[/I]Leasing halted in Wyo Range
Federal land court rules forest’s environmental analysis falls short.
By Noah Brenner
July, 12, 2006
The sale of energy leases in the Wyoming Range has been put on hold by a federal land court in Washington, D.C.
The Interior Board of Land Appeals, the highest court governing decisions by federal land management agencies, issued the ruling that halts the December sale of a 1,280-acre parcel in the Wyoming Range. The board ruled that the Forest Service did not adequately assess the environmental impacts of leasing in the area, and the Bureau of Land Management, which handles all federal mineral leasing, relied on that incomplete analysis when it issued the leases.
The ruling came as the result of protests filed both separately and jointly by a host of groups including Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Wyoming Outdoor Council, Trout Unlimited, Lander-based National Outdoor Leadership School and Hoback Ranches Service and Improvement District, a nearby subdivision.
The groups first filed a protest with the state BLM office in Cheyenne, which was rejected, before taking their case to the Interior board.
“I think it shows that the IBLA is taking seriously the arguments we have been making for years about insufficient analysis,” said Lisa McGee of the Wyoming Outdoor Council.
Upon learning of the ruling, Judi Adler, president of the Hoback Ranches Service and Improvement District, said she “couldn’t believe it.”
Adler’s group recently lost a separate Interior board of appeals ruling seeking to prevent parts of the subdivision from being included in a BLM natural gas production unit.
“The Wyoming Range is a special place and there have to be some limits on where we drill or we will lose the things that make Wyoming great – the clean air, wildlife and open spaces,” Adler said. “We certainly don’t live here for the food or the shopping. Once we lose those things that make Wyoming special, we can never get them back.”
On a small scale, the ruling prevents the sale of the controversial parcel 176 to Denver-based Stanley Energy, one of a handful of operators trying to consolidate holdings in the area.
However, the decision calls into question the fate of more than 20,000 acres the BLM leased in the April and June sales.
The same groups, along with private individuals and the Wyoming chapter of the AFL-CIO labor union, have protested both of those sales as well. It could also affect more than 12,000 acres slated for lease at the August sale.
The 13-page, highly technical ruling found that there was enough evidence that the BLM did not have adequate data on the environmental effects of leasing to proceed with the sale. It also pointed to a Forest Service statement saying that new issues had arisen in the area since the agency last assessed the environmental impacts of leasing in 1993 including listing the Canada lynx as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, but “FS ultimately decided to consent to leasing of 44,600 acres of land in the Wyoming Range of the National Forest, including parcel 176, without consulting with FWS [U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which governs endangered species] and without supplementing its 1993 EA,” the ruling states.
Although the injunction is temporary and the Interior appeals board has yet to issue a final ruling on the case, the court will only grant an injunction if the appellant is deemed “likely” to win the case.
“[W]e conclude that the appellants have carried their burden to establish that they are likely to succeed on the merits of their appeal regarding NEPA compliance by the BLM,” the ruling states.
The Interior appeals board is due to rule on subsequent appeals from the groups in August, and, because those protests use the exact same arguments as this one, environmentalists are hopeful the body will return similar rulings.
Linda Baker, of the Pinedale-based Upper Green River Valley Coalition, said her group would like to see the controversial area protected when the Forest Service revises its Forest Plan, which will designate the areas available for energy development during the next 10 years. That revision is under way and should be complete in the next two to three years.
“Nobody anticipated the kind of development and the pace of drilling we are seeing in the rest of the valley,” she said, referring to the booming Pinedale Anticline and Jonah natural gas fields. “We need to look at ecosystems as a whole and designate some areas for drilling and some for wildlife and recreation.”
Baker said that analysis should include a stretch from the Red Desert in Sweetwater County all the way to Grand Teton National Park.
In addition, the stay has conservation groups asking U.S. Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., to introduce a bill that would allow the retirement of existing leases and get rid of energy development in the area altogether. On the Rocky Mountain Front near Glacier park in Montana, U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., added language to the Interior Department’s appropriations bill that will let leases in that area retire when they expire.
Concurrently, Questar Exploration and Production announced it will give its lone lease in the area to Trout Unlimited, which plans to let the lease expire.
“We haven’t really worked with any oil and gas folks yet on specific leases there but we are looking at doing something very, very similar there,” said Tom Reed, Trout Unlimited’s Wyoming roadless coordinator. “We will ask someone who cares about wild country like Craig Thomas to sponsor something.”
Before learning of the Interior ruling, Sen. Thomas’ press secretary, Cameron Hardy, said Thomas had no plans to introduce legislation to retire leases in the Wyoming Range.
“The Montana situation is very different from what is happening in Wyoming,” Hardy wrote in an e-mail reply to questions. “While it’s certainly compelling that one of the lease holders in Montana has donated their lease – conservation groups and lease holders have yet to come together on a plan regarding leases in Wyoming.”
Hardy could not be reached for comment after news broke of the Interior board of appeals’ decision.
Sportsmen harbor concerns
Meanwhile, opposition against further development in the Wyoming Range grew significantly as Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, a hunting and fishing advocacy group, came out against any further leasing in the area and any drilling of existing leases until the completion of a comprehensive study of the combined effects of drilling, predators and housing development on big game populations. Bob Wharff, executive director for the Wyoming chapter of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, said his group is particularly concerned with the status of the Wyoming Range mule deer herd, which, by latest estimates, is 50 percent below the Game and Fish Department’s target of 50,000 animals.
“We are not against development, there are just so many things going on right now and no one has looked at all the factors,” he said. “There is more pressure today to drill in winter, summer and transitional ranges and our group wasn’t comfortable that once we looked at how things were coming together, rather than being additive the effects would be exponential.”
The move is surprising as the sportsmen’s group has been noticeably silent on the Wyoming Range issue despite strong anti-drilling stances from the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, Trout Unlimited and outfitters working in the Wyoming Range.
Many members of the group work in the energy and mining industries, and Wharff said his group’s aim is to protect their jobs as well as their recreational opportunities.
“This has the potential to give industry a black eye and shut the door on development throughout the West,” he said of the struggling deer populations. “It is too easy to make them the scapegoat without a study of the actual effects of all these factors.”
According to Wharff, the push for the proclamation came from the 500 or so members of the club’s Teton County chapter, and did not initially sit well with some chapters in surrounding counties.
“The Teton County chapter said we need to do something and took it to the state level,” Wharff said.
At the state level, the proclamation was tweaked to appeal to a broader base within the group.
“The Fremont County chapter said they couldn’t support it because it made us sound like a green group,” Wharff said. “The state board revised it and changed a few things. We tried to maintain our pro-multiple use philosophy.”
Bob Richards, chairman of the Teton County chapter of the organization, was out of town and could not be reached for comment.