As the fight to keep natural gas drilling out of an area known as the Thompson Divide continues, two Roaring Fork Valley residents who operate lodging near the Divide flew over the contested area last week with Ecoflight. They say energy development would hurt their business. Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen went on the flyover and filed this report.
The clouds are clearing as our Cessna 210 leaves the ground. It’s a smooth takeoff and right away, snowcapped peaks come into view.
Inside the small plane, I’m sandwiched between Roaring Fork Valley residents opposed to oil and gas drilling in the Thompson Divide. The plane heads toward the Divide, an area southwest of Carbondale where energy companies have purchased still undeveloped leases to drill.
"The problem is that development is not compatible with the jobs and the existing uses in this area," says Zane Kessler, executive director of the Thompson Divide.
Back on the ground, he explains why his group opposes energy development in this remote area.
Right now, the BLM and Forest Service are reviewing plans that could impact the future of gas development here. U.S. Senator Michael Bennet is also sponsoring legislation that would protect 180,000 acres of the Divide. Kessler says it’s less acreage than initially proposed.
"We recognize that we’re not going to get everything we want and, we were perfectly happy when Senator Bennet said he was not going to include Mesa and Delta Counties in the boundary."
In some communities on the Western Slope, there’s broader support for future drilling in the Thompson Divide. In towns like Carbondale a majority opinion is to keep energy development out. The debate has raged for years and any resolution remains possibly years away.
"We literally have the entire Thompson Divide in our backyard," says Jim Hawkins, a homeowner just outside Glenwood Springs. He and his wife run a bed and breakfast.
"It’s very important to us how things go with this. Our lodging business of 17 years would be completely devastated if Four Mile Road became a haul route."
The Garfield County Commissioners made a policy decision to keep oil and gas traffic off of Four Mile Road, a road that’s not built to handle heavy loads. Still, County Manager Andrew Gorgey says enforcement would be difficult.
Hawkins is convinced if gas development comes to the Divide, his bed and breakfast would go under.
"If by some chance anybody wanted to stay there, they certainly don’t want to go up the road to go skiing in a gas field, or to go hiking or snowmobiling. Certainly, many of our guests use that area."
Jeff Bier also owns lodging near the contested area. He’s farther south, in Redstone. Bier is also convinced drilling in areas where his guests like to recreate would make a visit to his business less desirable.
"There’s some backcountry skiing back there," he says. "It’s not as popular as Aspen and that’s what makes it so valuable in my mind. And, of course, our income is associated people being to use that and enjoy what they come out of the metro areas to get away from."
Today’s flight over the Thompson Divide and over active drilling sites nearby only strengthens Hawkins and Bier’s anti-drilling sentiment.
During public meetings last spring, the BLM heard loud and clear from communities like De Beque and Parachute not to cancel 65 oil and gas leases up for review. Twenty-five of those are in the Thompson Divide. At issue for those who support development are jobs created by the industry.