For years, the nonprofit, EcoFlight, has been flying politicians, journalists and concerned citizens over a pristine corridor outside of Carbondale that’s being eyed by oil and gas companies for drilling. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has released a plan for the area that has both industry and environmental groups wanting more. Aspen Public Radio’s Elizabeth Stewart-Severy recently flew over the Thompson Divide and has this report.
It’s difficult to see much of the White River National Forest from roads — and that’s intentional. There are few of them cutting through a narrow corridor of land in the Thompson Divide from Carbondale to Battlement Mesa. Groups like Wilderness Workshop, Trout Unlimited and EcoFlight want to keep it this way, but oil companies say this area has great potential for energy development.
From above, you can see a stretch of pristine forest, including the northern end of an enormous aspen grove that stretches all the way from Kebler Pass. The perimeter, especially toward Battlement Mesa, is dotted with existing oil and gas well pads. Environmental and sportsmen's groups want this landscape preserved.
“There’s a large black bear population, a moose population that’s increased significantly over the past few years,” said Kara Armano, who works with Trout Unlimited, a group that represents anglers and hunters. “It’s a very popular hunting area in Colorado that brings in quite a lot of money for the area. So, from a sportsman perspective, this area is extremely important to keep protected, pristine and connected.”
Armano is among those who applaud the BLM for canceling 25 leases in the Thompson Divide and advocate for stronger stipulations elsewhere in the area.
A top priority for Armano and other sportsmen is protecting the population of Colorado cut-throat trout, a native species that thrives in the high-alpine rivers and streams of this area. Armano is also quick to point out that this part of the White River National Forest is also prime hunting territory, where 30,000 big game licenses are issued every year.
This current plan within BLM’s environmental impact statement is somewhat unique in that it considers 65 existing oil and gas leases that were issued in the 1990s and early 2000s. This type of retroactive consideration of environmental impacts can be contentious.
David Boyd is with the BLM. He said the plan is a compromise between environmental and industry interests but acknowledges that this is likely to be a long process.
“We really think it’s a good compromise, but it’s very typical in our decisions that we reach a compromise and a balance, and it’s very typical that the various sides aren’t completely happy with the arguments we make,” Boyd said.
Industry representatives said that’s an understatement. David Ludlam of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association calls the decision a capricious and disturbing breach of contract.
“That’s the heart of the matter for us,” Ludlam said. “It’s completely arbitrary and subjective and it makes no sense at all outside the lens of just sheer politics.”
Ludlam said the retroactive stipulations and cancellations of leases ignores the potential for producing an important resource. Companies that own leases but have not yet developed wells could lose a lot of profit, according to Ludlam, despite compensation from the BLM. His and other industry organizations said they will continue to push the BLM to allow development, especially following a U.S. Geological Survey report that ranked the Mancos shale formation as having high potential for development.
Environmentalists said their work isn’t done, either, though the BLM is on the right track.
“BLM’s really good decision to cancel 25 leases in the Thompson Divide could be really well complemented by protecting those additional 27 leases,” said Will Roush, conservation director with Wilderness Workshop. “The boundary between those leases is apparent when you look at a lease map, but it’s not apparent to an elk; it’s not apparent to a stream; it’s not apparent to the air that moves between the two. Our perspective is that it’s not enough to just protect the Thompson Divide. We want to make sure that the protection is landscape-wide and really grounded in ecology.”
A final record of decision by the BLM is expected in the late fall, and administrative or legal battles are likely to follow.