CARBONDALE — A Bureau of Land Management meeting here Wednesday that drew upwards of 200 people in a show of force as the agency prepares to review several dozen gas leases on the White River National Forest, including disputed leases in the Thompson Divide region, prompted a surprise visit by U.S. Sen. Mark Udall.
During a break in the public comment period, the senior Colorado senator was introduced by representatives of the Carbondale-based Thompson Divide Coalition (TDC), and offered a few comments on the matter at hand.
“The attendance here shows how much we in Colorado care about our public lands,” Udall, who was in the area for a private event, said before a packed house in the Carbondale Town Hall meeting room.
“Energy development is an essential part of this region’s economy and should continue as we work to meet our nation’s energy needs,” the Democratic senator, who is up for re-election this fall, said. “But that development shouldn’t occur everywhere, and there needs to be a balance in these areas where it’s important to protect our high quality of life.”
Udall noted that he is co-sponsoring the proposed Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act, which has been introduced by his fellow senator from Colorado, Sen. Michael Bennet, as a means to “permanently end drilling on top of the Thompson Divide.”
The bill, which is supported by the TDC, would withdraw unleased public lands within the 221,500-acre Thompson Divide region west of Carbondale from future leasing, and provide for the sale, donation or voluntary expiration of existing leases.
“We need a plan that balances development while giving attention to the conservation side,” Udall said in reference to what he sees as a fair solution to protect local interests and those of the existing lease holders.
The BLM’s public scoping meeting Wednesday was the second of three such gatherings this week as the agency works to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement reconsidering 65 existing leases on forest lands stretching from the Thompson Divide west to the De Beque area.
The leases were issued under a 1993 Forest Service EIS, which the BLM never adopted. The agency also never did its own study prior to issuing the leases, which cover some 80,000 acres of public land.
The Interior Board of Land Appeals has identified several deficiencies in the 1993 EIS, which the BLM is now reviewing.
Critics of drilling in the Thompson Divide had wanted the BLM to void 25 existing leases held by two energy companies that were due to expire earlier this month following a one-year extension. Instead, the BLM extended the leases another two years so that they could be including in the new EIS.
Speaker after speaker at the Carbondale meeting, and at another meeting attended by about 150 people in Glenwood Springs on Tuesday, called on the agency to cancel the leases through the EIS process.
“We want to thank the BLM for finally taking our comments on this issue,” said TDC Executive Director Zane Kessler. “This is a process that can and should result in the cancellation of these leases.”
Kessler referred to one of the journal entries of President Teddy Roosevelt, who once hunted in the rugged wilderness outside Glenwood Springs more than a century ago.
“One-hundred nine years later to the day this land stands as wild and rugged as it was then,” he said. “We ask you to keep it that way.”
Kessler also called on the BLM to consider the economic benefits of other activities in the Thompson Divide area, including grazing and outdoor recreation, which one study put at $30 million per year.
Area rancher Bill Fales said the high country west of the Crystal River offers the only summer range available in the area.
“We don’t have another option,” he said. “I ask you to consider these other uses of that land. You could easily kill the goose that’s laying the golden eggs.”
Udall, after making his public comments, applauded the BLM for conducting an EIS to reconsider the leases.
“It’s important to go the extra mile to include everybody in this conversation and to analyze the history of that area,” he said, suggesting that simply voiding the leases would have resulted in too many unanswered questions.
“This way, nobody can question the process,” Udall said.
The BLM expects to release a draft EIS and preferred alternative in early 2015. Options could include canceling, modifying or keeping the existing leases in place.
A third scoping meeting takes place from 3-6 p.m. Thursday at the Pitkin County Library in Aspen, and a fourth meeting has been scheduled for 4-7 p.m. May 1 at the De Beque Community Center.
The initial public comment period on the BLM review has been extended until May 16.