Volume 106, Number 4 - January 22, 2009
brought to you online by Pinedale Online
Senate passes public lands act
by Stephen Crane
Following years of hard work by a diverse cross-section of the Wyoming population, the finish line may finally be in sight after the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly passed the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act last Thursday, thereby clearing the way for U.S. House approval in the coming weeks.
Packaged with over 160 conservation and preservation bills, the omnibus bill includes the Wyoming Range Legacy Act (WRLA), which was legislation initiated by former U.S. Sen. Craig Thomas and currently sponsored by his successor, Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), as well as Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY).
“I would definitely like to thank the late Senator Thomas for having his vision to visit the Wyoming Range and realize its uniqueness,” said Gary Amerine, an outfitter in Daniel who founded Citizens Protecting the Wyoming Range and has been a strong supporter of the legislation since the beginning.
“Communities, outfitters, organizations, individuals all across Wyoming, and in fact, all across the United States need to be really, really indebted to Senator Barrasso for his leadership on this,” said Walt Gasson, executive director for the Wyoming Wildlife Federation. “He and Enzi were stalwarts on this, and we really need to be thankful to them.”
In a vote of 73-21, both sides of the senatorial aisle showed strong support for the extensive omnibus bill in the Jan. 15 vote.
“The success in the Senate obviously transcends party lines,” said Mike Burd, a miner in Trona and vice president of the local steelworkers union. “It’s good to see people from both parties working together. This is a piece of Wyoming’s heritage that is irreplaceable.”
If approved by the U.S. House of Representatives and signed into law by President Barrack Obama, The Wyoming Range Legacy Act will protect 1.2 million acres of Bridger-Teton National Forest lands from future energy development.
As current mineral leases in that area expire, the WRLA will also prevent their renewal, thereby clearing that land of all development.
With 75,000 acres of current undeveloped leases, the WRLA also provides those developers the option to voluntarily retire their existing leases if they so choose, which would expedite full protection of the lands.
“(The current locations) were leased by the Forest Service for development,” explained Amerine. “This (new) process allows (developers) the ability to donate or sell or trade those leases to an organization that, in turn, would return them to the Forest Service.”
The 1.2 million acres includes land in Sublette, Lincoln and Teton counties, with over 387 miles of rivers and streams protected within the area.
This fact has united people and groups that are often at opposing ends of other issues. Throughout the state of Wyoming, conservation groups, sportsmen, union groups, landowners, ranchers, republicans and democrats all joined forces to push this legislation into law, including democratic Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal.
“The biggest significance is the coalition that came together that started this whole legislation,” said JJ Healy, a rancher in Daniel who has been an active supporter of the WRLA. “It was a group of folks that don’t easily get together. It was a very broad coalition, and that showed the strength of the resolve, in that it crossed all sorts of boundaries. And hopefully, our new Representative, Cynthia Lummis (RWy), will follow the lead of our two senators who voted for this bill.”
The next obstacle for the omnibus bill lies in the House of Representatives, where many are hoping its passage occurs.
“I’m an old guy,” said Gasson. “And being an old guy who’s worked a lot in the political end of wildlife, I’ve learned to temper my expectations, but I’m hopeful. I’m really hopeful. I believe that the strong support we saw in the senate sets the stage for support in the house.”
If timely passage of the bill occurs in the House, the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act could be one of President Obama’s first bills to be signed into law.
Not everyone was supportive of the bill’s initial passage, however, and in a press release from the Independent Petroleum Association of America, president and CEO Barry Russell voiced his disapproval.
“Energy drives our economy,” said Russell. “And enacting federal land policy that will further limit America’s oil and natural gas producers’ access to these resources will only diminish the state of the economy and result in lost jobs, lost revenues and increase America’s dependence on foreign oil imports.”
“Congress should find ways to encourage, not discourage, the production of America’s resources on these areas,” Russell went on to say. “Unfortunately, by ratifying (the omnibus bill), the Senate just took a step backward.”
According a 2009 study from both the Wyoming State Geological Survey and the U.S. Geological Survey, the Wyoming Range contains between 1.1-1.5 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of oil and natural gas, as compared to the Jonah Field and the Pinedale Anticline Project Area that combine for about 37 tcf.
Moreover, the Congressional Budget Office reported that the WRLA “would have no significant effect on the federal budget.”
“It’s never been about not having oil and gas exploration. It’s about balance,” said Healy. “How do you balance the needs of a state and a county with the needs of a nation?”
For many here in Sublette County and in the state of Wyoming, passage of the WRLA will be an important step in preserving the pristine lands of the Wyoming Range.
“Four generations of my family consider the Wyoming Range to be their home place,” said Gasson. “And if we can’t protect those sorts of places, those places that are special to Wyoming families, then I despair our future.”
In the coming weeks, that future will be decided when the House votes on the omnibus bill, a vote that will likely approve the legislation.
“This is a valuable piece of land that will be protected from energy development in the future,” said Amerine. “(The WRLA) is going to protect the Wyoming Range for generations to come — my kids, my grandkids…”
Photo credits: Jonathan Van Dyke photo
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