Colo. foundation gives $50k for Thompson Divide lease buybacks

Posted: May 14, 2013

Written by

Scott Streater, E&E
Thompson Divide

An Aspen, Colo.-based nonprofit foundation that has given away millions of dollars in the past decade for regional conservation projects has awarded its single largest grant yet to three conservation groups working to buy back oil and natural gas leases in the pristine Thompson Divide.

The Environment Foundation, which is funded through a volunteer payroll deduction plan among Aspen Skiing Co. employees and matching funds from its partners, recently issued $50,000 to the Thompson Divide Coalition, the Wilderness Workshop and EcoFlight for their efforts "preventing oil and gas drilling in the Thompson Divide," according to the grant title.

At issue are the 25 valid leases underlying northwest Colorado's White River National Forest, which have been hotly contested by conservation and local government leaders who question the suitability of allowing oil and gas drilling in the Thompson Divide. The 221,000-acre area has high natural resource values, providing migration routes for wildlife, spring calving grounds for elk and deer, and habitat for Colorado cutthroat trout.

The Thompson Divide Coalition, which is spearheading efforts to buy back the leases, was awarded $20,000, as was the Carbondale, Colo.-based Wilderness Workshop. Aspen-based EcoFlight, which works to preserve wildlife habitat and has opposed drilling in the area, was awarded $10,000.

The Environment Foundation, whose employee contributions are matched by the Aspen Community Foundation and the Aspen Skiing Company Family Fund, as well as corporate sponsors such as Green Mountain Coffee Roasters Inc., has distributed $2.2 million in grants since 1998.

The Thompson Divide Coalition comprises conservation and sporting groups that have been trying to raise money needed to buy back the valid leases, which in total cover about 100,000 acres.

The coalition already made an opening offer of $2.5 million that was rejected last year by the energy companies holding the leases.

"This really is about encouraging all the parties of coming together to find a workable solution, one that allows the oil and gas companies to preserve those lands," said Matthew Hamilton, the Environment Foundation's executive director. "We're going to have gas drilling, there's tons of gas drilling. But do we need to drill everywhere? Or are there other places that ought to be left for future generations?"

Hamilton said the foundation's 15-member board, composed of Aspen Skiing employees, decided the time was right to contribute to the cause because "there's a lot of energy right now for bringing people together and finding a solution."

Part of that growing movement toward conservation includes a bill filed in March by Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet (D) that calls for withdrawing all unleased public lands in the Thompson Divide area from future development but also respects the rights of valid industry leaseholders in the region (E&ENews PM, March 22).

That is where local efforts to preserve the area and buy back the leases come into play.

"We are very excited to have the support of the Environment Foundation," said Zane Kessler, executive director for the Thompson Divide Coalition.

Kessler said the money would go mostly to conduct additional analysis and geological research that could help his group better calculate the market value of the land at issue. That, in turn, could help during negotiations with the leaseholders as they work to find a buyout price that keeps drilling out of the area and "makes these leaseholders whole on their investment," he said.

There's also growing momentum for a government solution. The Bureau of Land Management last month agreed to suspend the 25 leases, most of which were set to expire this month. Doing so extends the expiration date on the leases until April 2014.

BLM said that during the coming months it will undertake additional reviews to "remedy a defect" when the leases were originally sold, namely a lack of National Environmental Policy Act analysis, to determine whether the leases should be voided, reaffirmed or subject to new environmental protections.

But part of the reasoning in suspending the leases was to give the Thompson Divide Coalition and others enough time to raise the money and buy back the leases before they are developed.

In the meantime, the Wilderness Workshop will use the money to help ensure no drilling projects are allowed in the area while the long-term work of buying back the leases moves forward, said Peter Hart, a conservation analyst and staff attorney with the workshop.

"Our goal is ensuring that the remarkable values of the Thompson Divide are preserved long enough so that if a buyback occurs, those values are still in place," Hart said. "We're working on the short-term goal of making sure the landscape is not drilled while those long-term things are happening."

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