Wilderness Workshop column: A Major Milestone for the Thompson Divide

Peter Hart
Wilderness Workshop
President Joe Biden signs a declaration creating the Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument Wednesday at Camp Hale above Red Cliff. The monument is to honor the 10th Mountain Division soldiers who trained there to fight in Italy in World War II.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

In mid-October, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland initiated a process to administratively withdraw 225,000 acres of the Thompson Divide from future oil and gas leasing and mining for the next 20 years. For everyone who has fought to protect the Divide: This is a huge step forward that we should celebrate and support!

If you’re unfamiliar with the longstanding “Unified for Thompson Divide” campaign, more than a decade ago a coalition of cowboys and conservationists joined together to eliminate the threat of drilling on over 220,000 acres of cherished public lands southwest of Carbondale.

The Thompson Divide is foundational to our economy and culture. It provides critical wildlife habitat, recreation opportunities, grazing lands, and clean air and water relied upon by local communities and beloved across the country. But when the effort began, more than half of the Divide had been leased to oil and gas companies without environmental review and consultation. The threat of drilling brought together people from all walks of life and political persuasions who agreed that it should be protected.

With bipartisan support from local elected officials, communities surrounding the Divide asked Congress to pass legislation permanently protecting the area from new leasing. In 2013, Senator Bennet responded by introducing the Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act. Now part of the CORE Act, this legislation has been passed the House 5 times and we continue to advocate for it in the Senate.

Over the years, public land managers also embraced the need to protect Thompson Divide. In 2015, officials at the White River National Forest closed tens of thousands of acres in the Divide to new leasing. In 2016, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) officials canceled dozens of leases after acknowledging they were sold illegally. Now, agency officials have asked Secretary Haaland to close the Divide entirely to new leasing for the next 20 years.

These were hard-fought victories for Thompson Divide–the result of consistent community engagement and strong legal advocacy. When we started, there were over 80 leases in the Divide; today only a handful remain. But our work is far from done and the threat of new leasing remains.

A 90-day public comment period began October 17; we need to step up again and tell the administration why protecting Thompson Divide is so important. Wilderness Workshop and our partners will submit technical comments and provide information on how members of the public can support protection for this incredible landscape.

An administrative withdrawal wouldn’t have the permanence of a Congressional withdrawal. But it would provide strong protections above and beyond what we’ve secured to date and it would protect the Divide while we work with Congressional leaders – Senators Bennet and Hickenlooper and Rep. Joe Neguse – towards permanent protection.

Right now we need to rally around the meaningful interim protection of an administrative withdrawal. And we look forward to one heck of a community party when this process is complete.

Thanks for all you’ve done and forever remaining, Unified for Thompson Divide!

Peter Hart is the Legal Director at Wilderness Workshop and for years has led the Workshop’s efforts to permanently protect the Thompson Divide. When not exploring public lands, you can find him spending time with his family and raising two young boys with an appreciation for wild places.

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