Can outdoor recreation and energy sector coexist on Colorado’s Western Slope?

The Colorado River cuts through a mesa. (Photo/Wolfgang Staudt, Flickr)

The Colorado River cuts through a mesa. (Photo/Wolfgang Staudt, Flickr)

The oil and gas debate on Colorado’s Western Slope is as rife with contradictions as the ridgelines and valleys of Garfield County are with drilling rigs.

Hunters in pickup trucks you’d expect to see plastered with “Drill here, drill now” bumper stickers instead sport the “Save the Roan” rallying cry. Ski-area executives whose industry in some cases was built with oil money can’t buy enough wind energy nor contribute fast enough to campaigns to raise oil and gas severance taxes.

The ongoing natural gas boom in Garfield County, where there are nearly 5,000 active wells and another 1,000 coming online each year, not only features strange bedfellows — hunters and anglers teamed with Prius-driving environmentalists — but also pits two of Colorado’s most lucrative multibillion-dollar industries.

Some say the outdoor recreation and tourism trade and the massive second-home real estate market that it spawned cannot coexist with unrelenting pressure of the natural gas boom fueled by the nation’s thirst for increased domestic energy. Others say there’s more than enough room for both in the more than one-third of the state owned by the federal government.

Garfield County, where oil-and-gas drilling has exploded 39 percent since 2000, is at the epicenter of that increasingly contentious debate. Scenically situated between Eagle County to the east (home to Vail and Beaver Creek ski areas) and Pitkin County to the south (Aspen and Snowmass), its eastern edge has long been a bedroom community for the state’s top outdoor recreation destinations.

But it stretches all the way to the Utah border, and its ruggedly beautiful hillsides choked with ponderosa pine and sagebrush are loaded with huge reserves of natural gas and oil shale. Now the small towns and communities — Glenwood Springs, New Castle, Rifle, Parachute, Battlement Mesa — that used to be on the fringes of ski industry and real estate boom are struggling with a crush of heavy truck traffic, housing shortages and environmental concerns brought on by the energy boom.

“The problem is the damage that’s done to the landscape and the roadless areas that suddenly now are accessible, which should be wildlife sanctuaries and wild-land sanctuaries,” said New Castle Mayor Frank Breslin, whose town of 3,500 is outnumbered by the amount of wells in the county. Breslin adds that the energy boom is now heavily influencing the local political landscape.

“If we expect Garfield County to protect our air, water and open spaces, it is essential that we elect commissioners who don’t owe a big favor to the oil and gas industry,” he said in a release announcing a press conference he attended Tuesday with three other local mayors to protest energy-funded 527 ads in the county commissioner race.

However, former Republican Rep. Scott McInnis, who’s originally from Glenwood Springs and reportedly contributed $10,000 to one of those 527 groups — Western Heritage — says the two industries easily can coexist because of the vast expanses of land in question and the cleaner and far less intrusive drilling technology in use today.

McInnis, who now works for a Denver law firm and has lobbied on behalf of the oil and gas industry, argues the relatively high-paying jobs are critical to the economic vitality of the perennially depressed Western Slope — at least outside of the booming ski towns.

“What I find is the people who fight this the most is the people who are fortunate enough to already own a home or don’t need a job or already have a job that isn’t dependent on the [energy] industry,” McInnis said.

“If the industry pulled out tomorrow, they’d be just as well off as they are today. There’s not a lot of those people out there,” he added. “Shut Vail Resorts down tomorrow and see what happens to Vail. Shut down the Hot Springs Pool tomorrow and see what happens to Glenwood.”

Other politicians say there are just as many people, if not more, who are concerned about environmental degradation and safety in Garfield County as there are industry advocates pushing for new jobs and more wells.

“There’s definitely a population that wants to see natural gas drilled period; they think it’s great for the economy,” said former Steamboat Springs town councilman Ken Brenner, a Democrat who’s running against Republican Rep. Al White for the state Senate seat representing the area. “But even those folks acknowledge that we should try to do it responsibly and that it’s important to make sure there’s a safe working environment for people who are employed by the industry.”

Brenner said he’s heard from many people living around the Roan Plateau (the subject of an ongoing lawsuit by environmental groups over recently permitted natural gas drilling) who feel state drilling regulations currently being crafted by Gov. Bill Ritter’s administration should be even more restrictive.

“I’ve met with the heads of sportsman’s groups and they’re not opposed to drilling — they just want it done in a different way than it’s being done now, and really they’re asking for more than the Ritter administration has settled for,” Brenner said. “The Ritter administration, I sense, has probably given the industry pretty much what it wanted, but that doesn’t appear to be enough.”

That debate has been taken up at the national campaign level, where U.S. Senate hopeful Bob Schaffer, a former oil and gas executive who strongly advocates for less regulation on the Western Slope, argues his Democratic opponent, U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, has greatly contributed to higher energy prices by fostering intense environmental restrictions. Schaffer says outdoor recreation and oil and gas can coexist.

“Democrats tend to be the party that says we can’t do it because they say so,” Schaffer said. “That’s the sweet spot of public policy that we ought to strive for, and most rational and reasonable sportsman, and I’m one of them by the way, understand that we can do both.”

But Jason Sorter, a Colorado field representative for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, which represents a number of sportsman’s groups, said the more than 100 new oil and gas leases allowed under a new state roadless management plan could dramatically impact prime hunting and fishing areas.

“What we’re mainly concerned with is the preservation of the hunting and angling heritage of Colorado,” Sorter said. “I myself am a hunter and angler and a third-generation Colorado native, and what I hope to see come out of this roadless process is that the same opportunities that I have had growing up here are available to my kids and grandkids.”

Similarly, ski industry and resort development executives have been quietly throwing their weight behind Ritter’s new-energy economy, promoting renewable energy while funding campaigns to extract more money from the oil and gas industry.

Harry Frampton of East West Partners and Slifer Smith and Frampton Real Estate, who developed most of Beaver Creek and at one time was the president of Vail Resorts, contributed $10,000 to A Smarter Colorado, a group pushing for higher oil and gas severance taxes to fund higher education, renewable energy and wildlife habitat protection (Amendment 58).

Frampton, whose company developed Denver’s Riverfront Park and is also redeveloping Denver’s Union Station, could not be reached for comment, but others in the resort and recreation industry have become increasingly concerned about global climate change and its impacts on winter sports. Rob Katz, CEO of Vail Resorts, purchased wind energy credits to offset 100 percent of the power consumption of the company’s five ski areas and is currently planning the nation’s first green-built base village.

“There are folks who are concerned about whether this is a political agenda, and one of the things that I’ve talked about a lot is that our company needs to do the right things to help prevent climate change without getting involved in a political debate about climate change,” Katz said in an earlier interview. His company contributed $500,000 to the Democratic National Convention in Denver in August.

Even McInnis, a former skier and big backer of the industry, agrees global warming makes renewable energy a top priority in the coming years, but he said it’s too soon to pursue that agenda at the expense of the traditional energy sector.

“They’re absolutely right, of course you do [need to transition to new-energy economy because of global climate change],” McInnis said. “But my difficulty is you need to do it in coordination, in a parallel path with the current energy needs that we have. We can’t go cold turkey. If we think we’re in an economic crisis now, just shut off the valves of oil and gas.”

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About the Author

David O. Williams

is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy, environmental and political issues for years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He's founder of Real Vail
and Real Aspen.

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