In the Central Rockies, just south of Carbondale, Colorado, lie 220,000 acres of rugged land known as the Thompson Divide. Punctuated by peaks and canyons, river valleys, dense glades, and wide meadows, the Divide is an endless playground for the skiers, climbers, and mountain bikers who explore its many trails and slopes in any season. Come winter, locals will spend their days skiing the Divide's backcountry, whether they're hiking to a stash of steep, deep glades a hundred yards off the end of an old road or skinning up the homegrown ski hill, Sunlight Mountain, which is surrounded by quality backcountry routes on all sides.
Beyond the endless skiing and recreation, the Divide is a stronghold for traditional ranching and it is the source of more than 15 watersheds. The wilderness is rich in heritage and natural resources. It is also a target for oil and gas giants who want to access natural gas deposits deep beneath the trails and trees.
It's a familiar story by now—big gas and oil companies threaten pristine land, while impassioned locals and nature-lovers fight to save it. Extensive horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing would create air, water, and noise pollution. Roads would have to be built, which would disrupt the natural habitat of wild animal populations and disturb the isolation so many recreationalists seek in the Divide. Drilling poses such a big threat to the Divide that it's triggered a strong opposition movement. Opponents have risen up with a mission to keep the Divide just as it is.
Currently, 105,000 acres in the Divide are at risk for drilling. In 2003-2004, the Bush administration sold 61 ten-year mineral leases to oil and gas companies, giving them the right to drill within the Divide. The federal government sold the leases without National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act review, nor public notification. Now, after strong public protest, certain leases have been suspended, which means they won't expire, but they also won't move forward, allowing for proper environmental reviews.
While wild and well loved, the Thompson Divide isn't completely pristine. Small scars left by old mines and an abandoned railroad line mark the local communities' past utilization of the land. For generations, ranchers have taken their herds into the divide to graze during the summer, and the Divide's watersheds support over 8,000 acres of cropland. The Divide's wealth of resources and recreation supports some 300 jobs and brings in an estimated $30 million in revenue annually, according to research done by the Thompson Divide Coalition. Recreation alone supports 138 jobs, including Darren Broome's, co-owner of Aloha Mountain Cyclery in Carbondale.
"A lot of us are transplants here. And we are transplants because we look for these areas to live that give us a certain lifestyle, an athletic lifestyle," says Broome. "You're constantly looking for that area where you can live and have access to good amenities, but then you can get away from it all at the same time…the Thompson Divide really gives us this little safe haven of nature."
Broome moved to the area eight years ago, and came to know and love the Divide through mountain biking, ski touring, and hiking, among other activities. He, like the majority of the town's residents, has both an economic and emotional stake in the land. "There are multiple facets of it that are scary to us. That's why we're so protective of it," says Broome. "It's not over yet, it's going to keep happening. But it's definitely not something this town is going to roll over for."
As the potential for drilling and its negative environmental and economic effects became public knowledge, a group of stakeholders who live in the nearby towns of Carbondale and Glenwood formed the Thompson Divide Coalition, whose mission is to save the Divide by protecting the land from drilling now and in the future. "It really started at the kitchen table of ranchers and outfitters and other folks here and evolved into what it is today," says Executive Director Zane Kessler, a native of Colorado who was brought in for his legislative expertise and experience.
Instead of heading straight to the courtroom, the Coalition is using a market-based solution, offering to buy back the leases from the individual leaseholders. A similar approach protected the Hoback Basin in Wyoming and the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana, and the Coalition hopes to repeat that success. Thanks to widespread public support and a strong campaign, the Coalition received huge grants from the Environment Foundation and Aspen/Snowmass, among other companies. Furthermore, Colorado Senator Michael Bennett introduced the Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act, which aims to give the Coalition the congressional authority they need to purchase existing leases for conservation purposes and withdraw the land from future leasing.
Despite their strong opposition to drilling the Divide, the Coalition takes a moderate stance on drilling itself, acknowledging their own—and the entire developed world's—dependency on it. Rather than demonize the industry, they instead emphasize that this land is poorly suited for the undertaking. It is wild and hard to access in many areas, and only represents one percent of the land currently leased in Colorado for drilling. Meanwhile, 99 percent of the Divide is utilized for recreation, sporting, and agriculture.
“You drive in, and there are hunters, fisherman, woodcutters, cattle operators. What you realize is that this is the people's place," says local rancher Jock Jacober, who, at 66, has lived in the area for nearly 20 years. Earlier that week, Jacober hunted in the Divide with his sons and rode through the highlands. Once the snow falls, he'll start up his daily "sunset cruises," leaving his house late in the afternoon to ski tour until past dark. A Colorado native, he's been backcountry skiing since the '70s. "People can just go out with their Labrador and ski around in the woods, and there's always a trail someone's broken in there," says Jacober. "Its real uniqueness is its accessibility. You just go out your back door."
With November around the corner, locals are getting in their last fall-colored bike rides before first dustings turn into early-season snowpacks. Meanwhile, the Coalition, which is already negotiating with nearly all of the leaseholders, continues to raise money to help fund the buybacks. Though no deals have been made, the Coalition is hopeful. With environmental reviews under way on the suspended leases, many companies may opt to sell rather than risk losing their right to drill without compensation. However, despite the positive outlook, nothing is completely certain—apart from the changing seasons. As soon as enough snow falls, locals will swap out bikes for skins and skis and head out the back door to their own secret stash.