GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Garfield County Commission Chairman John Martin, though supportive of some type of legislative attempt to protect the Thompson Divide area from natural gas drilling, says he’s not quite ready to endorse a bill being sponsored by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet.
“I haven’t read the latest version of the bill to see how some of the issues are being addressed,” Martin said Wednesday regarding Bennet’s Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act (S. 651), which was introduced in the Senate last summer.
“It has to be done in a way that honors all rights present and into the future, in a fair and equitable way,” Martin said. “And, if you’re going to retire leases, that it goes to the future ability of anyone to come back and develop those leases.”
But, removing an entire unit of federal land from future mineral leasing could prove difficult under existing law, he said.
Bennet’s bill, which is being co-sponsored by his fellow Democratic senator from Colorado, Mark Udall, was offered as a “middle-ground” solution in the Carbondale-based Thompson Divide Coalition’s efforts to prevent natural gas development on federal lands west of Carbondale.
The proposed legislation would withdraw unleased public lands in the sprawling 221,500-acre area, which covers parts of five counties stretching from Four Mile Park southwest of Glenwood Springs to McClure Pass south of Carbondale, from future leasing.
It would also provide for the sale, donation or voluntary expiration of existing, undeveloped leases held by energy companies in the area.
Earlier this month, Martin, a Republican, agreed to sign a letter, along with neighboring county commission chairs Rob Ittner (R-Pitkin County) and Paula Swenson (D-Gunnison County), addressed to U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, urging him to support federal legislation on the issue.
“We support a market-based solution that respects valid, existing rights while acknowledging the committed efforts of our local communities and coalitions, which have worked for years to protect this special area,” the letter states.
“We believe federal legislation is critical to achieving that goal,” it concludes. “We urge you to join us in supporting federal legislation that advances this effort.”
The letter was in reaction to recent comments by Tipton before Pitkin County commissioners supporting a “market-based solution,” but expressing his concern that federal legislation could derail negotiations between the Thompson Divide Coalition and lease holders.
The Coalition’s executive director, Zane Kessler, called attention to the joint letter from the respective county commissioners in a press release issued Tuesday, saying legislation would bolster its efforts to negotiate a buy-out of the leases.
The press release went on to mention Bennet’s bill specifically, which the Coalition supports. That, however, prompted a response from Garfield County clarifying that Martin’s signature on the letter was not intended as an endorsement of the Bennet proposal.
Martin said he and his fellow Garfield commissioners, Tom Jankovsky and Mike Samson, stand behind a 2010 resolution supporting the efforts of the Thompson Divide Coalition to seek a legislative remedy, as long as it protects existing leasing rights.
The Bennet bill “may go forward, and it may work,” Martin said.
“Zane has been working very hard on this, and I encourage him to find a legislative solution,” Martin said. “That’s not to say that I endorse this legislation.”
Said Kessler in the coalition’s news release, “Folks from different communities and all walks of life are coming together around a unique path forward for conserving the Thompson Divide and the livelihoods it supports.
“This is about federal public lands that support local economies, and federal support is critical to achieving a local solution,” he said.
The letter to Tipton from the county commissioners further states, “Rather than undermining current negotiations, we believe that federal legislation may be critical to the success of current, ongoing negotiations.
“Our communities need assurances from the federal government that their work to develop a local solution can actually lead to long-term conservation of the Thompson Divide area.”
There are currently 61 leases in the Thompson Divide area covering approximately 105,000 acres of the larger expanse of public lands.
Two engineering and economic analysis reports released last week, one commissioned by the Thompson Divide Coalition and another prepared for Pitkin County, suggest that development of the current leases in the remote, mostly roadless area would not be economically viable.