Sen. Bennet tours Thompson Divide natural gas lease area
A ground tour with members of the Thompson Divide Coalition Friday gave U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet a chance to view the very land coalition members want to see permanently protected against future oil and gas leasing, and weigh his next moves to craft such legislation.
“I’ve had the chance to fly over it and ride horses through part of it, and this is one more opportunity to see why this place is so spectacular and so special,” Bennet said during a brief press conference at the Spring Gulch ski area parking lot in Jerome Park after emerging from Thompson Creek area with an entourage of TDC representatives.
Perspectives from the broad coalition of Carbondale-area ranchers, hunting outfitters, sportsmen, recreation groups and conservationists is just what Bennet said those in Washington, D.C., need to hear to build bipartisan support behind a bill that would permanently protect the area from future leasing.
Though gratified that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has moved to cancel 25 previously issued leases in the Thompson Divide area after a review of 65 such leases in the divide and farther west on the White River National Forest, permanency is what’s needed, the senator said.
Bennet, a Democrat, has tried in the past to introduce legislation that would both cancel the existing leases and permanently remove the area from consideration for future oil and gas leasing.
Republicans in Congress, including Third District U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, have opposed permanent withdrawal, saying the natural gas resource beneath the land’s surface could someday be needed. Industry groups have opposed canceling the leases or applying stipulations to leasing.
But with the BLM prepared to cancel the divide-area leases, citing the potential impacts on wildlife, water resources and a local economy driven by ranching and recreation, the remaining piece of the puzzle is to give permanent protection to the area, Bennet said.
The Forest Service, in its amended oil and gas leasing plan that was released last year, removed the lands west of Carbondale stretching from Sunlight Mountain Resort south to McClure Pass from new leasing for the next two decades.
However, the agency stopped short of providing permanent protections, something the TDC has sought since it formed nearly 10 years ago.
“Our purpose today was to make sure we had representatives from all of the users groups in the coalition here to talk to Sen. Bennet about why that protection is important,” TDC Executive Director Zane Kessler, who also joined the tour, said.
Bennet said that broad spectrum of voices is important to help him better understand the issue and make his case in Washington.
“Nothing substitutes seeing things firsthand, and there’s no substitute for hearing from the people who are directly impacted,” he said. “Their efforts help make Washington understand how special this place is … and how important it is to preserve their way of life and the health of their local economy.
“And what I heard over and over again today is their concern that, if there is leasing of oil and gas here, it will have a negative effect on the economy here in Carbondale,” Bennet said.
He also said it’s “predictable” that the differing sides will sue over the outcome of the BLM decision, including industry groups and other environmental groups, such as the Wilderness Workshop, that want to see greater protections extended to leases elsewhere on the forest.
“My hope is that we can craft a piece of legislation that can relieve people of the burden of feeling that need for litigation to protect their interests,” Bennet said.