The Thompson Divide area contributes $30 million dollars a year to the local economy and supports 294 Colorado jobs through recreation, hunting, grazing activity and fishing, according to a study released Wednesday by the Thompson Divide Coalition.
The study, which was performed by Denver-based BBC Research and Consulting, attempts to quantify the positive direct and indirect impacts that activity in the Thompson Divide has on local economies, said Zane Kessler, executive director of the Thompson Divide Coalition. The organization, which funded the study, is a nonprofit made up of a diverse group of drilling opponents.
The Thompson Divide includes 221,500 acres of federal land running from the Sunlight Ski Area to McClure Pass crossing Pitkin, Gunnison, Garfield, Mesa and Delta counties. Oil and gas companies hold 61 undeveloped mineral rights leases in the area. Six lease holders declined an offer from the coalition to buy back leases for $2.5 million.
There are four big-game populations people can hunt in the Thompson Divide. The state allows for hunters to spend 6,000 days hunting deer, 18,000 days hunting elk and 50 days hunting other big-game animals like bears and mountain lions in the area, the study reports, based on information from the Colorado Department of Wildlife (CDOW). A “day” is one hunter spending one day in the field, and is a similar to the “skier days” statistic used by resorts. From that information and other CDOW reports, the study says the hunting brings $6.8 million to the community and about 72 jobs.
Based on county data and interviews with local fishing outlets, the study also estimates there are between 10,000 and 12,000 fishing days annually on the area’s waterways, including the Crystal River, which borders the Thompson Divide. That activity adds $1.5 million to local economies and about 20 jobs.
Those numbers are a fraction of the hunting and fishing economy in the larger five-county region, which amounts to a total economic impact of $256 million and 2,630 jobs, according to a BBC Research and Consulting study performed in 2008.
The study estimates that cattle sales in the Thompson Divide area total about $1.8 million annually and result in up to $11.2 million in indirect spending, while recreational use of the Thompson Divide supports 138 jobs and generates $12.6 million, based on visitation data from the U.S. Forest Service and the BLM, the study says.
Those numbers are conservative estimates and defensible, said Ford Frick, a researcher at BBC. There are other benefits of preserving the Thompson Divide, which are not as easy to quantify, he said. For example, nearby properties are likely more valuable without the gas industry in their backyard. The unspoiled land also increases tourism, preserves regional drinking water supplies and promotes wildlife habitat.
Runoff from the Thompson Divide provides a significant portion of the water supply in the Paonia Reservoir, which is used to irrigate about 8,000 acres of cropland.
Frick doesn’t think representatives from the oil and gas industry would take great exception to the study, he said.
“I just have no problem saying these numbers are fair, responsible and conservative,” Frick said.
In February, two oil and gas companies — SG Interests and Ursa Piceance, LLC — filed separate requests with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for more time to develop natural gas wells in the area. Both companies own leases that are due to expire this spring.
Ursa Piceance and other lease holders in the Thompson Divide have recently met with the coalition to discuss potential negotiations, Kessler said, declining to offer further detail. SG Interests has not been to the table since the coalition’s original offer was rejected, he said.
The coalition’s plan is to make sure supporters, elected officials and the general public see the study so that they are informed, Kessler said.