“We are continuing to work through the process of preparing the draft Environmental Assessment”
By Katherine Nettles
The White River National Forest and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) have postponed releasing their much-anticipated draft environmental assessment for the requested Thompson Divide Withdrawal as the U.S. Forest Service works through some unexpected delays with final internal reviews.
Originally the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) announced that it would be releasing the document on November 14, which relates to the proposed protection of nearly a quarter-million acres from national forests and BLM lands from being eligible for mining, oil and gas extraction for a period of 20 years. The plan’s release was to be accompanied by a public virtual information meeting that same week, but the meeting was cancelled when the draft was postponed by a few days. The later date came and went without a draft as well, and USFS representatives now say they do not know when the draft will be ready.
“The timeline has been extended for some final internal reviews,” said Olivia Blake, acting public affairs officer for the USFS, in a media update on November 17. “We are continuing to work through the process of preparing the draft environmental assessment and do not currently have an estimated date for its release.”
The Department of Interior (DOI) proposed the 20-year protection for the Thompson Divide area just over a year ago in October 2022, citing, “broad concerns about protecting the Thompson Divide’s important wildlife habitat, recreation opportunities, grazing lands and clean air and water.” The Thompson Divide area has not been available for oil and gas leasing for several years, and there is no current or planned oil exploration or production in the area, according to the DOI.
The areas to be protected would include Paonia Ranger District, western Aspen Ranger District and western Sopris Ranger District, and within Gunnison County it would include Mt. Emmons, aka Red Lady, above the town of Crested Butte.
The 20-year withdrawal is still subject to valid existing rights, so pre-existing natural gas leases in the area would not be affected. The DOI has identified pre-existing leases as comprising less than 1% of the 3,000-plus active federal leases in Colorado.
The 2022 proposal was followed by a 90-day public comment period prior to the current intensive Environmental Assessment process.
The 20-year limit on the protection is in place because permanent protections require an act of Congress. U.S. Senator Michael Bennet has made repeated efforts to pass such legislation since 2013 to no avail.
Blake confirmed again this week that the USFS is still working through some final internal reviews and does not have an updated release date.
The proposal process documents can be found at https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=6367 and a map of the proposed area for protection can be found at https://www.blm.gov/sites/default/files/docs/2022-10/Thompson%20Divide%20Map.pdf.