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Peter Hart’s roots go deep in Colorado history

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Attorney for Wilderness Workshop

By John Colson

Sopris Sun Staff Writer

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Throughout nearly 10 years of disputes over oil and gas leases in the Thompson Divide, one man’s name has been both prominent and, because of the bureaucratic nature of the fight, somewhat unknown and unexplained to the public until recently — Peter Hart, an attorney working with the Wilderness Workshop (WW) nonprofit organization in Carbondale.

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As an attorney and environmental activist, and scion of a family that has deep roots in the kind of extractive industries he is now fighting against, Hart might seem something of a contradiction to some observers.

Hart explained that his family goes back to the early days of Colorado’s history, adding that his father, grandfather and great-grandfather all were attorneys, who mostly worked in the prevalent industrial arenas of the day — mining and water.

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In fact, he continued, one of his great-grandfathers, John L. Jerome, was “a principal at Colorado Fuel & Iron,” the company of John C. Osgood that built the village of Redstone and initiated the coal mining activities in the Crystal River drainage that continued until the 1990s.

And, he said, a grandfather represented the late Wayne Aspinall, former Colorado politician and member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Colorado’s Fourth District from 1949-1973 (Aspinall died in 1983).

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His grandfather, Hart said, acted for Aspinall “in his quest to dam western rivers,” an activity Hart found somewhat disturbing.

But his grandfather also was a president of the state historical society and was instrumental in preserving the Georgetown Loop rail system for later generations of tourists and history buffs, work that Hart praised.

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Regardless of his family heritage, he made it clear that he is right where he always wanted to be, even before he knew he wanted it.

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Hart, 39, has since 2007 been instrumental in holding back the energy industry’s adamant charge to put drilling rigs in the Thompson Divide.

In fact, it’s been his main job, starting on the day he first came to the offices of the Wilderness Workshop, fresh out of law school, and he openly admits it is the only kind of work he’s wanted to do since a very young age, and he has no plans for a career move any time soon.

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“I wasn’t one of those guys who wanted to practice in setting up trusts, or estate or corporate practice,” Hart told The Sopris Sun in a recent interview at a back table at the Bonfire coffee house and eatery.

Having studied natural resources, as well as public lands, environmental and water law in college, he was determined to do the kind of work that might not pay as well as, say, real estate law, but in which he has found great satisfaction.

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He said he revels in his job’s odd, long-distance commute from Grand Junction, where his wife (who is a pediatric dentist) and two young children live, to Carbondale, where he works a few days a week at the Third Street Center with Wilderness Workshop director Sloan Shoemaker and a staff of five.

“I’ve got a lot of family at both ends (of the commute),” he remarked, explaining that his sister and his parents live in this part of the Western Slope.

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Born in a Denver hospital, Hart grew up in the ski town of Vail, where he went to kindergarten in a public school but soon ended up at a private academy.

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From there, he went to Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota (historic site of the James-Younger gang’s notorious and ill-fated bank robbery in 1876) for his bachelor’s degree, and ultimately wound up at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

While in Minnesota, Hart, said, “I was always kind of looking back over my shoulder, you know? The ‘I want to go home kind of thing.’ It’s hard to grow up in Western Colorado and not be some sort of free agent for wild lands and the environment. I think natural resources issues have kind of deep roots in western Colorado. At an early age I was interested in environmental issues, and that gravity has always pulled me home.”

He graduated with his law degree from DU in 2006, got a master’s degree in environmental law by 2007, and went to work immediately for Wilderness Workshop, he said.

Though he had heard about Wilderness Workshop for much of his life, he said, he was not that familiar with its work or its personnel — at least, not until he answered an ad in the High County News environmentally-oriented newspaper and met Shoemaker soon afterward.

Starting right on Thompson Divide issues, Hart also began working with attorneys with the Earth Justice law firm, which has offices in Denver and other parts of the country.

“We’re a small organization,” he said of WW, “so what we do is a lot of the administrative work,” identifying areas poised for protection and looking for ways to achieve that goal, reviewing federal plans for use of the public lands and staying up-to-date on the actions of federal land management agencies.

The two organizations work together, he said, to identify potential targets for litigation.

“When it comes time to actually file a lawsuit,” he continued, “they (Earth Justice) are much better prepared to take on national agencies than we are.”

Thompson Divide

At the time that he started working on Thompson Divide questions, Hart said, some of the groundwork already had been laid for a concerted effort to stave off drilling in the region, including the filing of lawsuits and administrative appeals by Pitkin County and its contract attorney, Mike Chiropolos (who currently is also working with the Town of Carbondale in its support for cancellation of gas leases in the Divide). Added to that effort, he said, was the founding of the Thompson Divide Coalition (TDC) in 2008, and the coalition’s immediate popularity among locals anxious about gas rigs in the Divide.

At that time, the natural-gas drilling industry was booming all over the U.S., notably in the Piceance Basin that encompasses the subterranean geology of much of western Garfield County, a gas reserve that touches on the Thompson Divide.

But as WW, the TDC and local governments dug in to oppose rigs in Thompson Divide, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (which controls oil and gas leasing) and the U.S. Forest Service (which controls surface uses throughout the White River National Forest, including the Divide) began to take notice.

“What happened is, the BLM has paid more attention” over the last decade or so, to a growing chorus of voices arguing against business as usual in terms of the granting of leases wherever the industry wanted them.

“I mean, you know, these voices were more broad-based and louder as the years went by,” Hart continued. “They (the BLM and the USFS) just heard this huge uproar from the community about it.”

Another factor

Another factor in federal thinking was the fact that the gas-drilling industry is greatly reduced today from what it was only a few years ago. Currently, only about three drilling rigs are operating in the Piceance Basin, compared to perhaps 50 rigs in 2007.

In addition, a new study by the U.S. Geological Survey agency, issued earlier this year, indicated that there is much more natural gas in the Piceance Basin than originally estimated.

Oddly, Hart surmised, that finding is viewed as helpful by those resisting the placement of rigs in the Thompson Divide, both because the area has unproven potential for exploitation by the industry, and because of arguments that with more gas available in other parts of the Basin, it is not necessary to drill every piece of land in the region.

Largely as a result of work by the TDC, the WW and governmental supporters at the local and federal level, the BLM recently announced it is planning to cancel the 25 most controversial leases in the heart of the Thompson Divide.

A final comment period on the Environmental Impact Statement containing that expected cancellation, however, will not close until Sept. 4, and Hart said he and others plan on “pushing really hard in the next few days” to move forward with cancellation of the 25 leases, and with strengthening restrictions on surface disturbance and drilling of other sections of the region to the west of the Divide.

“We’re pretty focused on it (the Divide), but there are 40 other leases, and on 27 of those, the BLM is basically saying it’s not going to add any new stipulations (drilling restrictions), even though the Forest Service’s recent management plans says more stipulations are necessary to protect the resources there.” Hart explained. “We would like to see the BLM implement a plan on these remaining leases that actually (imposes) the protections.”

After that?

Hart said he has a young son who is “very interested in birds right now,” and he hopes to spend more time going up into the high country for bird-watching expeditions.

Recently, he said, they have spotted ospreys along the Colorado River, as well as other rather rare species, and are eager to go again.

“That’s good, because it keeps me outdoors and engaged,” he said, conceding that he had never been much of a birder until his son got him thinking about birds and about the White River National Forest in general, which is said to be the most heavily visited national forest in the U.S.

“It’s a special place,” he said of the Western Slope. “I think there’s a reason all those people come visit. Its spectacular scenery, abundant wildlife, it’s all of the developed and undeveloped recreational opportunities, so I think somebody has to be keeping their eye on activities that may affect those places. That’s what we do, and I think it’s a great organization to work for, I think we do great work.”

Published in The Sopris Sun on August 25, 2016.