Despite the efforts of Colorado Senators Michael Bennett and John Hickenlooper and Colorado Congressman Joe Neguse (D-CO-2), the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Economy (CORE) Act, which would have protected the Thompson Divide from new natural gas leasing in perpetuity as well as Camp Hale and other landscapes in Colorado, has not made it out of the U.S. Senate.
But in October, President Joe Biden permanently protected Camp Hale as part of the Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument, the first such designation of Biden’s term. He also proposed a 20-year, administrative mineral withdrawal of 224,704 acres of the Thompson Divide.
It isn’t the first time the Thompson Divide has been closed to new natural gas leases. In 2015, White River National Forest (WRNF) supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams closed the portion of the Thompson Divide within the WRNF to future leasing for at least 20 years. But, the current proposed withdrawal is different, says Peter Hart, attorney with Wilderness Workshop, a local public lands watchdog group.
“Fitzwilliams’ decision did not apply to portions of the Thompson Divide outside of the WRNF,” Hart told The Sopris Sun in an email. “There is a whole bunch of Thompson Divide on the Grand Mesa-Uncompahgre Gunnison National Forest (GMUG).”
The new, proposed Thompson Divide withdrawal would add 122,000 acres in the GMUG, 15,465 acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands and 8,721 private or split-estate lands to the 78,472 acres within the WRNF.
It’s also a “secretarial level” decision compared to Fitzwilliams’ “plan level” decision. “With a plan level decision, Fitzwilliams or a future WRNF supervisor could reverse it at any time,” Hart explained. According to Hart, a secretarial — or administrative — level decision can only be reversed or overturned by the Secretary of the Interior or by an act of Congress. “So, this newest proposal is bigger and offers stronger protections,” he said.
At two public meetings in Carbondale last week, U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management officials laid out plans and painstakingly described an intricate, and at times confusing, approval process. The bureaucratic language was the first hurdle. Officials defined concepts including land segregation, administrative withdrawal, National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) procedures, and “the process before the process” that makes up an administrative level mineral withdrawal.
Basically, said Jennifer Jardine, lead realty specialist on withdrawals for the BLM Colorado State Office, a withdrawal does two things. “We’re preventing disposal [of land], like land swaps for example, and we’re limiting activities that are tied to federal land laws, like the 1870s mining laws or the oil and gas leasing laws,” she explained. The Secretary of the Interior is the ultimate decision-maker for the withdrawal. The BLM is part of the Interior Department and manages what’s called the “mineral estate” — all the minerals beneath USFS lands, which is why the application comes to this agency.
In the case of the Thompson Divide, the USFS initially sent the withdrawal application to the BLM. The BLM asked Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to consider the proposal. She approved the application, which was published in the Federal Register on Oct. 17.
This started two things. First, regulations require a 90-day public comment period, which means comments are due by Jan. 16, 2023. At the risk of getting into the weeds, Jardine and others stressed that this is the first of several opportunities for the public to get involved. “This is the process before the process,” she said brightly. “The comments help us shape the proposal.” She added that this part of the process is separate from the NEPA process, which is a future forum for more public comments.
Secondly, the clock starts ticking on a two-year, pre-withdrawal segregation period. “We would not accept any mining claims in the proposed withdrawal area,” said Jardine. “We would not see new applications under the oil and gas leasing laws or geothermal leasing laws for that two-year period.”
The two years allows federal agencies to gather and analyze data on the effects of the withdrawal under the NEPA process and then present the completed proposal to the Interior Secretary. The final proposal is expected in March 2024. It does not need to be approved by Congress.
By this time, questions began to surface from the 70 people in the room and those attending online, asking for clarification on the processes and questioning the two-month lag time between the proposal’s publication in the Federal Register and the first public meetings, given that the public now had one month as opposed to 90 days to submit comments. The officials continued to explain the processes and gave a variety of reasons for not scheduling the public meetings sooner.
The proposed withdrawal will not be permanent and does not apply to the Wolf Creek natural gas storage field or the 23 active natural gas leases on the Thompson Divide unless they expire during the segregation period. Public comments will be accepted through Jan. 16, 2023 by email to BLM_CO_Thompson_Divide@blm.gov or by regular mail to: State Director, Bureau of Land Management, Colorado State Office, 2850 Youngfield Street, Lakewood, CO 80215