Wilderness Workshop has worked for more than a decade to protect the Thompson Divide and surrounding roadless areas. We work to ensure these areas continue 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.
In the late 2000s, when the threat of oil and gas development in the Thompson Divide became apparent, Wilderness Workshop and a cast of “strange bedfellows” joined together to form the Thompson Divide Coalition (TDC) with the goal of eliminating the threat of gas drilling from the area. Since then, the Coalition has continued to build 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 have pursued different tactics. TDC has focused exclusively on 220,000 acres in the Divide. WW focuses more broadly—trying to protect the Divide and important surrounding public lands. Also, TDC led efforts to negotiate with leaseholders to retire existing oil and gas leases, while WW’s primary role has been “interim defense” – fighting new development proposals and engaging in long-term planning efforts to ensure there’s still a Thompson Divide worth saving. Both groups have advocated for permanent protection of the Divide through a formal Congressional withdrawal from availability for future leasing.
Our work on this issue has achieved several notable victories. Much of the Divide has been administratively closed to future oil and gas leasing (a closure that will likely last 20 years or so), we have prevented the development of many leases there so that they could expire, and BLM has cancelled many leases that were issued illegally. Our work continues, though, as leaseholders have challenged BLM’s cancellation decisions and there are still leases within portions of the Divide that could be developed.
This page gives a big-picture view of accomplishments and ongoing work to save the Thompson Divide and surrounding areas:
❱ Beginning in the early 2000s, during the “lease before you look” frenzy of the Bush administration, oil and gas leases were issued throughout the Thompson Divide and nearby roadless areas. WW and local governments engaged in some of those early lease sales, raising claims about the legality of BLM’s leasing practices.
❱ In 2007, in response to a lease protest filed by WW and Pitkin County, the Interior Board of Land Appeals rejected BLM’s sale of three leases in the Divide because the agency failed to comply with several environmental laws. In 2009, BLM cancelled the leases.
❱ By 2009, oil and gas companies held about 70 leases within the Thompson Divide area and dozens more in neighboring roadless areas. Many of the leases were illegally issued and WW engaged in diligent watchdogging of these problematic leases, using agency decision-making processes to challenge them.
❱ In 2009, WW pushed BLM to shrink a unit in the western portions of the Divide where leases hadn’t been developed in a timely fashion. This resulted in the elimination of thousands of acres of leases in 2011 that would have allowed new drilling in roadless areas. Since then, WW has been engaged in numerous industry-filed appeals trying to resuscitate the leases.
❱ In 2011, SG Interests and another Divide leaseholder (together holding 25 leases in the Divide) asked BLM to group all of their leases into units—which would enable them to hold them beyond their expiration dates without developing each lease. WW and TDC helped rally huge public opposition to these proposals, which played a role in BLM’s decision not to grant the unit requests.
❱ In 2012, the Thompson Divide Coalition sent letters of intent to leaseholders indicating that it would pay $2.5 million for all of the leases in the Divide—based on amounts leaseholders had paid to the federal government to purchase and hold the leases.
❱ Late in 2012 and early in 2013, as dozens of undeveloped leases in the Divide neared expiration, leaseholders asked BLM to suspend the lease terms and filed a handful of pretextual drilling applications to support the request. BLM granted the suspension requests and WW, along with local governments, immediately appealed the decision and continue to fight it today in Federal District Court.
❱ In 2013, after hearing resounding support for protection of the Divide from locals and local governments, Sen. Michael Bennet introduced the Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act in the U.S. Senate. The Bill would permanently remove most of the Thompson Divide from availability for future oil and gas leasing. Congressman Tipton did not support the Bill and it was not passed into law.
❱ Also in 2013, BLM announced—after hearing from WW for years that the leases were illegal—to reexamine decisions to sell 65 oil and gas leases on the White River National Forest. This decision affected most of the leases in the Divide and dozens of roadless leases just west of the Divide. During the process, which lasted until fall of 2016, WW and its partners helped generate more than 100,000 public comments asking BLM to cancel the illegal leases and protect the Divide and roadless areas.
❱ In 2015, after another several years-long administrative process in which WW, TDC, and partners pushed hard for meaningful protections for the Divide and roadless areas, the U.S. Forest Service released a decision closing most of the Divide to future leasing and requiring that roadless areas be protected by any future leasing on the forest. The U.S. Forest Service decision should be good for 20 years or so.
❱ In fall of 2016, BLM issued a decision formally cancelling 25 oil and gas leases in the Divide and adding strong new stipulations to other roadless leases outside the Divide. Industry promptly challenged the decision and WW has moved to intervene in that lawsuit to defend BLM’s cancellation decision.
❱ In March of 2017, Bennet reintroduced the Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act. This version would permanently withdraw about 120,000 acres of the Thompson Divide from availability for future leasing. It would also provide credits for leaseholders with leases in the Divide to relinquish those. WW is working with TDC and other partners to build support for the Bill, especially from Cory Gardner and Scott Tipton.
❱ Wilderness Workshop will continue to fight to protect Thompson Divide and nearby roadless areas. That fight will include ongoing legal challenges and opposing development proposals on leases in the Divide that have not been 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.
“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may
heal and give strength to body and soul.”