THE BLOG
06/12/2013 12:36 pm ET Updated Aug 12, 2013

Colorado's Forgotten Wilderness: How Gas Leases in the Thompson Divide Gave Locals a New Backyard

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"I had no idea how much forest and remote, wild country was back there," Lea Linse remarked after a recent backpacking trip through the Thompson Divide in western Colorado. Linse, a local high school student, spent three weeks in May researching proposed natural gas drilling in the area. "It's a remarkable place, unlike any of the other areas we have around." Linse and three classmates interviewed stakeholders and traversed the Thompson Divide as part of their school's senior project, which often takes students to remote parts of the globe. Linse's group decided to travel just miles from their school campus, but they later echoed the surprise of many locals from the nearby Roaring Fork Valley who have begun to discover the unique features of the area through the effort to protect it. The Thompson Divide contains Colorado's largest complex of unprotected roadless lands, boasts world-class elk hunting, and is home one of the largest stands of aspen in the country. Until recently, however, it didn't get much press, even from those living along its borders. Now, five years into a local campaign to keep the fracking infrastructure out, it's emerged at the center of one of the highest profile land conservation battles in the state.

For years, the 220,000 acre area was a virtual blank spot on the community's mental map. Ranchers grazed their cattle on same lands they had used since the late 1800s. Mountain bikers, rock climbers, and hikers had favorite haunts. A dedicated group of skiers and snowboarders swiped season passes to the tiny Sunlight Mountain Resort. But nobody had heard of the Thompson Divide, nobody thought of it as a single entity. In fact, the area wasn't named until 2008 when word got out that it had been leased for drilling.

"The Thompson Divide had really been forgotten," remarked Judy Fox-Perry who lives on a ranch bordering leased public lands."It's a politically complex area where five counties come together and it doesn't have the spectacular rock and ice we're used to seeing high in the mountains of Colorado." Geography certainly played a role in keeping the Divide secret for so long. Instead of snow-capped peaks that tend to steal the scenic show in the Rockies, the Thompson Divide is composed mostly a rolling mix of mid-elevation aspen and pine forests that provide ideal habitat and migration corridors for wildlife. In general, Colorado's highest elevation lands have received long-term protection, while lower areas have been settled or otherwise disturbed by human development. Unfragmented, mid-elevation forests are rare. The problem is that most of Colorado's famous wildlife -- deer, elk, lynx, bear, mountain lion, and moose -- rely on lower elevation forests like the Thompson Divide for their survival. As the state's population grows and the gas industry continues to boom, more and more of the refuges for wildlife are being whittled away.

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Although the Thompson Divide long flew under the radar of many locals, it was never forgotten by hunters who knew the importance of the area for migrating herds of deer and elk that make a yearly trek from the high elevations around the Snowmass/Maroon Bells Wilderness area to the Grand and Battlement Mesas towards Grand Junction. Randy Melton who runs a guide and outfitting service out of Redstone said, "over half our business is done in the Thompson Creek drainage. It's excellent elk habitat and provides some of the best elk hunting in the world." Even before it had a name, Thompson Divide was quietly pumping $30 million a year into the local economy and, according to a recent study, sustaining 300 direct jobs, year after year. "I think the real resource is above the ground instead of underneath it," Melton said.

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Wilderness Workshop, a nonprofit in Carbondale that is opposed to developing the Thompson Divide, cites wildlife habitat and economic benefits as a major concern. But as Wilderness Workshop helped build a public outreach initiative to protect the area, many mountain bikers and backcountry skiers began to venture deeper into the area for the first time. Although some had a recreational retreat they cherished for years, the debate over drilling began to place those individual spots within the surrounding landscape, offering its own brand of outdoor opportunities. "The Thompson Divide provides a different experience than that hyper-scenic, popular Maroon Bells type wilderness," commented Will Roush of Wilderness Workshop. "That's what's great about it from a recreational standpoint; there aren't a lot of established routes or hikes. Every time you go out there, it's a bit of an adventure."

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At the same time, individuals who supported protecting the divide for various reasons ranging from dirt biking and cross country skiing to cattle ranching and hunting, began to realize the collective assets it was providing to the community, though it'd long been disguised by it's eclectic mix of uses. Zane Kessler is the current director of the Thompson Divide Coalition, which organizes a diverse group of stakeholders who depend on the area. He believes that opposition to drilling has brought the community together more than driven it apart. "The core of our strength on this issue is that we really are a coalition of strange bedfellows. Whether you're a Republican or a Democrat, mountain biker or rancher, there are a lot of unusual alliances that have been built around the core of protecting this landscape."

Considering that oil and gas issues often sparks heated debates, the community has shown a rare amount of solidarity for the Thompson Divide. At a recent town meeting in Carbondale, the only two people to speak out in favor of developing the Thompson Divide were Eric Sanford, an employee of the Houston-based gas company SG Interests which holds many of the leases in the area, and his counterpart at the Ursa Resources Group. The coalition has offered $2.5 million to buy the leases from SG and Ursa, but the industry has not yet agreed to a deal. To date, over 4,500 individuals have come out in support of the Coalition's plan, and according to Kessler, the group has also received support "from every affected municipality and county in the area, as well as hundreds of businesses, and Governor Hickenlooper." Recently, US Senator Michael Bennet introduced a bill that would help facilitate the buyout and provide permanent protection for the area.

For Lea Linse, the debate has been a political awakening, which led her to form a Thompson Divide Action Club at her high school last fall. "I think it's important for students to be involved," she said, explaining her passion for the issue. "This is the world we're growing up into. This is the world where we're going to live. We need to have a voice in how we want it to be."

For others, it has offered a chance to enjoy forgotten parts of our National Forest. "Thompson Divide is pretty much in my backyard, so you can call me a NIMBY," Judy Fox-Perry said. "But it's in all our backyards," a fact that many recreationalists have come to appreciate through the debate.

Above all, it's raised the question for many locals whether or not all gas reserves in the state are worth drilling. "We have a unique opportunity as a public to identify what areas are appropriate and what areas are inappropriate to develop," Kessler commented. With the vast majority of gas-rich public lands in Colorado leased and already slated for development, it's more urgent than ever that these assessments are made and community voices are heard before more of our forgotten wilderness areas disappear.

This blog is part of a series covering large landscape conservation efforts in the Rocky Mountains for the Colorado College State of the Rockies Project. For more information on the project or on the Thompson Divide, please visit www.RockiesExpeditions.org.

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