act. The following year, the White River National Forest revised an oil and gas leasing plan, and ended up closing about 200,000 acres of forest service land on the Divide to new natural gas leasing for 20 years.

In the summer of 2015, Wilderness Workshop, a local public lands watchdog group heavily involved in protecting the area, hosted a campout near a natural gas well pad on the Thompson Divide owned by SG Interests that wasn’t included in the 2014 closure. The event drew close to 30 people committed to keeping oil and gas drilling out of the Divide. “It’s our watershed,” said Carbondale resident Felicia Trevor. “It’s our lifeline for our cattle, for our food, for watering our crops, for our drinking water and for our livelihoods.”

This was about two years into a Bureau of Land Management review and legal struggle over 65 natural gas leases within the Thompson Divide that were issued without proper environmental analysis. The same groups, fresh from the Forest Service victory, were pushing the BLM to void the leases. Their tenacity paid off.

In 2016, the BLM canceled 25 of those leases. Three years later, Senator Bennet and Congressman Joe Neguse introduced theColorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act that will permanently protect the Thompson Divide…if and when it passes both the US House and Senate.

The bill is winding its way through Congress, said Peter Hart, Wilderness Workshop legal director, but not as fast as many would like. “These things take time. That’s the lesson here,” he explained. “Part of the reason and justification for this administrative withdrawal is that this provides the interim protection necessary so that we can continue to advocate for and work on permanent protection.”

Dorothea Farris adds that the success so far is a testament to what people with different viewpoints can accomplish when focused on a common goal. “It worked because we really all believed in a different way of how it should be done,” she said. “But we knew we had to come to agreement to make it work.”

Copyright 2024 KDNK

Amy Hadden Marsh