Divide

The vast Thompson Divide region has been the subject of a decade-plus push by conservationists and local governments seeking to protect it from any future oil and gas development.

Conservation groups and local municipalities found themselves surprised and disappointed last week when 3rd District U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, unveiled a draft of his proposed Colorado Recreation Enhancement and Conservation Act that didn’t include any protection for the Thompson Divide area southwest of Carbondale. 

The divide was purposely excluded from the REC Act draft, but that doesn’t mean it won’t ultimately become part of the completed bill, his communications director said.

The vast Thompson Divide region — which sits in Pitkin, Garfield and Gunnison counties — has been the subject of a decade-plus push by conservationists and local governments seeking to protect it from any future oil and gas development. To date, the effort, spearheaded by the Thompson Divide Coalition, has succeeded in securing a 20-year moratorium, starting in 2016, on oil and gas development in the White River National Forest section of the divide.

That portion, however, represents just a small part of the overall area, so the coalition and other invested parties were pleased last January when U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, both Democrats, unveiled the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act, or CORE, which included the Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act. That measure would permanently withdraw 200,000 acres of the divide from future oil and gas development while preserving property rights for leaseholders and landowners and allowing existing recreational and agricultural uses to continue.

The CORE Act and, in particular, the Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act part of the proposed bill, received broad support from most of the parties seeking to protect the divide. So it was understandably confusing for those parties when Tipton — whose district covers the Western Slope — unveiled the REC Act with no mention of the area.

The reason why, according to Tipton’s office, is that Garfield County commissioners, alone among local municipalities, had not voiced support for the CORE Act when Tipton began work on the REC Act.

At issue for the commissioners, initially, was the lack of language in the CORE Act regarding capturing methane escaping from defunct coal mines in the Garfield and Pitkin portions of the divide. But when Bennet and Neguse agreed to include methane capture as part of an amended Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act, the commissioners decided to support only that part of the CORE Act and said so in a letter dated July 23 addressed to Bennet and other federal representatives. 

According to Garfield County Commissioner John Martin, the letter was merely reiterating what he saw as unwavering support among the commissioners for protecting the divide.

“The language on Thompson Divide has never changed since the very beginning,” Martin said. “It is still the same. We still support it as it is. That’s within the Thompson Divide. We say we have no objections to that language, trying to keep it out of the political arena. We also say we support the methane capture because we were the ones that suggested we need to do something instead of venting it out into the atmosphere. So we support that language.

“As far as the CORE Act, we don’t support it. We support the language within the Thompson Divide section,” he added.

By the time the July 24 letter was sent, however, it was already too late to amend Tipton’s initial draft of the REC Act, which is why the Thompson Divide was left out. There are still other issues relating to the divide to be worked out, according to Tipton’s office, but the support of Garfield County commissioners could lead to changes to subsequent drafts of the REC Act as it gets ready to be introduced to Congress.

“The congressman is interested and plans to have those conversations regarding Thompson Divide,” said Matt Atwood, Tipton’s communications director. “That’s part of the reason we left it out, because it is a ‘discussion draft,’ and we want to get all sides of the story before we introduce the full bill.”

The prospect of having Thompson Divide protections included in an amended draft of the bill is welcomed by leaders of local conservation groups, but they still expressed skepticism about the underlying motivation behind the REC Act and the exclusion of the divide in the first place.

“The Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act is something that Senator Bennet’s staff has been working on with counties and local leaders [in Pitkin, Garfield and Gunnison counties] to make compromises, while working with extraction companies in the area to ensure that the protection proposal in the CORE Act was appropriate,” said Sarah McCarthy, Western Slope field manager for Conservation Colorado.

“We believe that the CORE Act is a well-crafted, well-vetted compromise that is the result of a decade of consensus and stakeholder engagement, and it has really broad community support,” said Julia Morton, interim executive director of the Thompson Divide Coalition. “We believe the solution that has been crafted in the CORE Act is a really fair and good one, and so I think our preference is, obviously, for Tipton to support the CORE Act.”

Not surprisingly, it’s a sentiment echoed by Bennet and his staff.

“The CORE Act is the result of Coloradans working together to hammer out compromises and develop proposals that have widespread local support, including in places such as the Thompson Divide,” said Courtney Gidner, a spokesperson for Bennet. “Our focus is on advancing each of the four components of the CORE Act together. Any contribution that leads us to accomplish these goals is welcome, and we hope Congressman Tipton will join this effort.”

While the introduction of the REC Act makes it extremely unlikely that Tipton will get on board with the CORE Act, that doesn’t mean all hope is lost for areas (such as the Thompson Divide) that are not included in the former. Tipton’s staff plans to spend the month of August reaching out to affected communities in the 3rd District before revising the REC Act and introducing it to Congress, most likely in September. 

And should the bill include the Thompson Divide at that time, it would certainly make the REC Act more palatable to them, though they still will probably favor the CORE Act.

“It’s too bad that Thompson Divide wasn’t included in the discussion draft,” said Peter Hart, staff attorney for Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, “but it’s good news that they’re open to supporting legislative protection for the divide going forward.”

Todd Hartley writes for the Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at todd@aspendailynews.com.