N. Forkers: Tipton lease swap ignores concerns | PostIndependent.com

N. Forkers: Tipton lease swap ignores concerns

Rep. Scott Tipton

Lands west of McClure Pass proposed to be leased over to SG Interests for oil and gas development in exchange for disputed leases in the neighboring Thompson Divide area to the north "is not just acreage to me," says Paonia resident Phyllis Swackhamer.

"It's my home," she protested at a meeting before the Garfield County commissioners in Glenwood Springs Wednesday called to discuss a draft lease exchange bill released by U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton this week.

In fact, about half of the 16 or so citizens gathered to comment on the proposal came over from the North Fork Valley to speak out against the measure.

Most felt the lease exchange, particularly as it involves SG's leases, would essentially transfer to their back yard the same impacts and concerns the proposal seeks to remove from the Thompson Divide.

"I don't know where this draft bill came from, but it does not reflect the conversations we've had in our communities," said Allison Elliott, referring to discussions between community groups and commissioners from Delta and Gunnison counties about public lands protections in the North Fork Valley.

She and Swackhamer were joined by Alex Johnson, executive director of the North Fork-based Western Slope Conservation Center, and Wayne Urbonas of Citizens for a Healthy Community, among others who attended the meeting.

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Dorothea Farris, a founding board member for the Carbondale-based Thompson Divide Coalition, said the North Fork contingent has a right to be upset.

"This bill has a lot of problems," she said. "Rep. Tipton needs to go back to the drawing board and work with all of these communities on what they would truly like to see if he wants this to move forward."

The draft bill basically mirrors a proposal put forward last year by SG Interests and Ursa Resources, another energy company with leases in the Thompson Divide.

Under the proposal, SG would give up 30,371 acres of federal leases on the White River National Forest in the Thompson Divide region west of Carbondale for new leases covering 30,055 acres on the Gunnison, Uncompahgre and Grand Mesa national forests to the south and west.

Ursa is requesting 11,650 acres of new leases on the White River Forest in southern Rio Blanco County in exchange for its 12,020 acres worth of Thompson Divide leases.

Brian Meinhart, regional director and policy adviser for Tipton, said the proposal is intended to offer a "straight-forward," acre-for-acre swap. Its goal is to make the energy companies whole on their investments, while addressing concerns about natural gas development in the Thompson Divide, he said.

"This is only a discussion draft, and no bill has been introduced," Meinhart emphasized. "We are taking all the feedback we can get, from all perspectives, and we are taking that very seriously."

At the same time, he said Tipton stands firm in his position that lease holders must be provided with a "value-for-value" deal, and that the bill should not include language permanently removing any lands from future leasing.

He said the White River Forest's recent decision to make the Thompson Divide off limits to new leasing for the next 20 years is protection enough for the near term.

"I know 20 years isn't the most satisfactory answer for some people, but it is better than nothing," Meinhart said. "And it does get these existing leases out of there."

It's also a better solution than the anticipated decision by the Bureau of Land Management later this year to cancel outright the 25 Thompson Divide area leases held by Ursa and SG, he added. The BLM, with its proposed action, is seeking to rectify an oversight involving the original environmental review that resulted in the leases being sold in 2003.

"No matter what happens, there will be a legal challenge," Meinhart said. "That is what we are trying to avoid with this piece of legislation. The intent is to resolve this issue as soon as possible and as practicable as possible."

Garfield Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said the lease exchange is a "step toward" the Thompson Divide Coalition's efforts to work with energy companies in resolving the issues in that area.

"A lease is a private property right, and if the BLM drops those 25 leases without just compensation, it is a takings," Jankovsky said. "I just feel this is a much better way to do this, if we can make it an equal trade."

But the TDC and the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop both maintain that the leases were illegally issued in the first place and should have been allowed to expire more than two years ago when their 10-year terms were up.

"To assume that these leases that only have a few months left are comparable to new 10-year leases is heavily tipping the scales in favor of the leaseholders," Peter Hart, staff attorney for the Wilderness Workshop, said at the Wednesday meeting.

Silt-area rancher and energy industry supporter Carrie Couey also spoke at the meeting. She invited those who oppose drilling in the Thompson Divide and elsewhere to come visit her ranch, where she says gas development has not impacted the pristine environment.

"We have had collaborative efforts with the oil and gas companies, and they are very good stewards of the land," Couey said. "Families need to work somewhere, and where these leases occur it will not impact you to point your fears tell you it will."

Commissioner John Martin said the proposed legislation offers a "middle ground compromise" that's worth being introduced in Congress.

Pitkin County commissioners have scheduled a public discussion to consider the draft legislation at a meeting on April 26.

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