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Mayor logs trips to D.C. on Thompson Divide issues

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TDC picks up the tabs

John Colson

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Sopris Sun Staff Writer

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Carbondale’s Mayor Stacey Bernot has, for the past couple of years, taken a little time at some meetings of the Board of Trustees to inform the others on the board that she had recently been in Washington, D.C.

No, it wasn’t a move to make the trustees jealous of vacation time spent in the nation’s capitol.

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Instead, the reports were meant to let the trustees, any reporters on hand at the meeting and the viewing public (the meetings are televised) that she had once again gone east to lobby against controversial plans to drill for natural gas in the Thompson Divide area.

Bernot told The Sopris Sun that she has gone to Washington “I don’t know, at least five times over the last two-and-a-half years,” on airline flights paid for by the Thompson Divide Coalition (TDC), which also has paid for her accommodations on those trips unless she was able to arrange to stay with some of her husbands relatives in nearby Olney, Md., a town of some 38,000 people about 20 miles north of the capitol.

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The TDC, along with Carbondale, other local governments and numerous nonprofits concerned about land preservation, has been battling for several years to prevent oil and gas drilling in the Thompson Divide, roughly 220,000 acres of relatively untrammeled land between Sunlight Mountain Resort and McClure Pass to the southwest of Carbondale.

Bernot said of the costs of her lobbying efforts, has paid out “probably $72” toward her trips, the mayor continued, because “I’ve only charged parking to the town — twice.”

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In addition to Bernot, the trips have typically included officials from Pitkin County and Glenwood Springs, both of which are on the record as opposing gas drilling in the Thompson Divide area, along with area ranchers and others who are members of the TDC, such as rancher/activists Bill Fales, Jason Sewell and Ty Jacober, as well as TDC Executive Director Zane Kessler.

“I’ve been careful to be sure we’re consistent with the town’s position” regarding drilling in Thompson Divide, Bernot noted, explaining that the town has been focused on cancellation of some or all of 25 natural-gas extraction leases that were issued in 2003 without the requisite environmental analysis mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA.

That goal apparently was met last month, when the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced that it hoped to cancel 25 of some 65 leases it was re-examining in light of a court’s ruling that the NEPA analysis had not been done correctly in 1993. The remaining leases would either be limited in their drilling potential with a “no-surface-occupancy” designation, due to their location in roadless areas, or would be left open to exploration by the industry.

February trip

Bernot’s most recent trip was in late February, when she flew to Washington on Feb. 21, a Sunday, attended meetings at the U.S. Department of the Interior and the offices of U.S. Senators Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner over the next couple of days, and returned to Colorado on Tuesday.

She particularly was excited about a meeting with Tommy Beaudreau, chief-of-staff to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. He was well aware of the issues underlying the Thompson Divide controversy, Bernot said of Beaudreau, and actually has spent some of his youth in the Brush, Colorado area and was well aware of the energy industry’s boom-and-bust cycles that have afflicted the state for decades.

“I was just amazed,” she said, “that they knew all about Thompson Divide. They were on top of it [and seeking] workable solutions. That’s been Carbondale’s position all along.”

This was in marked contrast, she said, to an earlier trip when she met with officials in the office of Colorado’s U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton (R-3rd District).

“They thought this was private property,” she said of Tipton’s staff, who she said were highly critical of the Thompson Divide Coalition because they believed the coalition wanted to find some way to use the powers of eminent domain to force energy companies to give up their claims in the Divide.

“I was appalled that his staff didn’t know” about the true issues involved, Bernot said.

Kessler, reached while he was traveling in the Durango area and meeting with land-conservation activists there, confirmed that Bernot and others have been trekking to Washington to lobby on the TDC’s behalf.

Kessler, after confirming that the TDC has been paying to send supporting officials on lobbying trips, borrowed a phrase from former Sec. of State Hillary Clinton and said, “It takes a village (to fight against the energy industry’s plans) and we work to take that village to Washington, D.C.”

He noted that the trips to Washington are not the biggest bite out of the organization’s budget, which he said is “around $200,000 this year,” significantly lower than the organization’s reported revenues of about $500,000 in 2013.

Kessler explained that the organization’s staffing and activities have been slimming down over the past couple of years “as we got things done, as we crossed off boxes” in the TDC mission.

Since the disclosure by the BLM last month that the current thinking is to completely cancel 25 leases issued erroneously in 2003, as well as to limit development potential for about 13 other leases, Kessler said, the TDC has been able to scale back its work.

“That was huge,” he said of the BLM’s announcement in early February. “It’s the biggest return on the community’s investment yet,” referring to the work by nonprofits, the Town of Carbondale, Pitkin County and other organizations, and volunteers helping out with the effort.

Published in The Sopris Sun on March 10, 2016.

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