Chase Woodruff

(Colorado Newsline) Colorado lawmakers on Wednesday hailed the announcement by federal officials that 220,000 acres of national forest land on Colorado’s Western Slope will be protected from oil and gas development and mining for at least the next 20 years.

The U.S. Interior Department confirmed that it would withdraw the Thompson Divide area near Crested Butte from federal mineral leasing, following an 18-month review process and more than a decade of advocacy by local conservationists and Colorado officials.

“This announcement is a testament to the persistence of Colorado’s farmers, ranchers, hunters, anglers, recreationists, wildlife enthusiasts, and conservation groups, who were unrelenting in their work to protect the landscape we all love,” Bennet, a Democrat who has long championed the move, said in a press release.

“The Thompson Divide area is a treasured landscape, valued for its wildlife habitat, clean air and water, and abundant recreation, ecological and scenic values,” said U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. “The Biden-Harris administration is committed to ensuring that special places like these are protected for future generations.”

Prohibiting mineral leasing in the Thompson Divide area is one component of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act, a public lands package championed by Democrats in the state’s congressional delegation since 2019. With the bill stalled by Republican opposition, President Joe Biden in 2022 moved to implement several CORE Act provisions through executive action, including the designation of the Camp Hale–Continental Divide National Monument near Leadville.

While oil and gas trade groups opposed the move, a U.S. Forest Service assessment last year found the impact on the industry would be negligible, while “the proposed action would protect the agricultural, ranching, wildlife, air quality, recreation, ecological, and scenic values of the Thompson Divide area for both intrinsic and economic value to local communities.”

The withdrawal order applies to nearly 200,000 acres of in the White River and Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison national forests, in addition to 20,000 acres of public land administered by the Bureau of Land Management. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act authorizes the Interior Department to order such withdrawals for a maximum of 20 years.

The CORE Act, which Colorado Democrats have reintroduced for a third time in Congress, still aims to make the withdrawal permanent. The bill stands little chance of being passed by the Republican-controlled House, where GOP lawmakers including Rep. Lauren Boebert of Windsor have called it a “400,000-acre land grab.”

But a long list of local elected officials and conservation advocates say Wednesday’s announcement has been a long time coming.

“We have worked for almost two decades to secure meaningful protection for the Divide, with ranchers, hunters, anglers, mountain bikers, off road vehicle users, and environmentalists coming together in an unlikely alliance to preserve the current uses of these lands,” Jason Sewell, a rancher and president of the Thompson Divide Coalition, said in a statement. “While we will continue to advocate for permanent protections for the Thompson Divide as afforded in the CORE Act, we could not be more thrilled to know that this landscape will continue for the next 20 years to provide the recreational opportunities, jobs, and wildlife habitat that it has for generations.”