Conservation Wyoming style with Dan Smitherman

Not your average tree huggers

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

By Katherine Pioli

Jackson Hole, Wyo.-Light glints off Daniel Smitherman Jr.’s spectacles as he bows his head. After a moment’s reflection, he says, “The sense of peace I get when I am in the Noble Basin is tremendous. I always think of the place in summertime, when everything is green and the whole spine of the Wyoming Range rises in front of you.”

Few people outside of hunters and Sublette County residents have gazed upon the Noble Basin. It begins in the river plane at 6,800 feet in the north end of the Big Piney Ranger District of the Bridger-Teton National Forest. The purple peaks of the Wyoming and Wind River Ranges dwarf the basin’s fields of sage and grass where pronghorn, deer and elk calve in early summer. Only a few miles south of Highway 189, but with no direct access from the highway, the basin is as remote and pristine as any place in the heart of the forest.

Smitherman owns property in Bondurant, the nearby town surrounded by national forest. In the mid-1990s, he ran a small outfitting camp near the Hoback Rim. During those years, he developed an intimate and symbiotic relationship with the land on which he worked and recreated. Now, he hopes to save this basin, and its wildlife, from a proposed 136-well natural gas drilling project. 

From out of left field
Houston-based Plains Exploration & Production Company (PXP) has long been drilling throughout Texas, the Gulf of Mexico and California. According to a PXP representative, in 1994, PXP bought leases for 60,000 acres of the Bridger-Teton National Forest – the first time PXP had ever positioned itself on Forest Service land. For a little more than 10 years, the leases remained dormant. But in 2007, PXP approached the Forest Service and asked if they could begin drilling.

At first, PXP company officials spoke only of the project in terms of exploratory drilling with one well pad and a maximum of three wells. Reassured by the minimal scope of the drilling, the project slipped under the community radar, uncontested.
Hoback Ranches homeowners are particularly concerned since their land sits very near some of the proposed drill sites.

One homeowner, during a public meeting about the drilling, claimed that PXP company officials originally approached residents with an exploratory drilling plan that proposed only one well pad and a maximum of three wells. Reassured by the minimal scope of the drilling, the project remained uncontested. But when the Forest Service released its first Draft Environmental Impact Survey, residents discovered that the real plan encompassed a 136-well project, the ears of Sublette County residents perked up and the happy little relationship between community and company crumbled.

Since then, the residents of Sublette County have bonded together against PXP. Their efforts culminated in the formation of Citizens for the Wyoming Range, a coalition of normal, everyday people that has grown to incorporate members across the western edge of the state from Rock Springs to Jackson.

Daniel Smitherman heads Citizens of the Wyoming Range and acts as its main spokesperson. A tall, lanky man with a drooping salt and pepper mustache, Smitherman never leaves home without first zipping up his canvas Carhartt jacket and putting on his black cowboy hat. He’s a soft-spoken gentleman with a light Southern drawl, and Smitherman is exactly the type of guy one imagines riding his horse along the Wyoming Range.

On the other hand, he is certainly not the kind of guy one would expect to call an environmentalist, but neither are most of the members of Citizens. Outfitters, ranchers, steelworkers and other raw, hardworking and admittedly conservative Wyomingites make up the bulk of this coalition. But like Smitherman, these people have built much of their lives and memories on the land around Noble Basin.
“These people normally turn up their noses at anything that smells of tree-hugging,” Smitherman said. “These mountains are the love of my life. I will take care of them in any capacity I can.” 

Smitherman says the purpose behind Citizens for the Wyoming Range is not to shut down energy development in Wyoming. “While I am not ignorant enough to believe that we will ever be energy independent, I am pragmatic enough to know that we need domestic energy development,” Smitherman said. “The frustrating contradiction that Wyomingites contend with is that our extraction-based economy constantly threatens the beauty of the home that we love.”

What the Citizens are saying is that, because of its sentimental value for Wyomingites and its habitat value for an incredible array of wildlife, the basin is one small gem in a huge energy-producing state that is just too special to drill.

Wyoming’s oil-before-environment precedent
Keeping the Noble Basin safe from development will not only be a fight against PXP; it will be a fight against an oil-and-gas way of life deeply rooted in Wyoming history. The Bridger-Teton National Forest documented this history in a development summary written in 2009. The document shows that well before the recent energy boom of the 1960s and 70s, in 1924, oil was discovered in the LaBarge field area – practically next door to the Noble Basin. Five years after that first discovery, the Dry Piney and LaBarge fields were producing around 2,000 barrels per day.

Since that time, production has only grown. Statistics from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) show that, in total, Wyoming currently has 8,833 producing crude oil wells and 28,969 producing natural gas wells. The majority of oil extraction comes from the Jonah Field where intense drilling began in 1997, and the Pinedale Anticline developed in 2000. With help from these behemoth fields, Wyoming now provides nearly 3 percent of all domestically produced oil and almost one-tenth of U.S. produced natural gas.

As more citizens call for domestic energy production, Wyoming continues to play a fundamental role in our country’s attempt at energy independence. In 2008, the EIA put the state’s total energy production at 10,885 trillion Btu, 14 percent of the total production for the entire country.  Thus Central Wyoming, a place largely ignored by visitors and residents alike, continues to see oil pads and roads unrepentantly fracture the landscape with little or no public attention or concern.

Under the Minerals Leasing Act of 1920, Forest Service lands are just as vulnerable to this sort of treatment. In its 1990 Forest Plan, the Bridger-Teton Forest addressed the potential for mineral leasing on forest property. At the time, the forest already had 147 wells, 11 of which were actively producing. The revised plan prepared the forest for more drilling. Little did forest officials know that the next two decades would see an increase in public support for land conservation, not only among liberal environmentalists, but conservatives and politicians, too.  

In March 2009, this new trend seemed to culminate in Wyoming with the passage of the Wyoming Range Legacy Act as part of a broader land and water conservation bill called the Omnibus Public Land Management Act. The Legacy Act withdrew all lands not currently under lease in the Bridger-Teton National Forest from all forms of mineral extraction. Wyoming Senator John Barrasso, (R), not only supported the bill, he introduced it. Echoing the sentiments of Smitherman and many other Wyomingites, Barrasso defended the bill saying, “We have never been a State that has said, ‘Not in my back yard.’ But there must be a balance between helping the nation meet its energy needs and maintaining the quality of life the people of Wyoming have come to enjoy.

A cultural and economic treasure
When Smitherman returned to the territory of his old outfitting camp last July, he rode his horse west through the grouse-filled flats. From the flats, he climbed into aspen and conifer covered foothills of the Wyoming Range. Turning south along a familiar ridgeline, he descended into Noble Basin. But before he could reach the bottom, Smitherman says he saw something that made him stop. In a little pond, at the bottom of the hill, lay a bear taking a bath. “He lay there on his back washing himself, like a woman in a bathtub,” Smitherman recalled.

Smitherman’s encounter is not particularly unusual for Noble Basin. Wyoming Game and Fish has closely studied the basin and created a list of 26 species “of greatest conservation need.” The list doesn’t include bears or other common species that call the basin home, but it does name wolverine, river otter and the greater sage grouse. The department’s research has shown radio collared Canada lynx, a threatened species, tracking directly through the proposed drilling area and two native species of cutthroat trout in the basin’s rivers and streams. Of note to big game hunters, is the McNeel Elk Feedground that lies only one mile from PXP’s development boundary. This area, labeled critical by Wyoming Game and Fish, supports a 600-head heard that continues to show critically low population numbers.

Smitherman and the thousand or more members of Citizens for the Wyoming Range point to the diversity of wildlife in Noble Basin as one reason why this place must be saved. Gloria Flora, a former superintendent for Lewis and Clark National Forest, agrees. She has worked on a similar project to save land in Montana. During a recent talk in Jackson at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Flora explained that the Forest Service often weighs land’s value in dollar terms, favoring mining and logging enterprises that earn a profit. Residents, however, mostly benefit from the land’s cultural value. “When you look back on your life and think of what this forest has given you, are you going to count the number of board feet you took for your back porch?” she asked her audience. “No, you are going to remember the time you watched your granddaughter catch her first fish from a forest lake.”

Smitherman knows first-hand the cultural value of the Noble Basin. He also knows that the basin’s wildlife create more than memories; it can also turn a profit. “When I worked as an outfitter on Monument Ridge we had three full-time staff and two to three part-timers during hunting season,” Smitherman said. “All but one, our cook, was a local.”

Smitherman took an average of 24 to 30 hunters into the forest each year and earned about $100,000 annually from his business. Four or five other outfitter camps also worked the area, and there was always enough game and space to go around.

A comprehensive report, compiled this year from the Wyoming Business Council, demonstrates in clear numbers the impact of tourism on Wyoming and its counties. The report shows that in 2009, spending in the state by domestic and international visitors reached approximately $2.5 billion making it the second largest industry in Wyoming after mining. That same year, the Pinedale Visitor Center logged 26,000 visitors, tourism brought $41.8 million dollars to Sublette County and created employment for 470 country residents.

No end in sight
PXP and Smitherman agree that a compromise is possible. But, unlike Smitherman, PXP still sees drilling as part of that compromise. Scott Winter, a spokesman for PXP, touts the company’s “award-wining environmental stewardship” and its willingness to work with regulatory agencies, community and business leaders to reach solutions to environmental issues. He also points to the company’s work in other fragile areas as proof of its commitment to environmental sensitivity.

“Our off shore drilling in Los Angeles is subjected to some of the most stringent air quality regulations in the country. [This] makes us well positioned to operate in light of the increasing ozone and air quality concerns in Sublette County,” Winter said in an email.

But for all its talk, Smitherman says PXP appears to be just stalling. The unveiling of the forest’s  Environmental Impact Statement, scheduled for some time this December, will show just how many environmental hoops PXP will have to jump through and how costly drilling might be. Until that is known, PXP says it is unwilling to come to the table and negotiate. Meanwhile, Smitherman and the Citizens for the Wyoming Range are working one step ahead, preparing a hopefully irresistible offer to buy the leases back.

Flora says this option may become very attractive for PXP. “If they say that they care about the environment, I say, show me that commitment,” she said. “Get them to agree that this piece of forest is too special to drill.”

Good public relations, according to Flora, can be just as important to a company as money. Providing an opportunity for PXP to show just how much it cares about the environment by selling or even donating these leases back, may be just the leveraging tool that Citizens for the Wyoming Range need.