Guest opinion: Garfield County commissioners abandon Thompson Divide cause

Aaron Kindle
Guest Opinion

The sporting community was shocked to hear about Garfield County’s abrupt change in position on the Thompson Divide recently. The “Divide” lies southwest of Glenwood and is known as some of the last, best unfragmented habitat in Colorado. I recall fondly harvesting elk from above Middle Thompson Creek, fishing for cutthroat trout in all three of the Thompson Creek tributaries with my children, and laying in the back of truck staring at the stars with my young son near Four Mile road. These experiences are irreplaceable to me.

I’ve dedicated a lot of time and energy to seeing this area protected from oil and gas development over the years, including attending numerous Garfield County Commission meetings. I was appreciative when they staked out a respectable stance regarding energy development in the Thompson Divide. They supported permanent protection for the area through legislation, as long as it also treated oil and gas companies fairly. That’s something I certainly support.

Unfortunately, at their Feb. 11 meeting, the commissioners completely changed course. In two long meetings — sitting with thick packets filled with dozens of pages of resolutions and letters they’d sent to legislators over the years describing the Divide’s unique values and the need for permanent protection — the commissioners simply abandoned the cause.

It isn’t clear why the commissioners suddenly changed course. While looking at his signature on a past resolution supporting a permanent legislative withdrawal, Commissioner Jankovsky simply said: “I don’t feel that way today.” And just like that, the commissioners deserted a decade of support and signaled that they apparently no longer care about the broad and diverse chorus of voices calling for permanent protection of the Divide.

Garfield County’s position over the last decade was understandable and fair. The commissioners confirmed the Divide’s special values and the fact that new leasing and development in the area could negatively impact that, but they also acknowledged that leaseholders had contracts and those contracts should be respected.

The commissioners’ resolutions and letters were their contract with all of us. It was their written commitment to support permanent legislative protection for the Divide that treated leaseholders fairly. But the commissioners shredded that contract.

In so doing, they broke their word and promise to all of us. A particularly troublesome part of the flip-flop from the Commission is that Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act, now part of a larger suite of bills dubbed the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act, is a great stakeholder compromise that really is fair to leaseholders.

The bill not only respects valid existing rights, so currently held leases would remain effective and intact after the bill passed into law, but also includes language offering credits for any leaseholder that wants to get rid of leases within the withdrawal boundary. One company with leases in the Divide supports the bill as a good compromise between industry and local communities.

These efforts and the resulting legislation are a testament to Senator Bennet, local residents, the energy companies, the outdoor community and many others who’ve worked hard for several years to get to this point. All of these folks should be roundly thanked rather than disrespected with an unwarranted about face.

After 10 years of working to protect Thompson Divide, we got a bill that both protects some of the best hunting and fishing in Colorado, and goes far to accommodate the few remaining leaseholders in the area. The bill is fair and respects the needs and desires of both industry and local communities. Garfield County’s new position fails on all of those counts, and threatens years of negotiations and the delicate balance struck by stakeholders.

The reasonable and respectable action at this point would be for the Garfield County Commission to revert back to the thoughtful position they have held for the past several years and to once again support the withdrawal legislation and permanent protection for the Thompson Divide.

Aaron Kindle of Salida has spent dozens of days and nights hunting and fishing in the Thompson Divide and across Colorado. He formerly worked for Trout Unlimited on the Thompson Divide and other sporting conservation issues. He currently serves as senior manager of Western Sporting Campaigns for the National Wildlife Federation.

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