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Thompson Divide - Protecting a Slice of Classic Colorado Highcountry

There has been a recent flurry of media attention revolving around threats posed to several fisheries by mining and oil and gas development. While Bristol Bay’s Pebble Mine has received the lion’s share of coverage, a lesser known battle is being fought by both conservationists and sportsmen to protect a slice of classic Colorado high country known as the Thompson Divide. This video, featuring Backbone Media's Kara Armano, and short Q&A with Trout Unlimited’s Aaron Kindle will hopefully shed some light on some of the challenges facing this area.

We thank Aaron Kindle, Colorado Field Coordinator for TU's Sportsman's Conservation Project, for taking the time to discuss the threats facing the Thompson Divide.

American Angler:  Give our readers some background information on why TU formed Sportsmen for Thompson Divide.

Aaron Kindle:  We know the area is invaluable to the sporting community. TD has some of the best hunting in the entire state, is about half roadless, contains a dozen or so populations of Colorado River cutthroat trout, drains into Gold Medal waters and other important fisheries, and is quite likely the most pristine area in the lower 48 under threat of development. We became involved because we feel that this isn't an appropriate place for development of any kind, energy or otherwise.

American Angler:  The Thompson Divide has a rich hunting tradition, why is this area important from an angler’s perspective?

Aaron Kindle:  Basically, for cutthroat habitat, and due to the fact that its creeks drain into some of the more important high-value fisheries in the state – The Roaring Fork, the N. Fork of the Gunnison, and the Colorado Rivers. If there was a spill into the area creeks everything downstream would be affected; the chemicals could kill or harm the small isolated populations of cutthroat and migrate down into larger rivers that are hugely important to anglers.

American Angler:  For obvious reasons, the mining and fishing industries are often at odds. Is there anything about these leases that are particularly threatening to this area?

Aaron Kindle:  These are all natural gas leases. Many folks are highly concerned about the water use and water quality issues associated with natural gas development and fracking, especially in areas like the Thompson Divide because it is a community and agricultural water supply. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission estimates it takes about 2 million gallons of water per frack on each well – many of the wells would be fracked multiple times. Additionally, the area is teeming with wild animals. When any kind of development moves into an area, that wild state is compromised and animals and fish alter their patterns. They may be forced to leave the area and the economy and way of life that hunting and angling support could be severely diminished. The White River National Forest is also the most heavily visited forest in the nation and the local economy is really built around outdoor recreation. Most of the communities are unanimously against it for this reason in particular.

American Angler:  These mineral leases contain minimal surface stipulations. Does this simply mean that anything goes?

Aaron Kindle: Most leases are issued with stipulations that determine how an operator can behave on the surface of the lease. Some of these leases did not have the required environmental consultation (and the issuing agency, the BLM, admits this) so the appropriate stipulations were not applied to protect things like roadless areas, cutthroat populations, and other endangered species, such as lynx.

American Angler:  The issues swirling around Pebble Mine have been making national news of late. Do you think that this has helped your efforts by raising public awareness of the dangers posed by mining?

Aaron Kindle:  Maybe, but these are two different issues and two different types of extraction.

American Angler:  What type of support are you guys seeing on a local and a national level?

Aaron Kindle:  It doesn't seem to have become a national issue yet other than being embedded in the larger issue of where energy development is appropriate/not appropriate, but I think this so far has been fairly regional in scope.

American Angler:  Senator Michael Bennet has introduced the Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act in the United States Senate. Any idea when this bill comes up for a vote?

Aaron Kindle:  No idea. We hope it happens soon but it will probably sit for a while. We need support from some in the oil and gas industry for it to move in Congress. We are working on getting that support on a daily basis.

American Angler:  On his website, Senator Bennet provides citizens the opportunity to become citizen co-sponsors of his legislation. Is this the best way to show support?

Aaron Kindle:  Yes, folks can send Senator Bennet letters of support for his legislation and they can become citizen co-sponsors of the legislation. I think these are the two most important things the average person can do.

American Angler:  What else do you want American Angler readers to know about the Thompson Divide and how it will be managed in the future?

Aaron Kindle:  It's hard to say how it will be managed in the future. Hopefully it will be managed to retain the backcountry qualities it has now. It really is an icon for the debate on what areas are appropriate. If we are willing to develop areas as pristine and wild as the Thompson Divide, then it seems nowhere is off limits.  We know we need energy, but in order to have the correct balance we need to leave areas like the TD undeveloped and wild.

Click here to send a letter of support to Senator Bennet.
You may also support the Thompson Divide effort by following them on Facebook.

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