When citizens want to block oil and gas development on public land, they usually get a lawyer and head to the courts. In Carbondale, the Thompson Divide Coalition has taken another approach, choosing instead a game plan that is rarely used in the West. So far, the Coalition’s so-called “market-based” approach has yet to bear fruit. Aspen Public Radio's Marci Krivonen reports.
Karl Rappold visits with neighbors in an area near his ranch in northwestern Montana. This scenic area, called the Rocky Mountain Front, is just south of Glacier National Park. Rappold’s family has worked the land here for more than a century. Recently though, Rappold has been dealing with lawmakers rather than cattle.
"I’ve been to countless meetings and I’ve been to Washington DC more times than I can count. I never, in my wildest dreams imagined I’d get involved in the government," he says.
Rappold, a former rodeo cowboy, still wears a cowboy hat. He’s been working to keep oil and gas development out of this area.
In the early 2000’s, a Canadian company announced they wanted to drill for natural gas on federal land near Rappold’s ranch. What bothered the 60-year-old rancher most was a plan to extend an old mountain road.
"I just don’t want to see this land roaded. I mean, all there is on my ranch is the same as when Lewis and Clark came through. That was what I wanted to maintain, the wildness of the front."
Rappold was determined enough that he organized a coalition of like-minded people to fight the oil company. And, he began lobbying lawmakers. Conservation groups rallied to protect the area. Other companies even willingly abandoned their oil and gas leases. Those that hung on, eventually accepted a cash offer from a foundation working with Rappold. That buy-out method is called a “market-based approach” and it’s familiar in the Roaring Fork Valley.
"The market-based approach we’re pursuing here has been pursued and proved successful in other areas around the West," says Zane Kessler, the Executive Director of the Thompson Divide Coalition.
The group is trying to keep natural gas drilling out of a stretch of public land between Carbondale and McClure Pass. They’ve held town hall meetings, worked with members of Congress, and offered cash to three primary lease-holders.
Kessler says the group was inspired by what happened on the Rocky Mountain Front.
"We’ve seen it successful elsewhere and we’re hopeful that we’ll have some success here."
So far, none of the companies have accepted the buy-out. The initial offer was $2.5 million. Earlier this year, Don Simpson of URSA Resources said that wasn’t enough.
"The buy-out offer that was offered in the past is way, way low for the value, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t come to some kind of agreement," he said.
The idea of buying out companies with leases on public land in the West is rare. It’s been successfully done twice, in Montana and Wyoming . Athan Manuel with the Sierra Club says his organization often heads to court, if they can’t first prevent leases from being established. The market-based approach is something he’s heard little about.
"It’s very unusual because normally we don’t have the money to buy a lease back from the companies. We’ve successfully gotten Congress to buy leases back sometimes, and even that’s pretty rare, but having individual groups buy leases back from a company is even more rare. If you have the resources, it’s worth a shot, it’s probably the longest shot, but it’s worth trying," he says.
Buy-out’s are routine on private lands but, Kessler says, utilizing the method on public land is a growing trend.
"There are a growing number of examples throughout the West where folks are recognizing the important impacts their public lands provide from an economic perspective and they’re really trying to discuss a market-based approach," he says.
The Thompson Divide Coalition in the Roaring Fork Valley wants to couple its cash offers with legislative action. In March, Colorado Senator Michael Bennet introduced a bill that would withdraw unleased public minerals in the area from future oil and gas development, and preserve existing property rights for current leaseholders. He calls it a “middle-ground” approach.
This story is the result of an environmental fellowship put on by the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources.