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Can Frackers Be Paid Off? How One Community Is Trying to Buy Out Oil and Gas Leases

The Thompson Divide has some of the best recreational opportunities in the country. It's also an important headwaters, but that may not be enough to save it.

Editor’s Note: Tara Lohan is traveling across North America documenting communities impacted by energy development for a new AlterNet project,  Hitting Home. Follow her trip on  Facebook or on  Twitter.

Craig Amichaux considers saving the Thompson Divide a last stand. “That’s all we’ve got left,” said Amichaux, an avid skier who runs a family campground in his native Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

The Thompson Divide encompasses 221,500 acres of national forest land in five Colorado counties (Pitkin, Gunnison, Garfield, Mesa and Delta) on the Rockies’ Western Slope. It’s the Colorado of glossy calendars and adventure brochures: Aspen stands, forested peaks, clear mountain streams, boundless wildlife, including big game.

It’s popular with outdoor enthusiasts of all stripes—mountain bikers, skiers, hikers, climbers, snowmobilers, anglers and hunters. It’s also been claimed by oil and gas companies, which won 81 mineral leases a decade ago (half of which are in roadless areas), courtesy of the Bush administration.

But a group called the Thompson Divide Coalition hopes to persuade the leaseholders, mostly three energy companies, to sell their stakes so the land can be protected from development.

This is an area that knows development well. The nearby Piceance Basin, which includes the ecologically rich Roan Plateau, just downstream of the Colorado River from the Thompson Divide, has 10,000 producing wells. Aerial photographs show a landscape pocked by well pads, pipelines and other infrastructure resulting from some of Colorado’s heaviest oil and gas drilling.

“The saddest part is what has happened down toward Rifle,” said Amichaux. “The Roan Plateau is a really neat place. We used to go up there all the time as kids. It just seems to me they’ve gutted that place. It makes you sad when you drive up there, it really makes you sad.”

The epicenter for much of the development has been in Garfield County around towns like Rifle, Silt and Parachute. Documentaries Split Estate and Gasland both captured stories of illness, devastation and disaster in Garfield County since the development took off, aided in many cases by techniques like fracking.

But Thompson Divide Coalition executive director Zane Kessler says, “There are just some places that are inappropriate for development,” and the Thompson Divide is one of them. “It’s not that the development shouldn’t occur anywhere, it’s that it shouldn’t occur everywhere.”

Kessler has a broad coalition of support behind him, including the majority of public sentiment in local communities. But he also has the leveraging power of some moneyed elites as the Thompson Divide sits just west of tony towns like Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Aspen.

While local environmental groups like the Wilderness Workshop are fighting the legality of some of the leases (which the BLM has admitted have “ NEPA deficiencies”), the Thompson Divide Coalition has a different approach—buy out the leaseholders. The question posed to these companies, says Kessler, is “Do they want to deal with the broader environmental community that will lock it up in the courts, or do they want a market-based solution?”

The coalition’s first offer to leaseholders is $2.5 million; a starting point to negotiations, says Kessler. Most of the leases were sold for dirtcheap, some at the absolute minimum of a couple of dollars an acre. Kessler says his group is willing to pay those costs and other expenses incurred in the last 10 years since the leases were issued. And they’re willing to come up in price if industry will meet them at the table. No deal has been reached yet and several of the companies were granted extensions in the leases from the BLM this spring, so they may have designs on the areas yet.

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