The handmade-looking and weather-beaten “Unified for Thompson Divide” yard signs that popped up more than a decade ago won’t be coming down quite yet. But in May, the first vote ever taken by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Economy (CORE) bill that includes protection for the 220,000-acre Thompson Divide, signified progress.
CORE’s mark-up in the committee, as this stage in the legislative process is called, is its “high-water mark,” says Wilderness Workshop (WW) Executive Director Will Roush.
“It is certainly meaningful,” adds Kate Oehl, a staff member for Colorado Senator Michael Bennet who introduced the CORE bill in the Senate in 2019 and co-sponsors it with Colorado Senator John Hickenlooper.
A bill’s markup is when all disagreements are hammered out of it and is essential before it can be cleanly brought to the Senate floor for a vote. The CORE bill, however, will remain in the Senate committee; its 10-10 tie vote along party lines keeps it from moving on. The bill, sponsored in the House by District 2 Congressman Joe Neguse, passed the House four times as part of larger legislative packages. It may take a similar strategy to pass CORE in the Senate, according to legislative experts.
The bill includes the Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection component that would permanently withdraw future oil and gas leasing on the Thompson Divide near Carbondale and Glenwood Springs. Roush says the Thompson Divide is one of the largest roadless areas left in the state. It covers grazing allotments, much of the two municipalities’ watersheds, and the headwaters of East Divide Creek above Silt.
The Thompson portion of the CORE bill preserves existing landowner and leaseholder rights and provides an option for leaseholders to swap their Thompson leases for ones someplace else, Roush explains. The Thompson Divide Withdrawal would also allow leasing of excess methane from nearby coal mines as an energy source.
The entire CORE bill protects four separate areas of federal lands totaling 400,000 acres. District 3 Congresswoman Lauren Boebert’s website reports that 63% of the CORE bill’s acreage lies within her district. She repeatedly voted against it. Although CORE would ensure continuity for a variety of natural resource users, its main purpose is to safeguard the outdoor recreation economic base. The bill would designate about 73,000 acres as wilderness, none of which would be in the Thompson Divide.
Carbondale’s communal passion for the Thompson Divide’s protection predates the current bill by about 15 years, as those old “Unified” yard signs attest. During the George W. Bush administration, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) granted about 80 new leases for drilling with far less public notification than required and dispensing with the process set forth in the National Environmental Protection Act. One approved lease for drilling is beneath Sunlight Mountain Ski Resort.
“It was a lease before you look frenzy,” says Roush. In 2009, Wilderness Workshop won its suit against the BLM for illegally issuing most of the leases. Since 2016, much of the Divide has been administratively closed to future oil and gas leasing for about 20 years. These leases could be renewed, however, unless Congress makes the federal mineral withdrawals permanent.
For Stacey Bernot, Carbondale’s mayor from 2010 to 2014, the Thompson Divide issue exemplifies another high-water mark. This would be for civic — as well as civil — engagement and governmental accord that has withstood today’s divisive politics. “Living through that, being part of it, we were in a special time,” she says. “It was respectful. Words were authentic. People who opposed the leases didn’t ask for too much,” she says. “We cooperated with one another to get things done.” Unified, Bernot says, still describes the opposition to drilling on the Thompson Divide.
The spate of oil and gas leasing roused the broadest community concern for public land that rancher Bill Fales has ever seen. Concerns of ranchers, hikers, hunters, anglers, mountain bikers, local energy companies and elected officials, shaped the ad hoc Thompson Divide Coalition. “You couldn’t have gotten that much support for apple pie,” says Fales.
Public meetings were standing room only, with people spilling outside in winter. “At one packed town hall I was scheduled to speak at, I’d had to help a premature calf get born right before I showed up. I remember I smelled fairly ripe,” says Fales. When Carbondale held a parade to show support for ending oil and gas drilling, “every ranch in the valley had a tractor in it.”
Even with the CORE bill’s Senate committee markup, Fales is “not optimistic” that the Senate will pass it when it comes to the floor. “I think that the Congress and Senate are totally broken,” he says. “The Republicans in the Senate are not willing to give Bennet a victory so that he can get credit for it in an election year.”