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Colorado's Great Divide: Oil and the Environment

Colorado's Thompson Divide — one of the largest remaining roadless areas in the West — is caught in a bureaucratic stranglehold that pits industry against community and government agency against government agency.
Photo by Renee Ramge

Take off from Aspen's tiny airport and head straight west, and you'll soon find yourself over an area known as the Thompson Divide - 221,500 acres of what Teddy Roosevelt described as "great, wild country… where the mountains crowded together in chain, peak, and tableland; all of the higher ones wrapped in a shroud of snow." This time of year, the leaves change from green to yellow to red.

The center of White River National Forest - America's most frequently visited national forest - the Thompson Divide is one of the largest remaining roadless areas in the West, except for the occasional new oil drilling platforms that now dot its landscape.


Called "Colorado's Crown Jewel" by Governor John Hickenlooper, the Divide is at the center of a battle between oil and gas interests and the area's other stakeholders: hunters, ranchers, environmentalists, and the small towns whose livelihoods depend on its preservation.

The battle over the Thompson Divide is a microcosm of similar disputes across much of Colorado and the West - between extractive industries and the environment, development and preservation, and all the diverse communities, people, and wildlife who compete for access to an ever-shrinking expanse.

The area's fate now hangs on decisions being made in Washington and among the electorate in November.

The Thompson Divide is a borderland - geographically, economically, and politically. To its east sits heavily Democratic Pitkin County, home of Aspen and its world-class, millionaire-fueled tourist economy, and all the local jobs that go along with it - ski instructors, salespeople, entrepreneurs, and eco-tour guides, just to name a few.

To its east sits Garfield County - a Republican stronghold, where oil and gas interests are the driving force behind the economy. Garfield County has approximately 10,000 oil and gas wells, around three wells for each square mile.

The Thompson Divide has been an uneasy borderland since 2003. That year, as part of a broader strategy to increase energy development on public lands nationwide, the Bush administration issued dozens of 10-year leases to energy companies to explore the Divide.


It was a sweetheart deal.

According to the Thompson Divide Coalition, a community group formed in 2009 with the goal of protecting the area, "Many of these leases were issued for the statutory minimum of $2 per acre; by contrast, leases elsewhere in Garfield County sold for up to $11,800 per acre. In a 2007 decision, the Interior Department's Board of Land Appeals held that leases in the Thompson Divide were issued in violation of NEPA and the Endangered Species Act."

The leases were expected to expire in 2013, but they have been caught up in a bureaucratic stranglehold that pits not only industry against community, but government agency against government agency.

As in many areas across the West, the US Forest Service has responsibility for the surface of the Thompson Divide, but the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has responsibility for the mining and drilling rights that lay beneath.

Their cultures could not be more different.

The Forest Service emphasizes preservation to meet the needs of "present and future generations." The BLM has historically veered into becoming a "captured" agency - controlled by the industries that it's supposed to regulate.

When it comes to the Thompson Divide, the BLM has allowed the Bush-era leases to be extended - despite the fact that they have largely been unused.

Why did the BLM make this ruling? And why have the leases not been widely used to begin with? The answers have to do with economics - and control.


Drilling in the Thompson Divide remains less economically viable than in the valleys of Garfield County, where energy resources are more accessible. Oil and gas tend to pool in valleys, and existing infrastructure such as roads and pipelines facilitate extraction.

Exploiting the Thompson Divide - a mountainous area that lacks infrastructure - is currently cost-prohibitive. Oil and gas prices have declined markedly from their highs in 2007 and 2008, making fully developing the Divide not worth the effort.

Nevertheless, energy companies received such favorable terms that they have an interest in maintaining their leasing rights. If oil and natural gas prices increase again, the Thompson Divide may become a lucrative area.

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A Coalition Against the Drilling
As the conflict over drilling rights has played out in Washington, communities have come together in a diverse coalition to oppose the extension of the Thompson Divide leases. Organized as the Thompson Divide Coalition, the opposition is a group of strange bedfellows that includes environmentalists, ranchers, hunters, recreationalists, and the tourism industry.

It's as if bed and breakfasts, birdwatchers, bicyclists, beef producers, and Bambi killers united against big oil.

VICE News met with Thompson Divide Coalition executive director Zane Kessler, 33, along with assistant Pitkin County attorney Christopher Seldin, to hear about the conflict from their side.


"Active leases in the Thompson Divide represent less than one percent of active leases on public lands alone in the state of Colorado," Kessler said over breakfast at Saxy's Cafe in Basalt, Colorado. "It's not a game-changer for the industry. But it's a complete game-changer for our cattlemen, our recreational users, and our tourism-related businesses."

Seldin has been leading the legal battle to appeal the BLM's ruling. Their tactics have also included the purchase of "conservation easements" - a method by which local communities in Colorado can pay landowners or leaseholders not to develop certain areas.

In contrast to the drilling companies' $2 per acre deal, conservationists paid $10 million to preserve 4,700 acres - more than $2,000 per acre - for an area next to the Divide.

What are they paying for?

"We're preserving our way of life and providing connectivity for wildlife to reach the Thompson Divide," Seldin told said.

"We've got nearly $50 million invested by Pitkin County, Great Outdoors Colorado, which is the state of Colorado easement program, and others to preserve lands on the periphery of the Thompson Divide," Kessler added. "Those investments could be for naught if more development occurs."

Seldin and Kessler are also concerned that drilling will threaten the local economy. They argue that the Divide directly accounts for more than $30 million in annual economic output and 300 local jobs in the hunting, recreation, fishing, and ranching industries.


"We need to have some control over our destiny. We can't keep putting our eggs in these baskets of whatever is hot at the moment."

In response to the criticism that the leases were given away cheaply to oil and gas interests in 2003, David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, compared the situation to a previous deal in the Piceance Basin, the basin underneath the Thompson Divide, which he says was leased for $1 per acre in the 1980s "before anyone believed the area could be produced cost effectively." He said the same leases sold for billions a decade later.

"The heart of the oil and gas business are small producers who lease areas that no one believes in and use technology to prove those common assumptions wrong," Ludlam told VICE News. "This is the story of America's energy industry."

He called criticism of the Thompson Divide leases, "a blatant conflation of issues seeking to invoke populous political fervor for political gain."

Kessler countered by saying the anti-drilling coalition has broad support among locals.

"The energy industry has tried to attack this as an elitist Aspen effort, but any town hall you show up at, you've got men that have come out of the fields to have their voices heard," Kessler said. "It's not the billionaires in Aspen. It's the folks in the area who rely on the Divide for their livelihood."

"We still have cowboys who go out and round up cattle - and they're the real deal. The local community and government in this valley wants to see this heritage continue," Seldin emphasized.


The Cattlemen Conservationists
Tai Jacober, 37, runs Crystal River Meats, a sustainable cattle ranch that grazes across the Thompson Divide.

Jacober views ranching as an environmental effort as well as a business. "There's a saying, 'share ranchers are the best environmentalists.' We're out there. We're the ones caring about the land because we live off the land."

Jacober explained that while there has been a premium put on preserving scenic beauty at the highest elevations of Colorado, in places like Rocky Mountain National Park, there hasn't been nearly the effort put in to preserve the next level down - areas such as the Thompson Divide - that are more critical to wildlife habitat.

"There's a lot of conflict there," Jacober told VICE News. "Humans can get there easily, therefore it's harder to protect. In terms of drilling in the Thompson Divide, this certainly impacts me directly and my family, because we graze cattle there and several of my neighbors do and that would change dramatically. But it's a way bigger picture. We're talking about a very critical wildlife habitat and recreational place and I don't think it's worth the impact."

Jacober is not uniformly against drilling in the West.

"I can't sit here and be a hypocrite," he said. "I'm a big-ag person, and we use a lot of diesel. We rely heavily on fossil fuels. But the trade-off in this particular area doesn't seem to be worth it."


But he opposes the drilling because of its potential impact on Colorado's all-important tourism industry.

"Basically every single facet of the economy around here is based entirely upon tourism," Jacober said. "That's the people who bring the money here. And the reason people come here is for wide-open spaces. They don't come to see drilling rigs going down Highway 133."

Jacober is not alone among area ranchers in his concerns about the drilling.

"It's not that oil and gas drilling shouldn't happen anywhere," said Jason Sewell, a fifth-generation rancher in the Thompson Divide. "It's that oil and gas development shouldn't happen everywhere. Certain places are inappropriate for development, and the Thompson Divide is one of those places."

Bill Fales, a rancher and owner of Cold Mountain Ranch, agrees.

"I think cows are a great tool for managing land, and I really like working with them, but I don't try to put them everywhere," Fales said. "I think that's the same thing we need to look at with oil and gas."

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A Sustainable Tourism Industry
Chuck Ogilby, 71, owner of the Avalanche Ranch tourist getaway, agrees on the need for preservation.

Avalanche Ranch is the type of place you go to write a book in seclusion. Hemmed in by mountains, hot springs flow over a four-tiered natural pool across its property. The ranch's gift shop offers locally made organic soap and honey. A golden retriever sitting outside gnaws on a fresh elk leg.


"We have this historic valley that's still pristine," Ogilby told VICE News. "When you look out in any direction, it's like it always was. The people that come here to visit us want this valley to stay that way."

Ogilby is also concerned that oil and gas drilling may lead to the type of boom and bust economy that has long characterized Colorado's development - with successive booms in gold, silver, coal, and uranium, just to name a few.

"The history of this valley is like so many of the valleys in Colorado," he said. "They're boom and bust. You know, the marble mine boomed and then in busted. I think it's on its like ninth owner now. Then the coal kind of came and went. Gold mining came and went.

"What's happening here now is different," Ogilby continued. "Recreation is huge. Not only here but all over Colorado. And these special kinds of places that are away and still like they used to be are getting more and more special and rare in Colorado. And it's a sustainable industry."

Learning from a Painful Past
Stacey Bernot, 36, mayor of Carbondale, agrees with Ogilby about the value of sustainability. Her father died in a coal mining accident that served as the death nail of the industry - after which Carbondale is named - in the area.

Over lunch at the Pour House in Carbondale - the Rocky Mountain oysters taste like chicken - Bernot told VICE News that the Thompson Divide is "the least controversial issue that our community has ever seen. And we get fired up over a roundabout."


A fifth generation Carbondale native, Bernot told VICE News about the energy bust that occurred in the 1980s after the local mine closed down.

"We lost those jobs," she said. "Carbondale didn't want to go back there again - and especially me, being a descendant of that and seeing what that did to my family, and then to my community. We need to have some control over our destiny. We can't keep putting our eggs in these baskets of whatever is hot at the moment."

The Politics of the Divide
Colorado is in the midst of a close election between incumbent Democratic Senator Mark Udall and his Republican challenger, Representative Cory Gardner.

Energy and environmental issues are one of the key areas that divide them.

When it comes to the Thompson Divide, Udall has co-sponsored, along with Colorado's other Senator, fellow Democrat Michael Bennet, the "Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act," which would protect un-leased areas from future energy development while honoring already-existing leases.

Gardner has been more circumspect on the issue. Questioned in August about whether to allow drilling in the area, Gardner said, "That's something that I look forward to having conversations with the community, the stakeholders. I know that Senator Bennet has introduced legislation and Congressman [Scott] Tipton has been talking with the local shareholders and stakeholders about the issue and I look forward to having those very same conversations."

This difference may be due not only to an ideological divide but also because of their varied fundraising bases.

Between 2013 and 2014, Gardner received $380,000 from the oil and gas industry. He received $41,200 in direct contributions from Koch Industries, the energy conglomerate owned by the conservative Koch brothers, who have also spent over $2 million in Colorado this cycle.

In contrast, Udall received $273,360 over the longer period of 2009 to 2014. He has benefited from the largesse of Democratic donor - and Koch brother rival - environmentalist Tom Steyer, who has spent $6,413,384 against Gardner this cycle through his NextGen Climate Action Political Action Committee.

The divide between the oil and gas industry and preservationists is playing out all across Colorado. Meanwhile, back in Washington, the bureaucratic battle goes on.

Kessler, the Thompson Divide Coalition leader, said that the BLM has missed opportunities to void leases and hesitated to take action.

"We have no interest in demonizing the BLM or Forest Service," Kessler told VICE News. "I understand the pressures that they're under, but it seems all too often the rules create a situation where the local community's concerns aren't necessarily weighted the same as, you know, Houston-based oil and gas companies."

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Ari Ratner is a fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter: @amratner