Wyoming Range Still No Place To Drill

By Dan Smitherman

In 2009, Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso and Gov. Dave Freudenthal led the charge to pass the Wyoming Range Legacy Act, which protects the state’s signature range from future oil and gas leasing. But now, an old lease threatens to transform a pristine wildlife area into what’s been described as a potential "Jonah in the trees."

Plains Exploration and Production Company (PXP) plans to drill 136 wells and industrialize the Upper Hoback Basin, which sits in the northern reaches of the Wyoming Range. Like many other sportsmen, I value the essential habitat found in the Upper Hoback. It would be a travesty to develop a place that supports moose, deer, antelope and herds of elk that attract hunters from around the region.

In September, many of these conservation-minded hunters rallied in Rock Springs at an event sponsored by Citizens for the Wyoming Range. More than 60 people packed into a library auditorium, where they acknowledged the appropriateness of oil and gas development in some areas, but voiced their fears about loss of access and wildlife, as well as water contamination and air pollution. Some places, they said, just shouldn’t be developed.

There are serious trade-offs in any drilling proposal, because once a place becomes an industrial gas field, other uses are diminished or vanish altogether. The very issues raised that evening in Rock Springs are the ones being discussed around the West. In other special places, where public sentiment runs strong and wildlife values soar, a growing number of oil and gas companies have decided the best business decision is to walk away.

Just recently, oil and gas leases west of Glacier National Park were retired. Similarly, more than 110,000 acres in leases along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front have been voluntarily turned over by companies to protect wildlife habitat and recreational uses.

The Wyoming Range Legacy Act anticipated the possibility of buying out and retiring existing leases. This is a market-based solution that would safeguard the Upper Hoback while satisfying PXP’s financial interests.

If the company refuses to change course, however, the public will expect the Forest Service to do its job -- to manage some development under strict rules so that wildlife, air and water quality are safeguarded. A long-anticipated Draft Environmental Impact Statement is due out sometime in November and the Forest Service will host public meetings in Pinedale, Jackson and Bondurant.

Some will accept putting a few band-aids on top of PXP’s proposed maze of new roads, well pads, compressor stations and other industrial complexes. We can’t let that happen. We’ve learned too many lessons from the successes and failures of the Jonah and Pinedale Anticline fields.

The last thing citizens want is a PXP off-site mitigation fund that claims it will help the wildlife impacted by the project, while allowing business as usual on-site. Wyoming’s experience with the Anticline fund shows this hasn’t worked, despite the millions spent. The Mesa mule deer herd continues to decline and in two years has exceeded acceptable population thresholds outlined in a 2008 Record of Decision (ROD).

Hunters and citizens from across the state are demanding a new, gold standard of project design and control before any gas development breaks ground in the Wyoming Range. Guidelines crafted by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, as well as a report by Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development, point the way toward creating an environmentally sensitive project.

PXP should make the appropriate decision and help us retire the leases. If not, they promised to develop the leases responsibly, and we intend to hold them to that promise.

Dan Smitherman is a retired Marine officer, a former outfitter in the Wyoming Range, and a current hunting and wilderness guide on the Bridger-Teton National Forest. He lives in Bondurant, and is the spokesperson for Citizens for the Wyoming Range. For more information, go to www.wyomingrange.org.