By Cory Hatch, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
The Forest Service will not allow development on 44,720 acres of contested oil and gas leases in the Wyoming Range, officials announced Tuesday.
Bridger-Teton National Forest supervisor Jacque Buchanan announced her decision with a statement, which sportsmen and conservation groups hailed as a victory in the quest to protect Wyoming’s most important wild places from energy development.
The leases were proposed 35 miles southeast of Jackson in Sublette County.
“After considering all the alternatives, and the environmental impacts associated with each, I have determined this is the best course of action,” Buchanan said. “No single factor led me to this decision. Rather, it was the combination of the sensitivity and values of the area, the magnitude of other activities currently underway or planned with potentially cumulative impacts, and the concerns of citizens, organizations and other agencies.”
The Bridger-Teton originally set aside the land for leasing in 1990, and the BLM offered lease sales on the 44,720 acres in 2005 and 2006. Conservation groups and sportsmen appealed that decision to the Interior Board of Land Appeals, claiming the BLM justified the sale using outdated information.
As a result, the BLM in 2009 rejected 23 leases on roughly half of the affected area.
Coalition applaudes decision
The decision to preserve the land is “fantastic” said Lisa McGee of the Wyoming Outdoor Council, and was responsive to the “diverse coalition of Wyoming people who worked together to pass the Wyoming Range Legacy Act.
“People value the Bridger-Teton for its wildlife, scenery and backcountry recreational opportunities,” she said. “Oil and gas leasing threatens those uses and values. As we’ve learned with the Hoback [PXP] project, once a place is leased, development is not easily curtailed. The decision not to lease in this case is absolutely the right one. The Forest Service should be applauded.”
U.S. Representative Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) criticized the move.
“The Forest Service’s decision took into account everything but jobs, the economy, energy independence and national security,” she said. “Gas prices are creeping upward toward four dollars a gallon and America is continually increasing our reliance on foreign countries for energy.
“Through modern environmentally responsible methods, these resources can provide the country with secure, affordable fuel and offer people in Wyoming high-paying jobs that help support nearby communities,” Lummis said. “This misguided decision puts our multiple use lands under lock and key.”
The decision does not affect what the Forest Service considers already existing, valid leases, such as those in the Noble Basin area of the Wyoming Range. There, Plains Exploration and Production Company has asked for permission to drill 136 wells from 17 well pads.
Industry to be compensated
The proposal to lease 44,720 acres “is what got me started in the Wyoming Range,” said Daniel outfitter Gary Amerine, a champion of the Legacy Act. “They were never valid leases, and I think the Forest Service made the right call on this.
“It’s a benefit to anybody that uses the forest,” Amerine said. Some of the leases were located in areas that are “pretty sensitive,” he said.
Dan Smitherman, a Bondurant outfitter and spokesman for Citizens for the Wyoming Range, said Buchanan’s decision is “consistent with Senator Thomas’ vision for not drilling in the forest.
“It certainly comes at a very opportune time in Noble Basin,” he said. “It’s an example that the Forest Service can make the right decision, sometimes.
“I think that if the same set of criteria and the same public voice had been heard back in ’94, the leases that PXP has [in Noble Basin] now would have never been issued,” Smitherman said.
Industry officials said the decision is disappointing.
“These projects can be completed with careful consideration and by working with stakeholders to protect the environment and wildlife,” Cheryl Sorenson, vice president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming said. “With new drilling technologies and advanced reclamation techniques, companies can develop sensitive areas responsibly.”
Stanley Energy, Inc., one of the largest leaseholders on the 44,720 acres, did not return calls for comment.
Energy companies such as Stanley Energy will be compensated for bids and payments on leases, Erin O’Connor, spokeswoman with the Forest Service regional office in Ogden, Utah, said.
There are 9,794 existing wells and another 10,000-plus proposed wells in Sublette County.
Leasing on the 44,720 acres helped prompt the Wyoming Range Legacy Act, which protects 1.2 million acres of the Wyoming Range from oil and gas drilling. The 44,720 acres were not included in the bill because the bill’s language precludes existing leases.
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