Looking down over the dense forests on the remote western edge of Pitkin County, Peter Aengst saw a landscape he feared could be threatened by the spread of oil and gas wells from nearby Garfield County — or one that could be kept off-limits to gas rigs forever.
Only a handful of wells have been drilled there, but 81 leases have been claimed by about 15 gas companies. Those leases “sit on the landscape like a ticking time bomb,” said Aengst, deputy director of The Wilderness Society in its Northern Rockies office in Bozeman, Mont. That includes a lease under the Sunlight Mountain Resort ski area.
A broad coalition of ranchers, landowners and conservationists has formed to try to block gas drilling in the area, due to the role it plays for cattle grazing, wildlife migration, recreation and scenic beauty. They’re hoping for some kind of protections — from the stroke of a pen in the Glenwood Springs office of the White River National Forest to a congressional mandate — that would keep drill rigs out of there for good.
“I would like to see those leases go away,” said Dorothea Farris, a former Pitkin County commissioner who lives on Prince Creek, at the foot of the Thompson Creek area the coalition is worried about. “To me that’s the only protection that it’s not going to be developed.”
The Thompson Divide Coalition formed last fall as diverse interests, brought to the table by the Carbondale-based conservation group Wilderness Workshop, began to look for a way to protect the area from gas drilling. About 20 people have formed the group, representing diverse organizations, including the North Thompson Cattlemen’s Association, Trout Unlimited and the Mount Sopris Nordic Council.
“All of these people have a different focus,” Farris said. “What’s most important to me is protecting an area that I think is too special to be developed.”
Pitkin County has mostly avoided the natural gas boom that has swept across Garfield County, but it may not be immune. About half this rugged landscape where the county meets Garfield, Mesa, Gunnison and Delta counties has been leased and could be drilled.
It sits on the fringe of the gas-rich Piceance Basin, which was one of the hottest drilling spots in the nation before slumping energy prices prompted energy companies to lay down their rigs. Unlike the heart of the Piceance Basin, though, gas reserves in this area are considered slim.
At issue are some 220,000 acres of rugged country, including old-growth spruce and fir forests, part of the largest aspen forest in the country and a vast roadless area that environmentalists believe should never have been leased for drilling.
Conservationists hope the combination of limited gas reserves in rugged terrain may make it less controversial than other areas where industry and environmentalism have gone head-to-head. But they worry that if they do nothing, the region will always be threatened, especially if rising gas prices make drilling marginal areas more cost-effective.
“It’s at risk as long as those leases are there,” said Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Wilderness Workshop.
The protections the coalition is looking for wouldn’t be the first. Montana has seen a portion of its Rocky Mountain Front kept off-limits. A portion of the Wyoming Range was set aside by the recent omnibus public lands bill. New Mexico’s Valle Vidal has been kept rig-free.
Conservationists would like to see similar protections for the Thompson-Divide region, barring future gas leases and giving conservationists leverage to ask energy companies to sell or swap existing leases.
Shoemaker said he’d like to see action in the current Congress, but protections could also come locally.
While the land may be marginal for gas production, conservationists say it plays a key role for wildlife. Seen from above, the remote terrain reveals a wild corridor that connects the Colorado River valley to the Crystal. Aspen stands give way to spruce and fir that spread like a carpet over jagged ridges.
“This is the only forested landscape that keeps these lands connected to the main stem of the Rockies,” Shoemaker said, looking down over the area from the seat of a plane flown by EcoFlight, the Aspen nonprofit that advocates for wilderness protection from the air.
The group is coming forward at an unusual time. Lower gas prices have taken off the pressure of oil and gas development. But members say this is a key time to act. With some leases set to expire in the next few years, they say they want to protect the lands before the pressure builds again.
“Some places are too special to touch,” Farris said, “and I think this is one of them.”