Volume 105, Number 18 - May 1, 2008
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Forest Service struggling with Wyoming Range
The Forest Service is trying to clean up the mess it made by involving Denver-based Stanley Energy in meetings about environmental studies for disputed energy leases on the Wyoming Range.
But the agency might not be as much to blame as Governor Dave Freudenthal, as well as the general public, might believe. Freudenthal has already sent two livid letters to the Forest Service deriding the agency’s rash choice of including Stanley Energy, or Stanley, in initial discussions about the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (DSEIS), a document due for release in November that will determine whether 44,720 acres on the Wyoming Range should be leased for energy development.
Although the Forest Service announced last week that Stanley will no longer be included in the meetings about the environmental studies, the governor has demanded that the agency trash the DSEIS and start anew, or at least pace its “aggressive timeline” and allow more public input with a Reasonably Foreseeable Development (RFD).
An RFD is a baseline projection of gas exploration, development, production and reclamation prepared by qualified specialists and subject to peer review.
While the Forest Service has yet to confirm its next step, a public outcry against the agency quickly followed in the Governor’s example.
The Casper Star-Tribune published a demand on behalf of the newspaper staff that the Forest Service prepare a new DSEIS. Press releases inundated the media this week from the Wyoming Wildlife Federation and AFL-CIO declaring that the Forest Service has “sold its integrity to Stanley Energy for a pittance.”
Conservation groups Trout Unlimited (TU) and Sportsmen For the Wyoming Range (SFWR) also distributed a press release, too, asserting that Wyoming sportsmen now consider the Forest Service a “wolf in the henhouse,” and the governor a “rock star” because of his intolerance of the Stanley Energy situation.
“My current analogy for this is that it’s like getting into a car knowing that there’s only two lug nuts on one of the wheels,” said TU spokesperson Tom Reed. “You hope you’ll get there safe, but it’s possible that you’re going to crash. It seems like the public trust has been completely violated, and I think the appropriate thing to do is throw this whole thing out and start over.”
Local tempers have long flared over the contested leases of the Wyoming Range, one of the most beloved vacation spots and outfitting gems in the state. The Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA) overturned the leases in 2006 after ruling that studies of potential environmental impacts were inadequate, giving conservationists across the state hope that the federal government might cancel the leases entirely.
The Forest Service began a new DSEIS this year to determine once and for all if the leases should be deemed valid. But the agency had some outside help.
The Forest Service created a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) last October with Stanley Energy, one of the companies that had bought leases on the range in 2006. In the MOU, written by the Forest Service and reviewed by Stanley and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Stanley agreed to fund the environmental analyses for the DSEIS. Consulting firm Arcadis will conduct the studies.
Although agency officials say this is a common procedure, the Forest Service crossed very palpable boundaries in inviting three Stanley representatives to participate in one meeting and two conference calls between the Forest Service, governor’s office and BLM to discuss how the studies would be conducted.
In the governor’s perspective, this was tantamount to handing the wheel over to Stanley so it could ensure the leases would be deemed valid.
“My opposition to energy development on the 44,720 Bridger-Teton National Forest acres is well known, but my objections to this leasing SEIS are rooted in a concern for good governance,” Freudenthal wrote in a letter to the Forest Service on April 22. “I urge you to halt this SEIS and either address the leasing question in a forest plan amendment, or restart the leasing SEIS as a public process underwritten by the Forest Service.”
The Intermountain Regional Office for the Forest Service office is currently reviewing the governor’s suggestions and will soon draft a response, said Mary Cernicek, Bridger-Teton spokesperson.
She acknowledged that Stanley never should have been allowed in the SEIS meetings, and she wished she knew why the agency had ever allowed the company such access in the first place.
But some of the governor’s other criticisms might have been excessive, she said. Freudenthal railed against the agency for allowing Stanley to fund the Arcadis study, which will cost between $250,000 and $500,000.
But it’s typical for the agency to allow operators to foot the bill for environmental studies, Cernicek said, as the agency couldn’t otherwise dig up the necessary funding.
“(With the Forest Service funding the study), it probably couldn’t happen for at least a year,” Cernicek said. “With our funding situation, even that looks bleak. Reading between the lines, it’s just not going to happen. There’s just no money.”
Plains Exploration and Production (PXP) is also funding studies for the Forest Service under a similar MOU for the proposed fullfield development of the South Rim on the Upper Hoback.
“Even if a third party is preparing a study, we’re still the decision makers,” Cernicek said. “They’re just doing the analysis, which is why it’s so important that they’re neutral and that we select a contractor we think is going to do a good job for us.”
Other criticisms from the governor are also unwarranted, Cernicek continued, such as his concerns about the Forest Service keeping communication among the Interdisciplinary (ID) team as private information. ID teams write alternatives for environmental impact statements.
Under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), all ID meetings must be closed. “We have had grazing permittees, oil and gas leasees and timber proponents who have all wanted to attend ID team meetings in the past, and we have denied them,” Cernicek said. “We don’t let anyone in that could sway alternatives one way or another.” For now, the Forest Service will proceed with processing information for the DSEIS, specifically the public comments submitted during the commentary session that closed on April 28.
The Stanley controversy didn’t prevent people from participating, Cernicek said, and of the 12,701 comments counted on Monday, “99 percent plus are against leasing.” Forest Service officials like Bridger-Teton Supervisor Kniffy Hamilton are particularly sensitive to public opinion right now, Cernicek said.
“(Kniffy’s) devastated, and she’s committed to working hard to gain the public trust back,” Cernicek said. “How do you do that other than admitting that ‘yeah, we made a mistake’? And I think we should say that.”
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