The Thompson Divide area in Pitkin and Gunnison counties (Ecoflight photo).
A long-debated proposal to protect more than 220,000 acres of national forest land on Colorado’s Western Slope is close to becoming reality, but federal officials want to hear feedback from the public first.
In a draft environmental assessment released last month, the U.S. Forest Service found that the Biden administration’s proposed 20-year withdrawal of the Thompson Divide area near Crested Butte from federal mineral leasing would have “no significant impact,” clearing the way for the withdrawal to be finalized in 2024.
The finding is a win for conservationists and locals who have have fought for years to block oil and gas drilling and other mining activity on the 224,713-acre tract, which encompasses land administered by the USFS and the Bureau of Land Management, located mostly within Gunnison and Pitkin counties.
The release of the draft environmental assessment on Dec. 8 began a 30-day public comment period on the proposed decision. The agency had received more than 400 public comments as of Dec. 22, mostly in support of the withdrawal, including a letter from Dan Gibbs, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.
“We greatly appreciate the USFS putting in the effort to initiate this withdrawal,” Gibbs wrote. “This mineral withdrawal will help maintain the roadless characteristics that this area provides, while also maintaining the integrity of the cold water tributaries which are home to native populations of cutthroat trout. A withdrawal will also maintain intact habitat for a wide range of wildlife species including lynx, elk, mule deer and bear.”
Prohibiting mineral leasing on the Thompson Divide is one component of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act, a public lands package championed by Democrats in the state’s congressional delegation since 2019. With the bill stalled by Republican opposition, President Joe Biden in 2022 moved to implement several CORE Act provisions through executive action, designating the Camp Hale–Continental Divide National Monument near Leadville and proposing a 20-year pause on Thompson Divide mineral leasing.
Western Energy Alliance, a trade group that represents oil and gas companies that drill on public lands, has challenged the withdrawal of such a large tract of land, which it says exceeds the Forest Service’s authority. Evidence suggests that the Thompson Divide’s oil and gas “resources along with the associated production and royalty revenues are very significant,” Western Energy Alliance president Kathleen Sgamma wrote in a January 2023 letter.
But the Forest Service’s draft assessment found the impact on oil and gas development would be negligible, while “the proposed action would protect the agricultural, ranching, wildlife, air quality, recreation, ecological, and scenic values of the Thompson Divide area for both intrinsic and economic value to local communities.”
“We are very excited to see the Forest Service moving ahead with the proposed 20-year mineral withdrawal for the Thompson Divide and we are hopeful the agency will act quickly to finalize these important protections that our community has requested for many years,” Will Roush, executive director of Carbondale-based conservation group Wilderness Workshop, said in a press release. “The Thompson Divide is a special place for people and communities not just on the Western Slope, but across Colorado.”
Meanwhile, the CORE Act, which Colorado Democrats have reintroduced for a third time in Congress, still aims to make the proposed 20-year leasing withdrawal permanent. The bill stands little chance of being passed by the Republican-controlled House, where GOP lawmakers including Rep. Lauren Boebert of Silt have called it a “400,000-acre land grab.”
But CORE Act supporters celebrated a milestone for the bill on Dec. 14, when, together with separate legislation to establish protections for the Dolores River, it won approval from a Senate committee for the first time, with bipartisan support.
“These bills were crafted the Colorado way: through bipartisan collaboration and a common desire to protect Colorado public lands and waterways,” Democratic Sen. John Hickenlooper said in a statement. “It’s time to get them across the finish line on the Senate floor.”
Members of the public can submit comments on the Thompson Divide withdrawal on the Forest Service’s website until Jan. 8.
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