A single-engine prop plane buzzes down an Aspen­–Pitkin County Airport runway and lifts into the cold, clear October sky. It’s an ideal day for flying, calm with little turbulence. Pilot Bruce Gordon steers the plane northwest up the Roaring Fork Valley toward Carbondale, passing over multimillion-dollar mansions on the outskirts of Aspen. Several minutes after takeoff, Gordon banks left and the scenery changes. The homes disappear as the plane glides over the Thompson Divide, 221,500 acres of uninhabited forestlands and mountain meadows, an area more than twice as large as the city of Denver. The landscape appears rugged and wild, a patchwork of dark timber, golden aspen groves, red and gray rock formations, and pale green open spaces. The topography resembles a colorful rug bunched up from all sides.

The Thompson Divide, which Governor John Hickenlooper has described as a Colorado “crown jewel,” is located within the White River and Gunnison national forests and includes portions of Pitkin, Garfield, Mesa, Delta, and Gunnison counties. Hunters and ranchers have used this land for generations. More recently, hikers, mountain bikers, backcountry skiers, and other nature lovers have discovered the divide; the area’s scenery, trails, and abundant wildlife have become the backbone of Carbondale’s recreation- and nature-based economy. Says Gordon, “This is as beautiful a landscape as you’ll see in Colorado.”

After several passes over the divide, Gordon flies farther north, leaving the area. Again the scenery changes. We cross I-70 and enter the western Colorado gas patch, which stretches from the towns of New Castle, Silt, and Rifle west toward the Utah border. As recently as the 1990s, this was cowboy country, a stark natural area composed of high-desert sagebrush, family-owned ranches, and one of the state’s largest mule deer herds. Now the area is home to thousands of gas wells.

During the past decade, the United States has undergone a natural gas drilling boom that has transformed parts of Colorado and other states. Coal once powered America, but natural gas is replacing coal as the fuel of choice for electric power plants. Natural gas burns cleaner and emits less carbon dioxide, prompting some to call it a bridge fuel that will help America lower its carbon emissions. The resulting gas fields, however—with heavy machinery, noise, lights, vehicles, and chemicals—are highly impactful on the land, water, air, and wildlife. “People in this region,” says Peter Hart, a staff attorney for the Carbondale-based conservation group Wilderness Workshop, “have seen this part of Colorado sliced and diced and changed from a very rural landscape to an industrial landscape.”

After more than an hour in the air, Gordon maneuvers the plane back toward Aspen, and once again we pass over the verdant wilderness of the Thompson Divide. As president of the nonprofit EcoFlight, Gordon provides policymakers, conservationists, and journalists with aerial views of public lands; he’s made hundreds of trips over this part of Colorado. Recent passengers have included billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer and U.S. Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, whose interest in the area has to do with the possibility that oil and gas drilling could one day turn the Thompson Divide into something more like the gas patch.

Thousands of oil and gas wells reside just west of the Thompson Divide, a swath of Colorado open space that activists are fighting to keep from being drilled. —Image by Earthjustice; data current as of January 27, 2016

On an early morning last October, I met Zane Kessler, executive director of the conservation group Thompson Divide Coalition, about 15 miles outside Carbondale at a trailhead in Coal Basin. Coal Basin is one of about 10 federal grazing allotments in the divide. Kessler had agreed to show me the land from ground level and introduce me to some of the locals who rely on the divide for their livelihoods. I hoisted myself into a saddle atop an old steed named Gentle Ben. Kessler and I wended our way upward on a steep dirt trail, passing through a pine forest and skirting the edges of several sharp drop-offs. Forty-five minutes later, we emerged into a sunlit open meadow bounded by aspen glades and tall ridgelines.

The Thompson Divide is named after Myron Thompson, a homesteader who traveled west in the 1870s and eventually settled in the Crystal River Valley. Thompson grew potatoes in the rich bottomland soils and raised sheep in the high country. Three decades later, President Theodore Roosevelt spent four weeks in the divide hunting bear and other big game. In his journals he described the area as “a great, wild country.” An avid outdoorsman and early conservationist, Roosevelt had ample appreciation for the West’s untamed open spaces: He established the U.S. Forest Service, created 150 national forests, and protected more than 200 million acres of public lands.

Today, the United States federal government owns approximately 640 million acres of land. The Thompson Divide encompasses one of Colorado’s most sizeable unprotected swaths of wilderness. It’s home to one the state’s largest old-growth spruce-fir forests and portions of the state’s largest aspen forest. Wildlife is abundant: The Thompson Divide contains a significant quantity of the state’s black bear population, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife has referred to the area as “the elk factory.” Creeks and streams here contain one of the state’s last remaining genetically pure strains of cutthroat trout. Roosevelt and Thompson would still recognize the land today.

A fly-fisherman at a stream within the Thompson Divide, a vast roadless area eyed by energy companies. —Photo by Joshua Duplechian

The Thompson Divide also remains one of the last bastions of traditional ranching culture in western Colorado. In some places, ranchers use ATVs; here, all the work is done on horseback. A handful of ranches graze cattle in the Coal Basin and nearby Thompson Creek allotments administered by the Forest Service. On that morning in October, a group of ranchers and cattle wranglers atop horses greeted Kessler and me amid the knee-high grass of Coal Basin.

The group was conducting its annual fall cattle roundup, gathering livestock that had spent about four months in the high country and pushing them down the mountain before hunting season. It had been a good summer. Abundant rains produced lots of forage, and the cattle looked fat and happy. The ranchers were in high spirits. “This is really good cow country,” says rancher Bill Fales, accompanied by his wife, Marj. The Fales have 57 cows and calves in Coal Basin and another 150 in the Thompson Creek area. Both in their 60s now, the Fales hope their daughters will one day take over the ranch. “I want this land to be here for them, for the grazing and hunting and wildlife and recreation that people have enjoyed here for generations,” Bill says. “Putting heavy machinery and roads up here would just wreck the landscape.”

Nearby, another rancher, Tai Jacober, surveyed the geography from atop his horse. Jacober is the co-owner of Crystal River Meats, a Carbondale company that raises hormone- and antibiotic-free grass-fed beef. He started with two cows in 1999 and has grown Crystal River into a company with $18 million in annual revenues. Jacober is a burly guy who speaks in a low gravelly voice and wears cowboy boots. He’s no hippie; still, he talks passionately about the importance of low-impact grazing that is mindful of the land, water, and wildlife. “Our goal,” he says, “is to protect open space through agriculture.”

The land on which these ranchers make a living is also prized by hunters. Colorado Parks and Wildlife sells more than 20,000 big-game licenses for the region annually. Hotels in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale, and Redstone fill up each fall with hunters who come seeking bear, elk, and deer. “Those hunters stay in the hotels, eat in the restaurants, buy food and ammunition and supplies, and fill their tanks at gas stations,” says Bolling Jones, owner of Avalanche Outfitters at Redstone Stables, which offers pack trips, elk hunt guiding services, and horseback rides in the divide. Jones and his wife, Nicole, had ridden on horseback into Coal Basin to assist their rancher friends with the roundup. Says Jones, “This business helps sustain the local economy, year after year.”

North and west of the divide in the gas patch, deer herds have declined, which harmed the local hunting business. In the state’s White River hunting unit, the mule deer population has plummeted from a post-hunt size of 105,860 in 2005 to 37,530 in 2014, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife data. “The elk and big game don’t do well in areas where there’s drilling,” Jones says. “They don’t want to be messed with, which is why they come up [to the divide at] 10,000 and 12,000 feet; it’s still wild up here. If the oil and gas industry came in here, it would shoot this beautiful country all to hell and probably ruin our business.”

After several hours in Coal Basin, Kessler and I left the ranchers to their work. We headed down the mountain and returned to Carbondale, a town of 6,574 located on the Thompson Divide’s northeast corner. With its farmers’ market, yoga studios, microbreweries, farm-to-table restaurants, bike paths, and Main Street dotted with art galleries and boutiques, Carbondale is a quintessential New West community. It was not always so. Until the early 1980s, Carbondale was a coal town. “When the coal went away, we had to reinvent ourselves,” says Mayor Stacey Bernot.

“Like lots of small towns, we don’t agree on much,” Bernot says. “But the Thompson Divide issue has galvanized our community.”

The story of the Thompson Divide leases begins in the early part of the previous decade, during President George W. Bush’s first term. With its Texas roots and oil industry ties, the Bush administration entered the White House with the explicit goal to fast-track more energy exploration on public lands. Thanks to a technology called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking (a process that injects chemicals into coal and shale formations under high pressure, thus fracturing the geologic formations and freeing the oil or gas trapped within), and new horizontal drilling techniques, parts of western Colorado that were previously not economical to drill suddenly became a red-hot location for gas production. The drilling boom took off.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oversees minerals exploration on public lands, including national forests. Energy companies nominate parcels for exploration, and the BLM conducts lease auctions in which companies bid for exclusive drilling rights. Under the Bush administration, BLM offices in Colorado and across the West ramped up the number of lease sales, putting millions of acres of public lands on the auction block. “It was a deluge,” says Mike Chiropolos, an environmental attorney who at the time worked for the conservation group Western Resource Advocates.

Well pads constructed atop the Roan Plateau, an area near Rifle that falls within the western Colorado gas patch. —Photo by Bruce Gordon / Ecoflight

Conservation groups and concerned citizens had difficulty tracking the onslaught of lease sales. Often, the only public notification that a parcel was up for auction consisted of a piece of paper tacked to a BLM office bulletin board. “The public notices would have descriptions such as ‘Township 43, Range 23, Section 25,’?” says environmental consultant Doug Pflugh. “It was absolutely meaningless to most people.” As a result, few residents of Carbondale and the surrounding areas knew that in 2003 and 2004, the BLM had sold off the rights to drill thousands of acres in the Thompson Divide.

In addition to a subpar notification process, the BLM did not conduct a required environmental review before leasing the public land. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) states that an environmental assessment must be completed before “major federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.” In some situations, NEPA allows for ancillary or “coordinating” agencies to conduct the necessary environmental review, and in this case, the U.S. Forest Service had issued an environmental analysis for the land in 1993. That analysis, however, was never adopted by the BLM. “The fervor of the era,” says Peter Hart, the Wilderness Workshop attorney, “was ‘lease before you look.’ There was a huge amount of leasing without full compliance with environmental laws.”

At that time, Pflugh worked as a research analyst for the group Earthjustice. The organization was concerned that the leasing rush had led to the government taking administrative shortcuts. Pflugh began to examine the leases. He used GIS (geographic information system) software to create maps of proposed and finalized lease sales, converting technical coordinates into rectangles and squares on maps. He then cross-referenced those leases with maps of roadless or wilderness areas, where federal law restricts drilling and new road construction. It was during this research that Pflugh discovered three leases in the Pitkin County portion of the Thompson Divide, a pristine, roadless area. He sent the information to colleagues and stakeholders, which is how it made its way to Chiropolos.

In late 2003 or early 2004, Chiropolos, concerned by Pflugh’s findings, submitted a comment on the BLM leasing proposal; he argued the leased lands were located within national forest roadless areas, which were recognized by the state as having tremendous ecological value. The BLM disregarded his objections. He then went to the Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA), a judicial body within the U.S. Department of the Interior that manages appeals to projects handled by the BLM and other land agencies. Three years later—a standard length of time for a review—the IBLA sided with Chiropolos and deemed the three leases invalid. The IBLA cited the BLM’s failure to conduct the environmental review of the parcels required by NEPA. Two years after that, in 2009, the BLM formally revoked the leases. It was a victory for conservationists; leases are contractual agreements that designate property rights to the lease holders and are seldom revoked.

The IBLA ruling led the BLM to scrutinize other leases issued around the same time. It found that land on which the Sunlight Mountain Resort near Glenwood Springs was operating had been leased for drilling in violation of federal policy. (Portions of those leases were canceled in 2010, and the ski area is still operating.) The agency also began to investigate whether some leases in the White River National Forest, including several in the divide, had the same “deficiencies” as the ones reviewed by the IBLA—whether the BLM had failed to conduct or adopt environmental reviews before selling the leases.

Carbondale residents were aghast when they learned—years after the leases were issued—that oil and gas companies had plans to drill recreation land just above town that contained the headwaters for some of the town’s water supply. Concerned locals formed the Thompson Divide Coalition to fight the leases and permanently protect the area. The coalition quickly grew into a broad-based group whose supporters include the Carbondale and Pitkin County governments, local citizens, and individuals from across the political spectrum: “don’t tread on me” conservatives, liberal environmentalists, blue-collar hunters, recreationists, and multigenerational ranchers and farmers.

In February 2013, Carbondale Mayor Bernot hosted a community meeting to discuss the leases. Citizens packed the town hall. While there were environmental concerns, the top objections were about jobs and the economy. According to a study commissioned by the coalition and conducted by the Denver economic firm BBC Research & Consulting, recreation, grazing, hunting, and fishing in the Thompson Divide generate $30 million annually and support 294 jobs. “Oil and gas is a big payoff for a small few,” Kessler says. “Everyone else loses. Hunting decreases. Recreation decreases. People don’t go backpacking in a gas patch.” Kessler stresses that the coalition is not unequivocally opposed to drilling operations elsewhere in the state. Rather, he says, “this is about local control and a community’s desire to determine its own future.”

About a month after Carbondale residents voiced their opposition during the town hall meeting, the BLM announced it would suspend 25 leases in the Thompson Divide and conduct a formal environmental review—something the agency concluded had never occurred despite being required by the law years earlier. (No drilling had begun on the land associated with the 25 leases.) David Boyd, the BLM’s current spokesperson for northwestern Colorado, said the BLM’s failure to conduct proper environmental analyses was “probably an oversight.”

The BLM has hosted community meetings to solicit public comment and will gather input from other federal agencies such as the Forest Service, which has since recommended that any unleased portions of the divide should not be drilled. (By fall 2013, the BLM had determined that, in addition to the 25 Thompson Divide leases, another 40 elsewhere in the White River National Forest were deficient.) The BLM is expected to publish the results of the review this summer and make a final decision by the fall.

This past November, the agency released preliminary findings, which contained good news for the Thompson Divide Coalition. The BLM suggested it could cancel 18 of the 25 leases and modify the remaining seven. The modifications could impose stipulations that forbid drilling near creeks and streams or during times of year important to wildlife, such as elk calving season; those restrictions would necessitate directional drilling that would have less of an impact on surface soils. The stipulations could make it economically unfeasible to drill. Kessler and the coalition were quick to call the findings a victory, but the BLM stressed it is still considering all options until its final decision later this year.

Oil and gas industry trade groups were frustrated by the BLM’s preliminary findings. The West Slope Colorado Oil & Gas Association and Western Energy Alliance issued statements saying a revocation of the leases would undermine the rule of law because the leases represent a binding contract with the government. David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Association, further categorized the effort to fight the leases as “an affluent demographics issue parading as an environmental issue.” As for the lack of environmental review,  including the BLM’s failure to adopt the old Forest Service analysis, Ludlam described the situation as a technicality, “an administrative procedural error.” He said the West Slope Association is considering legal recourse should the leases ultimately be revoked.

Two companies, Houston-based SG Interests and Denver-based Ursa Resources Group II, own the Thompson Divide leases in question. Robbie Guinn, vice president for SG Interests, said his company would take legal action if the BLM follows through with the revocation. The company, Guinn says, has spent $930,000 on well permits for the Thompson Divide leases and another $530,000 on purchasing the leases, annual rental payments, title and survey work, and other overhead. “But that in no way represents the value of these leases,” Guinn says. “We believe there are significant resources there.” Don Simpson, vice president of business development for Ursa, declined to comment on what his company would do if the leases were canceled. “A complete termination would be very impactful,” Simpson says. “It is a sizeable asset. Even a partial altering of the lease’s drilling conditions would diminish Ursa’s investment in the leases by raising the cost of drilling.”

No matter the result of the BLM’s environmental review, it is unlikely to mark the end of the Thompson Divide saga. “Whatever our decision is,” says the BLM’s Boyd, “I would expect a legal challenge.”
At the very least, the fight over the divide has spotlighted the drilling boom in western Colorado and raised questions about the processes by which public lands are leased for oil and gas exploration across the country. Today, there are 2.3 million acres of federal lands leased for mineral exploration in northwestern Colorado alone.

The fight also speaks to the changing economic reality of Western public lands, where tourism and recreation now compete with the energy industry as drivers of prosperity. “For many decades we thought jobs in the West had to come from resource extraction,”Kessler says. “That’s clearly not the case anymore, and it represents a shift in thinking.”

Before leaving the Thompson Divide region, I made one final stop at Sunfire Ranch, located on 1,300 acres along the Crystal River between Redstone and Carbondale. Several locals had suggested I visit the ranch because it contained an important piece of history.

Ranch owner Jason Sewell greeted me and invited me in. He gave me a tour of the property and then showed me the artifact the locals had spoken about: a framed document, dated April 26, 1893, that hung on a wall inside Sewell’s home. The paper is the original homestead patent for his land, issued to Myron Thompson and signed by President Grover Cleveland.

The aging document is Sewell’s most prized family heirloom. Thompson was Sewell’s great-great-grandfather, and this property is Sewell’s link to a legacy of self-sufficiency and land stewardship that has endured for more than a century. Sewell grew up here and inherited the ranch in 2004. He sees a bright future for local agriculture in Carbondale and is investing in improvements to once again turn the property into a profitable farm.

After showing me the homestead patent, Sewell brought me outside to a garden plot with several greenhouses that last summer produced a plentiful harvest of tomatoes and vegetables, which Carbondale residents and restaurants purchased. Sewell plans to continue to provide Carbondale and the Roaring Fork Valley with locally grown organic produce. “I want to lay the foundation for this land to be financially and environmentally sustainable for generations to come,” Sewell says, “for my grandkids’ kids.”

Sewell worries that drilling in the Thompson Divide could end that dream. Thompson Creek, whose headwaters originate high up in the divide, flows across Sewell’s property and irrigates his land. He says he thinks about how drilling would introduce the chance of toxic spills and water pollution. “We have some of the cleanest water in the West here,” he says. “If Thompson Creek gets polluted, this place is worthless.” Sewell says he and his wife have talked about that, about how if the creek were to become polluted, they might have to leave the area. The last familial connection to the man who first settled the land and provided the divide with its name would pack up and move on. “It would break my heart and ruin me,” Sewell says, “but I couldn’t in good conscience stay here and raise my children.”