Feds ban new oil and gas development on swath of Colorado public land in mountains

More than a decade of advocacy by a broad coalition of Colorado conservationists, ranchers, local governments and recreationists paid off Wednesday when federal officials banned new oil and gas development on 347 square miles of public land for the next 20 years.

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland withdrew a broad swath of Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service land from eligibility for future oil, gas and mineral development. The land makes up the Thompson Divide in central Colorado, and Wednesday’s decision does not affect permits or leases that have already been approved.

The decision was a historic win for the coalition of diverse interests that has advocated for the protections for more than 15 years.

“This mineral withdrawal will provide much deserved and long-lasting protection to the Thompson Divide, an area filled with immense aspen groves, vast roadless lands, community watersheds and rich wildlife habitat,” said Will Roush, executive director of Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, in a news release. “Preserving this ecologically intact ecosystem reflects the will of local communities and is critical for the state’s biological connectivity and biodiversity.”

The Thompson Divide is a rugged stretch of canyons, mountains, foothills and broad valleys that stretches south from Glenwood Springs to Crested Butte. The newly protected land lies west of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass and Raggeds wilderness areas.

It touches four counties — Pitkin, Delta, Gunnison and Garfield — and encompasses the headwaters of the North Fork of the Gunnison River and the aspen grove along Kebler Pass, one of the largest in the state.

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The Thompson Divide is an important resource for recreationists, hunters and ranchers. It also serves as a migration corridor for moose, elk, bears and lynx, according to Wildnerness Workshop.

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“This withdrawal is the culmination of a 17-year grassroots effort and is fantastic news for our community,” Bill Fales, a Carbondale rancher, said in a news release. “… This withdrawal will preserve the grazing so vital to our ranches. It will save our wildlife from additional pressures. It will protect the water supply for our towns and ranches, and this withdrawal will protect the beauty of this area that is so vital to our recreation economy.”

Only Congress can permanently block oil and gas development. For years, Sen. Michael Bennet has attempted to create permanent protections through the proposed Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act.

The most recent version of the bill, which is co-sponsored by Sen. John Hickenlooper and Rep. Joe Neguse, won approval from the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in December and continues to make its way through the legislative process.

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