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Innitiative Name: Thompson Divide Coalition

Case Study Author: Sam Williams, 2013-14 State of the Rockies Project Researcher

Location: The Thompson Divide Coalition (TDC, the Coalition) works out of Carbondale, Colorado. Located in Garfield, Mesa, Pitkin, Gunnison, and Delta Counties in eastern Colorado, the Thompson Divide Area (TDA) is situated to the West of the Crystal River, South of Carbondale, and North of Paonia Reservoir. It includes the Thompson Creek and Four Mile Creek watersheds, as well as portions of the Muddy Basin, Coal Basin, and the headwaters of East Divide Creek. 

Within the TDA are portions of two National forests: the White River National Forest and the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison National Forest. It is adjacent to two federally designated wildernesses to the east: the Raggeds Wilderness and the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. 

The TDA is nested within the Department of interiors Southern Rockies Landscape Conservation  Cooperative (SRLCC). Created by Secretarial Order No. 3289[1]of the Department of the Interior(DOI), the SRLCC, one of 21 other LCC’s, is standardized region where federal agencies within the DOI such as the National Park Service, BLM, and Fish and Wildlife Service are meant to emphasize cooperation amongst various groups. These regions are determined by both environmental and political factors. However, due to the high prevalence of the Forest Service (an arm of the Department of Agriculture) in the TDA, it is the USDA, and not the DOI, that is the major federal land manager in the Divide. The cooperative nature of the SRLCC among federal agencies is thus not as important here as in other areas.

Date of Origin: The Thompson Divide Coalition (TDC, the Coalition) was created in 2008. It was formed in response to increasing oil and gas development and the recent discovery of mineral rights leases to private companies on federal land located in the Thompson Divide Area. The early stages of the organization “came to be around the kitchen tables of ranchers”[2] and other stakeholders in the area, who acted as the board for 2 years before making full-time hires.

Size of Initiative: An area containing acres and the headwaters of 15 watersheds.

Summary:  The Thompson Divide Area wasn’t always known as such. Previously, different portions of the Divide were referred to by their own names, such as “the Muddy Country” and “Buzzard Divide”. A pristine wild lands area with just a handful of oil wells, the unmatched ecological and recreational values here drew many residents into its varied, beautiful lands and provided a natural abundance for ranchers, farmers, hunters, and fishermen. While this is still true today, the threat of major change has arrived in the valley.

In the early 2000’s, approximately 70 mineral leases were sold by the BLM in this area. These leases had 10-year terms, meaning they were set to expire around 2013. With limited existing oil and gas development, it became increasingly apparent to local groups that this new wave of development posed a serious threat to the landscape. By the time this knowledge became widespread around 2007, the locations of these wells, the development they entail, and the risk of environmental degradation to the surrounding area, proved unacceptable to the local communities. It was during this time that the formation of the Thompson Divide Coalition occurred and initially it was largely among the local ranching community.

 As the original group consisted of ranchers, this was no “granola crunching” affair. The early apolitical leanings of the group, and its later diversity of participants, led to a middle ground understanding of the Coalition’s situation in the larger political picture. Summed up by Jason Sewell, a fifth generation rancher from the divide, the credo of the Coalition is that, “It's not that oil and gas drilling shouldn't happen anywhere. It's that oil and gas development shouldn't happen everywhere. Certain places are inappropriate for development, and the Thompson Divide is one of those places.”[3] With the density and productivity of wells in the region, the sacrifices that would have to be made for a comparable pittance of oil and gas are simply not worth it to the Coalition. To allow the drilling of the Divide is, “not a game-changer for the industry, but is a total game-changer for our local way of life.”[4]

 

The TDC was created in order to “to secure permanent protection from oil and gas development on Federal lands in the Thompson Divide area.”[5] It was also during this time that the term “Thompson Divide” became the widely recognized title for this threatened region. By 2009, the Coalition had thousands of members and supporters from local communities.

At this time, very little drilling had taken place in the Thompson Divide Area. Many hoped that the leases in the area would be allowed to expire. This belief was bolstered by the fact that there was a national glut of natural gas, depressed prices, and a national recession. Unfortunately, two separate corporations, Antero and SG Interests, began to initiate plans to develop wells in the Divide. Antero later sold its leases to Ursa Resources. With renewed economic interest in developing these wells, SG Interests and Ursa Resources sought to renew their leases with the Bureau of Land Management before they expired in 2013.  Generally, the renewal process is quick and painless for energy companies.

By 2012, the Coalition had gained substantial support and so they attempted to outright purchase the leases held by energy corporations in the Divide. The offer was intended to “make leaseholder’s whole”[6], and thus would exchange lease rights for the amount of money that corporations had spent purchasing and retaining these leases: an amount as low as $2 an acre in some cases.

 This offer was ignored in some cases and refused in others. While these actions infuriated many on the environmental side of the issue, it is an understandable business decision. At that point in time, these leases were not under threat; it was quite likely that they would be renewed by the BLM. While leases would have been sold at a zero net-loss for the companies, they were still being asked to give away the possibility of profits from extraction. As the companies have a responsibility to their stakeholders to make a profit, such a response, or lack thereof, is an understandable business decision.

In April, 2013, after years of pressure from the Thompson Divide Coalition, Wilderness Workshop and other organizations, the BLM approved “stipulated suspensions” for 25 of Ursa and SG’s oil and gas leases in the Divide. “Suspension” in BLM terms, means the continued validity of a lease, basically it is a renewal of terms. All leases were suspended until April 1, 2014[7]. However, as was required by the stipulations, each lease must undergo a “curative” National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), meaning that in many cases, these analyses were never done. The “leasing deficiency” NEPA process may take several years to complete.

This lease suspension was a mixed bag for conservationists. On the one hand it was possible that after years of work, business would still be able to drill in the Divide. On the other, these curative procedures also gave hope to shutting down some or all of the leases completely, if the environmental impacts were too great.

Since the stipulated suspensions were issued in April, 2013, businesses now have a greater impetus to engage the Coalition in negotiations. While the outcome of this NEPA process is unknown, it is possible that some, or many, leases could be invalidated altogether. If that is the case, these corporations are guaranteed to lose money, whereas the offer of the TDC is assured. Thus, even if the companies do not make a profit, they can ensure that they do not lose the investment originally spent to acquire the leases. In the past few months, different corporations have become more open to communicating with the Coalition. This is also due, in part, to the civil and business-like attitude displayed by the group.

The free-market efforts of the Coalition are the first of their kind in the state of Colorado. Previous cases in Montana and Wyoming, in the Rocky Mountain Front and Hoback Basin, respectively, utilized a similar process of buying out public mineral leases from private corporations. While these initiatives did pave the way for the work of the TDC, different conditions in Colorado create a unique situation.

An important similarity between these three efforts is the need to ensure that once existing leases are retired there will be some measure to provide permanent protection. In the Thompson Divide, this mechanism comes in the form of legislation. Drafted by Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, the proposed Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act serves this purpose. The bill formalizes and streamlines a process for buy-out of existing leases from willing sellers. Additionally, it would close the Divide off from any future leasing and drilling. This legislation in no way threatens existing leases; it merely allows them to be sold, donated, or otherwise relinquished at will by the leaseholder.

In the face of threats not just to the environment but to the local economies and traditional ways of life in the valley, the Thompson Divide Coalition gathered a diverse group of members, decided on a powerful free-market approach, and have leveraged growing influence and power. Whether the energy corporations in the area sign deals with the Coalition to void leases, do not receive approval to drill following the NEPA process, or begin numerous new operations in the Divide remains to be seen. But given the attention now focused on this landscape and the BLM’s commitment to reexamine leases, the future of the Divide will certainly be a more balanced compromise than it would be without the action of the TDC.

Governance:  

                Leadership – The 12 member Board of Directors have backgrounds ranging from ranching to business to community leadership to conservation to law. These diverse backgrounds aid in attaining a broader perspective and a savvy and efficacy when it comes to negotiating. The two staff members of the TDC were selected for their experience in politics at the state and national levels. This diverse leadership has created a powerful organization that has been able to leverage growing influence. 

                Structure – The Coalition has a Board of Directors composed of various community members. The group also retains a full-time staff consisting of two members: an Executive Director and an Outreach and Operations Coordinator.  The board convenes at monthly meetings and steers the direction of the group and the staff implements this direction. The Executive Director leads negotiations and work with leaseholders. The Outreach and Operations Coordinator undertakes much of the community and grassroots organizing.

                Type of Initiative: The TDC is a formal institution with 501 (c)3 non-profit status.

                Authority: At this stage of the BLM leasing process, the Coalition does not have any direct power over the actions of federal land managers or leaseholders in the area. Instead, they hope to persuade energy companies to accept fair compensation, and enact permanent protective legislation by leveraging political and monetary support from within the community.

Participants: The Thompson Divide Coalition has many organizational partners that represent a broad array of interests. These partners carry out environmental assessments, create additional leverage, enlarge the group’s support, provide expertise and consultation, and perform other functions in helping to protect the Divide. Support is also gathered through the inclusion of the local community through a high social media presence and many local events. Individuals do not join the Coalition, instead they may support its work through donations of money or time, signing petitions, and writing letters to further the cause.

                Key Partners – Among the key partners of the Coalition are the Roaring Fork Conservancy, the Trust for Public Land, Trout Unlimited, Sportsmen for Thompson Divide, and Wilderness Workshop. The Roaring Fork Conservancy has water analysis in the Divide, and the Trust for Public Land utilizes an advisory role, having aided in similar free-market conservation projects before. The relationship between Wilderness Workshop and the Coalition is perhaps the more interesting, and maybe more fruitful, of the partnerships.

                Wilderness Workshop (WW) is an organization whose aim is “protecting wild places and wildlife, for their sake… and ours.”[8] This organization performs work throughout Colorado, and in the case of the Thompson Divide has acted as an environmental watchdog. Wilderness Workshop was instrumental in exposing the BLM’s failure to comply with NEPA when these leases were first issued. It was their actions which forced the agency to undertake the “leasing deficiency” procedures of NEPA. This has helped add a level of uncertainty to leaseholder’s claims created impetus for the involved energy companies to negotiate with the free-market approach of the Coalition.   

Mission: 

                Mission – “The mission of the Thompson Divide Coalition is to secure permanent protection from oil and gas development on Federal lands in the Thompson Divide area including the Thompson Creek and Four Mile Creek watersheds, as well as portions of the Muddy Basin, Coal Basin, and the headwaters of East Divide Creek.”[9]

                Objectives – In order to fulfill their mission, the TDC is pursuing several objectives.  The first is negotiations with energy companies to buy out their leases directly. After initial non-communication, corporations such as Ursa Resources are now coming to the table for discussions, giving hope to the possibility of a successful buyout.

 The second objective is the passage of the Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act.  This act, sponsored by Michael Bennet, Senator from Colorado, has two major functions, both of which are vital to the mission of the TDC. The first is the withdrawal of federal lands in the Divide to any future extractive leases. This does not impinge upon valid existing leases, it only prevents new leases from being created in the Divide. Secondly, it allows for the “retirement, purchase, donation, voluntary exchange, or other acquisition of mineral and other interests in land from willing sellers within the Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Area”[10]. In other words, this act clears the path for the type of transaction the TDC is looking to perform. Zane Kessler, Executive Director of the Coalition is hopeful about the passage of this bill, noting that when it comes to this legislation, “there really is no controversy”[11].  This is especially true considering that sales will be negotiated so that they are contingent upon passage of this Act: thus, if companies settle, and want their money, they too will support this legislation.

 

Motivations for initiating effort: The actions of the TDC are proactive, not reactive. In its current state, the Thompson Divide offers a relatively pristine ecosystem which supports a local economy of about 300 jobs and $30 million per year in direct and secondary statewide economic value[12]. It is these economic and ecological values that the Coalition is striving to protect before they are diminished by the roads, pollution, and other impacts of natural gas extraction and development.

Major Strategies: 

                Research – Much of the research in the Divide area is commissioned by the Coalition itself in order to demonstrate the pristine ecological conditions or the healthy economics of the region. Two such studies include the Thompson Divide Baseline Water Quality Study[13]  and “The Economic Contribution of Thompson Divide to Western Colorado”[14]. Such studies are generally commissioned in order to prove the existing ecological, recreation and amenity values of the divide which are threatened by extractive development.

Planning – The planning of the TDC is an inclusive affair which utilizes the broad experiences of all its members and staff. By recognizing the value of these different perspectives in their organization, the TDC is able to move forward in more balanced, fair, and intelligent manners in all of its operations.

Regulation – Regulation, in the form of legislation, is being introduced by Senator Michael Bennet at the behest of the Coalition and others. This bill, The Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act, would eliminate any new attempts at extraction on public lands in the Thompson Divide Area. Despite the national political climate, those at the Coalition are hopeful about the passage of this act, due to its middle-ground approach and the support from nearly all local stakeholders.

Restoration – The Coalition is proud that, in its current state, the Divide needs no restoration, only continued protection. As such, no restoration projects are attempted. If they were to become necessary, the coalition will have failed in its mission. 

Communication – Communication is one of the areas where the Coalition is especially effective. This is obvious in two main avenues of communications: those between the Coalition and the public, and between the Coalition and the private sector.

                The social media presence of the TDC is quite large, with nearly constant activity on their Facebook page, not just from board members or staff, but from countless community members as well. The page has turned into a virtual gathering place to discuss everything from the latest in the Coalition’s activity to outdoor plans and favorite places in the Divide. This presence has helped to galvanize residents, ensure successful social gatherings and meet-ups in support of the divide, and increased awareness and funds in support of the issue of extractive industry in this region.

                The communication between the Coalition and the private sector has also been quite successful in recent months. The Coalition has kept communications to the public “in-line, so that we are not demonizing the industry.”[15] In doing so, they have kept the door open so that, increasingly, businesses are joining in on negotiations that they can trust will be civil. In communications with industry members, the Coalition has been “as business-like as possible”[16]  in order to facilitate the free-market approach to conservation.

 

                Besides the above mentioned strategies, the Thompson Divide Coalition also pursues these other tools in order to fulfill its mission:

Buyouts – Recognizing the previous investment and the restrictions of finances on corporate actions, the TDC is attempting to buy out oil and gas development leases in the Divide. Initially this meant offering the same prices that these companies purchased them for. By attempting to offer buyouts with no economic loss for companies, the Coalition had hoped to perform these buyouts quickly; instead the energy companies either flatly refused or ignored their offer. This had led to slowly escalating sessions of negotiation, as energy companies are realizing the Coalition may be their best chance for a return on investment.

                Maintaining Pressure – Through high levels of press, social network activity, and more, the Coalition is attempting to keep its supporters interested and engaged in the fight against energy development in the Divide.

Ecosystems Characteristics and Threats:

                The Ecosystem – The Thompson Divide Area is almost entirely composed of unfragmented mid-elevation forests: pines, juniper, and aspen thrive here. According to the Colorado Division of Wildlife, the Thompson Divide Area also “provides high quality habitat for a variety of wildlife including; mule deer, elk, moose, black bear, lynx, native cutthroat trout, a variety of small mammals, and several raptor species”[17]. The ecosystem is relatively intact, little development and few roads. The connective corridors, waterways which are “healthy, uncontaminated and support significant populations of aquatic organisms”[18], and overall health and size of the region are vital natural resources not just for Divide area residents but for the whole state of Colorado as well.

                Threats – The biggest threat to the ecosystems of the Divide is the possible development of more oil and gas wells in pristine areas of National Forest land. This development will entail the creation of roads, the dissemination of pollution of hazardous substances, noise, and light, and the direct destruction of wildlife habitat. The most threatened terrestrial wildlife are mule deer, elk, lynx, black bear, raptors, moose, and bats; cutthroat trout and certain amphibians are also highly threatened[19].   These are threats not only to the natural landscape, but to the dependent local economic landscape as well.

                If the Coalition fulfills its goal and protects these lands, there is another, albeit more subtle, risk to the environment. Recreation ecology is a field of study which seeks to understand the impacts of human recreation on environments and biota. According to recreation ecologist David N. Coles, “First among the primary conclusions of recreation ecology is the simple notion that impact is inevitable with recreation. Avoiding impact is not an option, unless all recreation use is curtailed.”[20] Thus, there remains an ecological risk to the Divide as its recreation values continue to be central to the local economy and culture. The TDC does not advocate for any restrictions on recreation.

                Distribution of Protected Land – The issues of the Thompson Divide illustrate an interesting conundrum in conservation. Most of the land that is being threatened should, by its classification as public land, be under protection. While this designation as a National Forest does prevent sub-division, private development, and other forms of environmental disruption, the fact that the BLM retains sub-surface mineral rights means that extractive industries are actually encouraged to operate here. The cheap leasing procedures of the BLM, designed to increase the speed and profitability with which companies extract resources, create an increased demand to drill even in special places such as the Thompson Divide.

                Adjacent to the Thompson Divide area are two public lands where strong protections against drilling, or development of any kind, are in place: the Raggeds and Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wildernesses. It is important to the Coalition to help increase the landscape scale of those protections by preventing extractive development in the Divide.

Monitoring, Assessment, and Evaluation:

                Baseline Conditions – The TDC commissions studies that illustrate the baseline, near-pristine conditions of the Divide, because, currently, there have been no substantive impacts from development. These studies show the intactness and ecological health of the region in order to demonstrate what is at stake here, and what might be lost if extractive industries become more prevalent in the area.

                Monitoring – The Coalition does not perform any environmental monitoring as the existing gas leases are not currently being developed and thus, the threat to the ecosystem remains a possibility, not an acting force.

                Evaluation – The results of these commissioned studies have shown that the Divide is a healthy, intact region. The TDC uses this information to prove the values provided by the ecosystem and to aid in the protection of this region.

Accomplishments/Impacts: So far, the Coalition has helped to persuade the BLM to suspend the existing leases in the Divide with stipulations: namely, “curative” NEPA analysis[21].  The true impact of the Coalitions work has yet to be seen. The question is, will they be able to protect the Divide from oil and gas development indefinitely?

Factors Facilitating Progress:

                Diverse Coalition – Due to the collection of “such crazy and unusual bedfellows”[22], the Coalition has created a broad knowledge base and source of perspectives which has led to success.

                Local Sentiment – Many locals live in the Divide because of their love of its wild, natural qualities. Hence, gaining local support in order to protect this area has been very successful. This has meant greater funding for the Coalition and higher levels of political leverage.

                Working Examples – While the Coalition is the first to take the free-market approach to conservation in Colorado, this method has been successfully utilized in two other states: Montana and Wyoming. In each of those cases, the Rocky Mountain Front and the Hoback Basin, respectively, the leases granted to oil and gas companies were bought out in order to conserve the ecological and social values of the landscape. These trail-blazing efforts have shown the people of the Divide what is possible, and given them a roadmap to do it.

                Economic Conditions – Due to the current glut of natural gas in the U.S, the economic pressures to drill in the divide are currently lower than they might otherwise be. Given the variability in both the market and the risks involved with well outputs, it may be the better, safer business choice to accept the concrete deals and assured returns provided by the Coalition. This means that now is the perfect time for the TDC to be doing their work to secure permanent protection for this area.

Challenges:

                Existing Leases - Although negotiations are underway, current leaseholders are still the largest obstacle to the Coalition. Solutions, such as those described above, must be sought to ensure that the Divide does  not suffer from energy development.

Relating Conservation to the Private Sector – The purpose of any corporation is to generate a profit for its stock-holders. The companies holding leases in the Divide are no different. The reason for private resistance to negotiations with the TDC is that these companies have invested in an opportunity to gain profit here in the Divide, and to prematurely sell these leases, without knowing the values they may hold, could be sacrificing those profits and harming their stock-holders.

Agency Structure – A major challenge for the Coalition has been pushing through the “bureaucratic spider-web” of working with an agency (i.e the BLM), which is designed to facilitate the extraction of mineral resources, not the transfer of those rights to organizations for conservation purposes. It is in part due to this organizational structure that the Thompson Divide Protection and Withdrawal Act is necessary to facilitate these transfers.

National Politics – The ongoing popularity of the buzz-phrase “energy independence” has, despite current economic conditions, increased pressure to keep the Divide open to drilling, in the present and into the future. This relates to the question of sacrificing locally for the national good and vice versa. Is it right for federal land to be permanently closed off to national economic and energy benefits in order to help a small local community?

Lessons Learned:

                Inclusion – The diverse backgrounds, personalities, and parties of the Coalition’s board and staff have resulted in well formulated solutions which represent many, if not all, of the perspectives involved.

                Civility – Throughout the years of flat-out refusals or silence from oil companies in response to the Coalition’s offers to buy leases, it was, perhaps, very tempting to demonize the industry. This would have rallied local, and perhaps even national, support for the TDC: the “little guy” in the fight against big oil. In refraining from doing so, the coalition is now reaping responses and respect from businesses; these once uncooperative corporations are now coming to the negotiation table. By remaining civil, the Coalition has left the door open for future cooperation and success.

                Free-market capabilities – By understanding and pursuing a free-market approach to conservation, organizations can perform powerful and lasting actions for the environment, using the same language and framework as those who would exploit it for profit. You no longer have to sell an oil company on the ideals of conservation, now you can sell them on its profitability. And that is definitely an easier sell.

Website Links: The Thompson Divide Coalition website can be found here . The Facebook page of the TDC is an active forum for all things relating to the groups work, from events, to news, to discussion.

A Divide United, this  short video produced by Peter McBride, gives a good overview of the issues and a beautiful look into the different landscapes that compose the Divide.



[1] Kenneth Salazar, “Secretarial Order No. 3289”, signed September 14, 2009.

[2] Zane Kessler, Executive Director of the Thompson Divide Coalition, Phone Interview, Interviewed by Author, August 6, 2013. 

[3] Jason Sewell, Protect the Thompson Divide, Op-ed piece in The Denver Post, May 22, 2013.

[4] Zane Kessler, August 6, 2013.

[5] The Thompson Divide Coalition Website, Accessed August 8, 2013, www.savethompsondivide.org.

[6] Scott Hanley, Outreach and Operations Coordinator of the Thompson Divide Coalition, Email Correspondence, October 10th, 2013.

[7] Bureau of Land Management, Thompson Divide Drilling proposal Information, Accessed August 7, 2013.

[8] Wilderness Workshop Website, Accessed August 8, 2013, www.wildernessworkshop.org

[9] The Thompson Divide Coalition Website, Accessed August 8, 2013.

[10] Michael F. Bennet,The Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act, accessed August 7, 2013, www.bennet.senate.gov/thompsondivide.

[11] Zane Kessler, August 6, 2013. 

[12] BBC Research and Consulting, The Economic Contribution of Thompson Divide to Western Colorado, March 20, 2013.

[13] Robert E Moran, Thompson Divide Baseline Water Quality Report, for Michael-Moran Assoc., LLC, February 2011.

[14] BBC Research and Consulting, The Economic Contribution of Thompson Divide to Western Colorado, March 20, 2013.

[15] Zane Kessler, August 6, 2013.

[16] Scott Hanley, Phone Interview, Interviewed by Author, August 6, 2013.

[17] John Groves, Thompson Divide Coalition Wildlife Summary, Colorado Division of Wildlife Release, April 14, 2009.

[18] Robert E. Moran, Thompson Divide Baseline Water Quality Report, February 2011.

[19] Ron Velarde, Oil and Gas Development Impacts to Wildlife in Thompson Divide, for Colorado Parks & Wildlife, March 18, 2013.

[20] David N. Cole, Environmental Impacts of Outdoor Recreation in Wildlands, in Society and Resource Management: A Summary of Knowledge (Jefferson City, Missouri, Modern Litho, 2004), 117.

[21] Bureau of Land Management, Thompson Divide Drilling proposal Information, Accessed August 7, 2013. http://www.blm.gov/co/st/en/fo/crvfo/thompson_divide_gas.html, July 18, 2013.  

[22] Zane Kessler, August 6, 2013.