Public meeting illuminates length of mineral withdrawal process for Thompson Divide
The Aspen Times
The Thompson Divide, a vast swath of mostly public land on the Western Slope, may win a mineral withdrawal from the Department of Interior. But that designation is years away due to a need to collect impact data and public comment.
BLM and the Forest Service held an informational public comment meeting Wednesday night. Attendees learned about the withdrawal timeline and possible hurdles to an accepted withdrawal.
Community members gathered at the Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District headquarters and some joined via Zoom. A Spanish translator was available at the 6 p.m. meeting.
On Oct. 17, the Department of Interior published a notice in the Federal Register of a proposed mineral withdrawal in the Thompson Divide. That prompted a 90-day public comment period and a two-year segregation period in which new mineral leases cannot be issued in the Thompson Divide while federal agencies gather data. Should the Department of Interior approve the withdrawal, new mineral leases will not be allowed in the area for 20 years. Valid existing rights will not be affected.
Jennifer Jardine is the senior realty specialist at the BLM Colorado State Office. She explained to the audience the timeline of the proposed withdrawal and how this comment period is meant for public comments regarding the withdrawal. The scope of the withdrawal can be made smaller to exclude some areas of the Thompson Divide, but not bigger, she said.
Once the public comment period ends, the Forest Service will begin the National Environmental Policy Act, commonly known as NEPA, process. That is when the Forest Service will collect even more public comment, along with environmental and economic impact data for the Department of Interior to consider.
BLM and the Forest Service will conclude the NEPA process by March 2024 and send their findings to the Department of Interior. A decision from Secretary Deb Halaand is expected around October 2024, said Tony Edwards, the deputy forest supervisor for the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests.
Because the land up for withdrawal exceeds 5,000 acres, the Secretary of the Interior will notify congress as part of the withdrawal process. The notification is pro forma and the Secretary does not need any congressional approval.
It is less of a legislative hurdle than what the sweeping Colorado public lands protection bill, the CORE Act, faces. The act has stalled in the Senate multiple times.
Ted Benge, 29, of Carbondale attended. He was born and raised in Carbondale and said he grew up hunting with his dad — and taking naps in the truck — on public land within the Thompson Divide.
“I wanted to understand the process and learn what kind of public input would count,” Benge said. “What mostly stood out was how long the process is.”
The Thompson Divide comprises nearly 224,794 acres across Pitkin, Garfield and Gunnison counties. The vast majority of land, 200,518 acres, belongs to the Forest Service. Around 78,000 acres of White River National Forest land resides in the Thompson Divide. Portions of Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests account for about 122,000 acres. The BLM holds 15,465 acres and 8,700 acres are privately owned land with federal minerals underground, according to the Forest Service.
Local conservationist organization Wilderness Workshop has advocated for the end of mineral leases in the Thompson Divide for nearly two decades. At a press conference hosted by the group and the Thompson Divide Coalition before the event, community advocates voiced their support for the withdrawal.
“Oil and gas hopefully are going to be on their way out eventually,” said Pitkin County Commissioner Francie Jacober. “So I don’t see why we should tear out more of our beautiful wilderness to pursue more extraction.”
Mike Pritchard, the executive director of the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association, also spoke in support of the withdrawal, along with the Carbondale Mayor Ben Bohmfalk and a longtime vocal supporter of Thompson Divide protection, rancher Bill Fales.
Responding to an audience question of why the Forest Service requested the BLM to petition the Department of Interior for withdrawal of the Thompson Divide, Wilderness Workshop Executive Director Will Roush asked anyone in the audience who had ever advocated for the protection of the Thompson Divide to stand. Nearly everyone in the audience did so.
The initial comment period will close Jan. 16, 2023. That is a federal holiday, so the deadline rolls over to the next business day.
Comments should be sent to State Director, Bureau of Land Management, Colorado State Office, 2850 Youngfield Street, Lakewood, Colorado 80215 or email to: BLM_CO_Thompson_Divide@blm.gov.
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