Thompson Divide

Assignation Ridge by Susy Ellison

Mules ears blanket Assignation Ridge, a prominent feature of the Thompson Divide. Photo courtesy of Susy Ellison.


Wilderness Workshop has worked for more than a decade to protect the Thompson Divide and ensure in continues to provide critical wildlife habitat, recreation opportunities, grazing lands and clean air and water. The Divide is foundational to the economy, culture and ecology of our area and we aim to keep it that way. We are also committed to protecting the broader landscape surrounding the Thompson Divide, since taken together it is one of the largest complexes of roadless lands in the state.

The 220,000-acre Thompson Divide, southwest of Carbondale, lies in the path of oil and gas development advancing from the west. It is an area that is too special to drill. Its value as wildlife habitat, historic rangeland, a recreational playground and the headwaters of 15 watersheds far exceeds that of the natural gas that could be extracted from it.

In 2008, when the threat of oil and gas development in the Thompson Divide became apparent, the Thompson Divide Coalition (TDC) formed to eliminate the threat of gas drilling from the area. Since then, TDC has built a broad-based alliance of ranchers, farmers, hunters, fishermen, recreationalists and businesspeople united in the desire to keep the Thompson Divide drill-rig-free.

While WW and TDC have the same goal of protecting the Thompson Divide, we pursue different tactics. TDC’s focus is on negotiating with leaseholders to retire existing oil and gas leases and on procuring an Act of Congress prohibiting any future leasing of the area. WW’s primary role is “interim defense” – making sure there’s still a Thompson Divide worth saving.


Big-Picture View

This page gives a big-picture view of the work being done to save the Thompson Divide, and who’s doing what. The work falls into three main categories:

1. Retire the existing leases

Oil and gas companies hold about 70 leases within the Thompson Divide area. A valid lease (this is italicized because we believe many of these leases aren’t valid) gives the leaseholder a right to apply for a drilling permit to develop oil and gas on the lease. In 2012, the Thompson Divide Coalition sent letters of intent to leaseholders indicating that it would pay $2.5 million for the leases. The $2.5 million was based on amounts leaseholders have paid to the federal government to purchase and hold the leases.


2. Provide interim protection

Generally, TDC’s focus has been on legislation to withdraw the area from future leasing and negotiating a buyback or lease trade with leaseholders.  WW has focused on defending the area from active development proposals, advocating for cancellation or expiration of existing leases, and leading the charge in the ongoing management plans impacting the Divide.  Both groups have worked together to cultivate strong grassroots support for protecting the Divide.

Even as the leaseholders are negotiating (or not) with the Thompson Divide Coalition, they are threatening to drill. The two main players are SG Interests and Ursa Resources, which hold a total of 25 leases between them.

In 2013, with the clock running out on their leases, SG and Ursa filed “suspension” requests with the BLM – that is, they asked for more time. Despite overwhelming public support for letting the leases expire, the BLM in April 2013 chose to suspend them for one year, and then in April 2014 it extended the suspensions for another two years. These decisions have kept the door open to development of leases that never should have been issued in the first place. WW, along with local governments, has challenged the BLM suspensions before the Interior Bureau of Land Appeals in hopes that administrative law judges will reverse the BLM’s suspension decisions.

The BLM itself has admitted that these and a number of other leases were issued illegally, in that their environmental impacts weren’t properly analyzed. To remedy the problem, the agency has launched a new environmental review of the leases, and this process represents our best chance to eliminate the two biggest development threats to the Thompson Divide. WW is strenuously intervening in this process – please see the Illegal Leases page.

Meanwhile, there are a few other potential time bombs littering the Thompson Divide landscape that must be defused. WW is parrying all these threats; for details, see this annotated map.

In addition, WW is leading efforts to improve the White River National Forest’s and the local BLM office’s oil and gas policy documents, which are both undergoing major revisions and which will largely dictate future oil and gas leasing decisions in the Thompson Divide. The WRNF’s updated Oil and Gas Leasing Plan is a big step forward in this regard. (See Oil & Gas Plans.)

Citizens play an essential role in this. We can make solid arguments and demand action, but it’s emails and participation in meetings by members of the public that convince the decision-makers to do anything beyond business as usual. Please see the “Take Action” links at right.

3. Get an act of Congress to ensure that no more leases will ever be issued in the Thompson Divide

Sen. Michael Bennet’s Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act, introduced in 2013, would permanently remove most of the Thompson Divide from availability for oil and gas leasing.

To be clear, the bill would only prevent future leasing; it leaves valid existing leases intact. In other words, those leases will stay on the books until they’re invalidated, bought out or allowed to expire; failing that, there remains an imminent threat of development in the Thompson Divide. Still, this is a huge step toward protecting the Thompson Divide in the long term.

It is also, essentially, a sustainable economic development bill. It values the good jobs and quality of life that we already have over the transient industrial boom (and bust) that drilling would bring. It supports the traditional activities (like ranching and farming) and protects the long-term assets (scenery, wildlife, recreational opportunities, clean water and air) that are the true basis of our prosperous local economy.

Given the prevailing “drill, baby, drill” mentality in Washington, it takes real courage to wade into this issue and propose protection of this area. We applaud Sen. Bennet for taking this stand.

Future Work

Wilderness Workshop will continue to fight to protect Thompson Divide and nearby roadless areas. We are prepared to defend in court BLM’s decision to cancel the 25 leases, if necessary. We will continue to fight development proposals on leases in the Divide that are not canceled by the BLM. We will also continue advocating for a permanent legislative withdrawal of minerals in the area– so that we don’t forever have to guard against new drilling proposals there. Additionally, WW will continue to fight for the protection of surrounding roadless areas, which support values, like wildlife and recreation and ecosystem health, that make Thompson Divide such a magnificent place.