Faced with the prospect of natural gas drilling on public land that has significant environmental, agricultural and recreational value, a group on the Western Slope has come up with a novel way to take on energy development in the Thompson Divide area near Carbondale.
Rather than fight it out in court, the Thompson Divide Coalition is attempting first to buy the leases from would-be energy developers. The coalition represents a broad array of interest groups from the Roaring Fork Valley, including ranchers, environmentalists, outdoor users and local governments. They are pursuing a practical — and laudable — approach to balancing the sometimes competing interests of energy production and land preservation, and we'd like to see it succeed.
The group was born out of concern with how 61 federal leases to drill on more than 200,000 acres in the White River National Forest would change what the coalition calls "one of the last great swaths of mid-elevation forest in Colorado."
The area is a key migration corridor for wildlife, consists of important watersheds and grazing allotments, and is loved by outdoor recreationists.
Coalition members told us that the land in question is at the heart of the region's efforts to move beyond a "boom-and-bust" economy to a more sustainable model built around agriculture and tourism.
The notion of buying out the leases has drawn support from local governments throughout Pitkin, Garfield and Gunnison counties.
But for the free-market idea to grow from concept to reality will require at least two things to happen:
First, Congress must pass legislation drawn up by Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet that would protect unleased land in the Thompson Divide from future development and allow for the buyback and retirement of existing leases. (That effort would be buoyed by support from Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, who should do more to push for a plan that enjoys wide support in his district.)
Second, the companies that hold existing leases would have to agree to sell them to the coalition.
Such an idea is not unprecedented. Congress passed a bill in 2009 that shields 1.2 million acres in northwest Wyoming from energy development. More recently, it was announced that a coalition there would pay $8.5 million to buy back and retire leases on 58,000 acres that weren't covered by the bill.
The Thompson Divide Coalition initially offered to pay the energy companies a total of $2.5 million, which is what the leases brought in when they were auctioned off in 2002. Sensing that they're sitting on something more valuable, several of the companies informed the group that it would take more.
Thompson Divide represents a unique slice of the state's high country. Coloradans should get behind Bennet's legislation and then urge both sides to negotiate in good faith to reach a common-sense compromise to preserve it in all of its glory.