Aspen Leaders of the Thompson Divide Coalition implored Pitkin County residents to join their anti-drilling cause during a meeting Thursday night at Aspen High School.
“We need to mobilize 10,000 to 20,000 letters to federal agencies,” said Zane Kessler, who has served as the coalition’s executive director for less than two weeks. “We believe that the economic benefits of keeping our area scenic and protecting our water and wildlife far outweigh the short-term benefits of oil and gas.”
About 20 people attended the meeting and signed a list to receive updates on the project and the opposition effort. A similar coalition meeting Monday in Carbondale drew about 125 people.
Thompson Divide is an area of approximately 221,000 square acres west of Colorado Highway 133. About 80,000 of those acres, on the southern end, are in Pitkin County. The entire area stretches roughly from Sunlight Mountain Resort south to McClure Pass and from the Crystal River west to Divide Creek.
Gas-drilling company SG Interests and other energy companies have leases on federal land within the area but have yet to drill. Because SG’s leases are set to expire next spring, the company is moving quickly to secure the federal production permits that would enable it to retain its drilling rights.
In turn, the 4-year-old coalition is ramping up its efforts to stop the project even though the company has yet to file the necessary applications. Kessler said that SG’s formal filings in the near future will start the clock on public-comment periods to the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, the two agencies primarily involved in approving the company’s exploration and production plans.
Judy Fox-Perry, one of nine coalition board members, spoke early in the meeting about the progress the group has made to date. It has paid for a baseline water-quality report and an air-quality study and has offered $2.5 million to the leaseholders.
Of that amount, SG Interests was offered about $577,000. The company in April rejected the offer as inadequate, uncertain and contrary to its plans to develop the leases.
Of the 221,000 acres in Thompson Divide, about 180,000 acres are federal lands, Fox-Perry said.
“Our mission is to protect the entire federal lands from being developed,” she said.
Aside from the area’s value as a water source for people and wildlife, it’s also an economic driver for five counties, she said. Hunting and fishing activity brings in millions of dollars annually, and cattle-grazing operations overseen by members of the North Thompson Cattleman’s Association and other groups mean big business there, as well, she said.
In her PowerPoint presentation, she showed a photo of the idyllic setting of an area called Zimmerman Park and wondered aloud as to how it would look with gas-drilling operations.
“If they didn’t have access to this, or if this wasn’t a good place for their cattle to be, they wouldn’t be able to ranch,” Fox-Perry said.
She also told the crowd that if the gas companies are allowed to proceed with drilling, traffic problems within all the communities in and around the area will worsen.
“We’re not going to go down without a fight,” Fox-Perry said.