Commentary

Thompson Divide protections are just as significant as Camp Hale designation

New oil and gas leases would be blocked in a region that constitutes one of the largest expanses of roadless forests in Colorado

October 31, 2022 3:30 am

An aerial view of Assignation Ridge in the Thompson Divide area of Colorado. (Courtesy of EcoFlight)

On Oct. 12, Coloradans were given a reason to celebrate: President Joe Biden designated the Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument in Colorado. That same morning, before Air Force One touched down in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, the Department of the Interior received a proposal for a 20-year administrative mineral withdrawal for the Thompson Divide area. If approved, the withdrawal would conserve nearly 225,000 acres in Western Colorado for 20 years by prohibiting new mining and oil and gas drilling projects.

The Thompson Divide is a mid-elevation landscape of old growth spruce-fir forests, massive aspen groves and pristine habitat. Combined with the surrounding public lands, the Thompson Divide constitutes one of the largest expanses of unfragmented, roadless forests in Colorado. The area is a reservoir for large mammals, such as black bears, mule deer and elk, which thrive in expansive habitats. The streams and rivers of the Thompson Divide sustain world-class trout fisheries.

Named a “crown jewel” by U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper of Colorado and “great, wild country” by former President Theodore Roosevelt, the Thompson Divide is more than just wildlife habitat. Anglers come to fish and outdoor enthusiasts come to bike, hike and cross country ski. Each year, Colorado Parks and Wilderness sells 20,000 regional big game licenses to hunters. These visitors stay in hotels and patronize bait shops, grocery stores and restaurants in the nearby towns of Carbondale and Glenwood Springs. Ranchers, some of whom descended from the area’s namesake, Myron Thompson, graze their cattle in the Thompson Divide’s abundant grasses and shrubs, then sell high quality, grass-fed beef throughout the Western Slope and Front Range.

The Thompson Divide is the economic, recreational and ecological soul of the region. Yet, in the 2000s, the Thompson Divide was riddled with new leases for oil and gas extraction. Locals feared a future in which short-term extraction would strip the landscape of large forests, big game and clean streams. One study found that a community near an oil and gas development north of the Thompson Divide had elevated levels of toxic chemicals in the air and benzene (a known carcinogen) leaks in residential water wells.

The Thompson Divide is the economic, recreational and ecological soul of the region. Yet, in the 2000s, the Thompson Divide was riddled with new leases for oil and gas extraction.

An enormous amount of effort and infrastructure is required to develop land leased for oil and gas extraction: tearing down forests to build roads, importing heavy machinery and initiating a steady stream of trucks to carry in millions of gallons of water and fracking fluid. All of these activities present an existential threat to the natural characteristics that make the Thompson Divide special.

To protect the Thompson Divide from oil and gas, ranchers, farmers, hunters, anglers, outdoor recreationists, businesspeople and community leaders banded together. This grassroots coalition succeeded in drawing attention to the threats oil and gas extraction posed to the area. Lease after lease was revoked after the Bureau of Land Management revealed that it hadn’t done the requisite environmental impact analyses.

By 2017, the Thompson Divide was no longer in imminent peril. However, because the Thompson Divide sits atop pockets of natural gas it has retained the attention of oil and gas proponents — including the Colorado Oil and Gas Association — who are resistant to prohibiting drilling there. That’s one of the reasons this region hasn’t received permanent protection.

State leaders, such as Democrats U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, have attempted to permanently protect the area by passing the Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act, which was later incorporated into the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy — or CORE — Act. Unfortunately, the CORE Act has not yet passed, leaving the Thompson Divide vulnerable to future oil and gas extraction.

That is, until the CORE Act’s champions, including Bennet, Hickenlooper, Neguse and Gov. Jared Polis, urged the Biden administration to advance needed protections for some areas included in the bill. The designation of the Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument is monumental. The proposed 20-year mineral withdrawal from the Thompson Divide is no less significant.

The proposal doesn’t have the permanence that passing the CORE Act would, but it does offer a temporary solution. Through a public comment period and an upcoming environmental impact analysis, the Biden administration will determine whether the 20-year mineral withdrawal proposal should be accepted. At the end of the day, the future of the Thompson Divide should be determined by local communities that rely on it for their livelihoods — not the bottom line of oil and gas companies.

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Sammy Herdman
Sammy Herdman

Sammy Herdman lives in Denver and takes full advantage of everything the outdoor industry has to offer. As a campaign associate for Environment Colorado, Herdman works to protect Colorado's resources for future generations.

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