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Can Frackers Be Paid Off? How One Community Is Trying to Buy Out Oil and Gas Leases

Tara Lohan is traveling across North America documenting communities impacted by energy development for a new AlterNet project, Hitting Home. Follow her trip on Facebook or on Twitter.

Craig Amichaux considers saving the Thompson Divide a last stand. “That’s all we’ve got left,” said Amichaux, an avid skier who runs a family campground in his native Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

The Thompson Divide encompasses 221,500 acres of national forest land in five Colorado counties (Pitkin, Gunnison, Garfield, Mesa and Delta) on the Rockies’ Western Slope. It’s the Colorado of glossy calendars and adventure brochures: Aspen stands, forested peaks, clear mountain streams, boundless wildlife, including big game.
 
It’s popular with outdoor enthusiasts of all stripes—mountain bikers, skiers, hikers, climbers, snowmobilers, anglers and hunters. It’s also been claimed by oil and gas companies, which won 81 mineral leases a decade ago (half of which are in roadless areas), courtesy of the Bush administration.
 
But a group called the Thompson Divide Coalition hopes to persuade the leaseholders, mostly three energy companies, to sell their stakes so the land can be protected from development.
 
This is an area that knows development well. The nearby Piceance Basin, which includes the ecologically rich Roan Plateau, just downstream of the Colorado River from the Thompson Divide, has 10,000 producing wells. Aerial photographsshow a landscape pocked by well pads, pipelines and other infrastructure resulting from some of Colorado’s heaviest oil and gas drilling.
 
“The saddest part is what has happened down toward Rifle,” said Amichaux. “The Roan Plateau is a really neat place. We used to go up there all the time as kids. It just seems to me they’ve gutted that place. It makes you sad when you drive up there, it really makes you sad.”
 
The epicenter for much of the development has been in Garfield County around towns like Rifle, Silt and Parachute. Documentaries Split Estate and Gaslandboth captured stories of illness, devastation and disaster in Garfield County since the development took off, aided in many cases by techniques like fracking.
 
But Thompson Divide Coalition executive director Zane Kessler says, “There are just some places that are inappropriate for development,” and the Thompson Divide is one of them. “It’s not that the development shouldn’t occur anywhere, it’s that it shouldn’t occur everywhere.”
 
Kessler has a broad coalition of support behind him, including the majority of public sentiment in local communities. But he also has the leveraging power of some moneyed elites as the Thompson Divide sits just west of tony towns like Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Aspen.
 
While local environmental groups like the Wilderness Workshop are fighting the legality of some of the leases (which the BLM has admitted have “NEPA deficiencies”), the Thompson Divide Coalition has a different approach—buy out the leaseholders. The question posed to these companies, says Kessler, is “Do they want to deal with the broader environmental community that will lock it up in the courts, or do they want a market-based solution?”
 
The coalition’s first offer to leaseholders is $2.5 million; a starting point to negotiations, says Kessler. Most of the leases were sold for dirtcheap, some at the absolute minimum of a couple of dollars an acre. Kessler says his group is willing to pay those costs and other expenses incurred in the last 10 years since the leases were issued. And they’re willing to come up in price if industry will meet them at the table. No deal has been reached yet and several of the companies were granted extensions in the leases from the BLM this spring, so they may have designs on the areas yet.
 
Robbie Guinn, vice president of SG Interests, one of the Divide’s leaseholders, is concerned with the wealth and power in the area. He told the Aspen Daily News:
You can see where this is going: Pitkin County is one of the wealthiest places in the world, with a high concentration of influential aristocrats, with senators who are weighing in, and when you have that kind of political power weighing in it just pushes gas development downvalley to people who don’t have the money and power to fight it.
It’s almost ironic to hear the industry claiming unfair treatment from big pocketbooks. But it’s not just the wealthy who care about the Thompson Divide.
“We’ve been going up there hunting and hiking and biking all my life,” said Amichaux. “It’s an emotional issue for people—they’ve seen it happen before and they don’t want it to happen again,” he said of the impacts of oil and gas drilling, including a spill in nearby Parachute Creek.
 
“The biggie for me when I was growing up, we had a cabin up on No Name Creek, and probably 250 feet from that is a natural spring that just comes out of the ground and it just amazed me as a kid,” he said. “It’s awesome, all the deer and all the elk go over to it and it fascinated me as a kid. It’s the same up there [in the Thompson Divide] once you get at elevation there are natural springs—they’re the headwaters for the Roaring Fork River—that’s the headwaters of what provides us with all the recreation and drinking water. I just don’t understand why they are trying to go into those kinds of areas. It doesn’t make any sense.”
 
It’s a recreation area for some, and for others it’s a source of income. “We raise Black Angus cattle in the Thompson Divide area, and we've cultivated an acre of food-producing garden space that feeds several families,” wrote Jason Sewell, a fifth-generation rancher in the Divide. “This work is our passion. It is our livelihood, and it is tied to the viability of our land. But it's not just us. Countless others—ranchers, outfitters, and small-business owners—depend on the Thompson Divide for their livelihood.”
 
Knowing that the area provides 20,000 hunting licenses a year and has some of the country’s best fishing, the Thompson Divide Coalition did a study to measure the economic impacts. “We looked at only existing uses on public lands in the Divide (we didn’t look at secondary impacts, like the hunters who stay at hotels or the organic farms that use the water),” said Kessler.
 
“We wanted to know the value of the direct use of hunting, fishing, ranching, and recreation in the Thompson Divide,” he said. “That report showed that it supports 300 jobs and over $30 million a year in economic impacts. For small rural communities, $30 million is significant. Those are sustainable economic drivers in the truest sense of the world. They will be here in generations.”

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