Volume 104, Number 44 - November 1, 2007
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Wyoming Range bill applauded
Environmentalists and sportsmen celebrated last Thursday when Sen. John Barrasso introduced The Wyoming RangeLegacy Act of 2007, his recently promised bill to protect the 1.2 million acres of land on the Wyoming Range from oil and gas development. A follow-up to the conservation legislation that Barrasso’s predecessor, the late Sen. Craig Thomas, had been drafting, the bill also answers the majority of opinions declared at the 30 town meetings Barrasso held across Wyoming this summer demanding the senator to rein in the rapid oil and gas leasing in areas like Sublette County, where the economy depends on the surrounding environment.
Although some oil and gas operators protest the measure as excessive and blocking a significant energy resource, the bill aims at preserving the range as a multi-use refuge for recreation, tourism and the assortment of wildlife like pronghorn, sage grouse and elk that call the 12,000-foot peaks home.
“Wyoming is special, our people want a special balance between two of our top industries — energy and recreation,” Barrasso said when he introduced the bill on the congressional floor on Thursday. “Today is a great day, because today a bill is introduced to keep this special place on the map for tourism, for recreation and sportsmen forever.” If the bill passes, it would prohibit further leasing of land on the Range, as well as allow conservation interests to buy back existing oil and gas leases and retire them — Barrasso’s method of preserving land while still respecting landholders’ rights.
The decision has been long awaited by outfitters like Gary Amerine, a member of Sportsmen for the Wyoming Range who often leads hunting expeditions on the range. “I can’t thank (Barrasso) enough,” Amerine said. He already knows a few environmental groups “waiting in the wings” to buy leases if the bill becomes law. “A lot of people that use the Wyoming Range for whatever outdoor use — snow machining, fishing, hunting, backpacking, horseback riding — they have to be pleased with this.” The new legislation wouldn’t, however, change the status of the currently contested 44,600 acres of suspended leases on the range, which many argue should be canceled. After the BLM sold the leases this summer, a federal judge ruled the land was improperly leased and required additional environmental and public review, and suspended the leases in the meantime. A governing board gave the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service the power to cancel the leases outright.
Gov. Dave Freudenthal proposed theagencies do just that in a September letter to two federal cabinet officials, in which he argued that the acreage is too pristine for the state to sacrifice to drilling. Freudenthal pleaded with Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, who oversees the BLM, and Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns who oversees Forest Service lands, to reimburse energy corporations for the land they purchased at auction.
Thomas had this in mind shortly before his death, and he succeeded in scaling down the number of acres leased from 175,000 to 44,600.
“The governor is kind of riding on Senator Thomas’ coattails on speaking out about this; it dates back well before (Freudenthal) came into office,” said Cameron Hardy, press secretary for Barrasso.
But if Barrasso’s new legislation passes and the federal agencies arrive at a decision over the acreage, Hardy said, the governor could personally fight for preserving Wyoming landscape by purchasing the leases and retiring them.
But Peter Wold, president of Wold Oil Properties that owns two of the suspended leases on the Wyoming Range, said he’s frustrated at both the state and federal governments’ attempts to block access to what he calls the largest gas structure in the continental U.S.
“I’ve discussed this with the governor, he’s very supportive of what we’re doing out there, and then at an arbitrary line that’s drawn (at the Wyoming Range), everybody says, ‘oh mercy, we can’t go beyond this point,’” Wold said.
Barrasso’s bill and Freudenthal’s letter fail to consider that oil and gas operators can minimize impacts on the range significantly with available technology, as well as seasonal stipulations that have proved successful on the Pinedale Anticline, Wold said. “As someone who’s lived in Wyoming all of his life, and backpacked and hiked and hunted and fished, I’m well aware of the nature of that area, and I’m sensitive to it.
We’re interested in doing things in a fashion that isn’t going to hinder or in any way damage that area, but we feel like there’s a resource there that ought to be developed and can be done in a way that everyone would be satisfied with.”
Although EnCana doesn’t own leases on the Wyoming Range, the energy company feels equally frustrated with Barrasso’s attempt to block it off from future development. “The reality is that you can only develop mineral resources where they are located, and the Intermountain West happens to be blessed with prolific supplies of natural gas,” said EnCana spokesperson Randy Teeuwen.
“If you look at forecasts for clean-burning natural gas, common sense tells us we must develop domestic supply sources. I think we need to look at what policies we are setting by broadly blocking off wide swaths of energy-rich areas. The energy to fuel our giant economy has to come from somewhere, so we need to take the long-term view and realize that energy production has a very short impact on the land if we develop it properly.” J.J. Healy, member of Citizens Protecting the Wyoming Range, an organization of locals advocating against development on the range, said the group naturally feels encouraged by the senator and governor’s conservation efforts, particularly after seeing the federal government successfully intervene with drilling in the past on the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana.
“We are not against development, there are just some places that should not be for sale in your home state,” Healy said. The range acts as an essential crossing area for large and small game from Teton National Park, Healy said, making its preservation all the more important.
“The pace of development in Sublette County is alarming to most people, and we think that there’s an awful lot of exploration and extraction to do within two existing very large fields in the Jonah and anticline before we start leasing and exploration in other parts of the county.”
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