A win for precious Colorado landscapes: Oil and gas leases cancelled in Thompson Divide, Roan Plateau

Aspen grove in Thompson Divide

Peter Hart

The Bureau of Land Management announced its final decision on Nov. 17 to cancel illegally issued drilling leases in Colorado’s Thompson Divide and protect much of Roan Plateau from new leases.

Editor's Note: On March 1, Colorado Senator Michael Bennet filed a bill that would withdraw most of the public lands in the Thompson Divide from future energy lease sales. If passed, the Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act of 2017 would help safeguard precious Colorado landscapes from all future energy development.

After decades of defending Colorado’s Thompson Divide and Roan Plateau from illegal oil and gas leases, local communities and conservation groups are celebrating new protections from oil and gas leasing on more than 60,000 acres in northwest Colorado.  

A large portion of illegally-issued leases in the scenic Thompson Divide area will be canceled. And just northwest, a total of 90 percent of the Roan Plateau, northeast of Grand Junction, will now be protected from oil and gas drilling under the BLM's new plan for the area. 

“The BLM was right to protect these Colorado gems under its longstanding authority to review improper leasing decisions. Both the Roan Plateau and Thompson Divide are too wild to drill and should be protected for their wild character.” said Nada Culver, The Wilderness Society’s senior director of agency policy and the BLM Action Center.

"Both the Roan Plateau and Thompson Divide are too wild to drill and should be protected for their wild character.”

The Wilderness Society and its partners have worked to ensure that our most wild, sensitive places are not threatened by energy development. For too long, energy development has threatened wildlife habitat, outdoor recreation and the economy of local communities in Colorado, but the cancellation of leases that were improperly issued in two regions treasured by Coloradans brings hope that the Bureau of Land Management will continue to move toward managing lands in a more balanced manner and not just automatically default to leaving land open to energy development.

Thompson Divide finally recognized as “Too Wild to Drill

In Colorado’s White River National Forest, the BLM canceled 25 leases in the scenic Thompson Divide, near the town of Carbondale. This is an important victory in the longer battle to protect this otherwise unspoiled area that is largely uninhabited and rightfully considered by many to be one of Colorado’s most scenic areas.

The open spaces of Thompson Divide provide the perfect opportunity for hiking, hunting and other recreational activities. Photo: Ecoflight

Under President George W. Bush, 65 leases were hastily and illegally granted—without the required environmental review—to drill for oil and gas in this Colorado landscape. In late 2015, the BLM decided to review the illegal leases and hold a 30-day public comment period to determine if some or all the leases should be canceled. Nearly 76,000 people spoke up in favor of canceling the leases, including ranchers and local business owners.

The BLM’s cancellation of 25 of these leases will help protect more of Thompson Divide’s mountain peaks, clear trout streams and endless aspen groves. More work needs to be done to protect tens of thousands of acres of roadless areas and scenic landscapes—one of Colorado’s most-visited recreation hotspots—in the White River National Forest.

Incredible landscapes in White River National Forest are still threatened by oil and gas leasing. Photo: John Mullen.

Described by President Theodore Roosevelt as “a great, wild country… where the mountains crowded together in chain, peak, and tableland; all of the higher ones wrapped in an unrent shroud of snow,” the Thompson Divide is a nearly a 220,000-acre stretch of wildlife habitat and rich hunting grounds in the White River National Forest. The area is an important supporter of Colorado’s recreation industry, attracting hikers, climbers, and Nordic skiers, as well as others who come to catch a glimpse of the elk, black bear and peregrine falcon that roam and soar through the valleys and sub-alpine meadows. 

Rich ecology on top of Roan Plateau now protected

Towering 3,000 feet above the Colorado River, the Roan Plateau was described by the BLM as an area of “clearly comparable biological significance” to national parks and monuments nearby, providing an oasis for wildlife, hunters, anglers and hikers.

A wide range of elevation provides refuge for plants and animals alike. Thousands of acres of remote roadless land with mountain meadows, juniper woodlands and sagebrush provides habitat for some of the country’s largest mule deer and elk herds, bear and mountain lions. On top of the plateau, four bisecting streams provide important habitat for the rare and native Colorado cutthroat trout, a species that occupies less than 10 percent of its historic range.

Mule deer are just once species that depend on natural habitat on top of Roan Plateau. Photo: John Gale

In 2008, the conservation community and sportsmen’s groups sued to block a drilling plan that threatened this treasured landscape. In 2012, a federal court in Denver ruled in favor of these groups, telling the BLM revise its plan for oil and gas development, but leases had already been sold.

Finally, in 2014 a legal agreement was reached to cancel existing oil and gas leases atop the Roan Plateau, and the announcement on Nov. 17 of a new management plan ensures that 90 percent of the land on top of the plateau will now be protected from oil and gas drilling. Importantly, there will be no surface disturbance from well pads and drilling infrastructure and the BLM will designate areas for conservation to safeguard fish and wildlife habitat.

Various elevations in the Roan Plateau allow a variety of plants to grow, including some tiny wildflowers that are endangered. Photo: Scott Braden

Now, it is important that the BLM moves forward with making this plan work on the ground. As deer and elk herds traverse the nearly 35,000 acres now protected from energy development, this outdoor recreationist haven will continue to thrive, aiding the roughly $9.3 billion recreation industry in northwest Colorado.

Let’s continue to protect our special wildlands

The cancellation of leases and protection of these landscapes is a cause for celebration—it took decades of fighting and collaboration with many stakeholders from all different backgrounds to protect thousands of acres in northwest Colorado from drilling. But there are still many places threatened that we know are just too wild drill.

While BLM has taken significant steps to begin to balance its management policies, most of our public lands are open to drilling activity. As we move into a new administration, it is now more important than ever that we continue to work with the BLM to modernize energy development on our public lands and ensure our wild places are protected for generations to come.