A coalition of conservation and outdoor education groups has formally asked the U.S. Forest Service to withdraw plans to lease nearly 158,000 acres for oil and gas drilling in western Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest. The leasing would open the door to industrial development in pristine roadless areas and habitat for rare wildlife such as Canada lynx. The groups sent a letter to the Forest Service last week asking the agency to forego leasing based on violations of federal environmental laws.
Earthjustice submitted the request on behalf of the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, National Outdoor Leadership School, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Upper Green River Valley Coalition, The Wilderness Society, and Wyoming Outdoor Council.
The proposed leasing would pave the way for oil and gas development in the scenic Wyoming Range bordering the Upper Green River Valley and the upper Hoback region 25 miles southeast of Jackson Hole. The Forest Service has authorized the Bureau of Land Management to auction mineral leases on 157,658 acres of national forest lands in this area in October and December 2004. The areas to be leased include 92,000 acres of inventoried roadless areas that provide habitat for wildlife species ranging from elk to Canada lynx, and offer outstanding opportunities for hunting, fishing, and other outdoor activities.
“The Wyoming Range is one of the wildest and most remote mountain ranges in the West, and it holds the only population center of Canada lynx in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem,” said Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso. “Yet the Forest Service is in a rush to turn this wild country over to the oil and gas companies.”
“This is simply not the place for intense industrial development,” added Jeff Kessler of Biodiversity Conservation Alliance. “The natural and recreation values are far too high.”
The proposed leasing would vest energy companies with a basic legal right to punch roads, drill wells, and build pipelines through public lands that are now mostly roadless backcountry. While the Forest Service has sought to portray the proposed leasing as a meaningless “paper transaction,” the groups’ letter cites the Forest Service’s own statements making clear that leasing represents a commitment to development. The Forest Service has stated that “it cannot deny, in general, occupancy of the surface for the exploration and development of federal minerals that have been leased, unless they were leased with a no surface occupancy stipulation.”
Under the Forest Service’s proposal, 87,000 acres of national forest lands (or 55 percent of the total proposed lease area) would be leased with full surface occupancy rights. Yet despite this commitment to development, and despite the fact that the Forest Service itself expects at least 90 wells to result from the proposed leasing, the Forest Service has deferred a full analysis of the environmental impacts of oil and gas operations until after leases are issued.
“The fate of the Wyoming Range’s world class hunting and wild and scenic trout streams is at stake here,” said Tom Darin of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance. “We’re extremely disappointed that this massive proposal was done through internal bureaucratic paperwork and without public involvement. The public should have a say in the future of these lands.”
“These pristine national forest lands in the Wyoming Range offer the best hunting and fishing opportunities in the region,” added Lloyd Dorsey of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. “Millions of dollars each year flow into local communities from family camping trips, big game hunting, and outfitter-guided recreation, which can be sustained forever unless these forest lands become industrial zones.”
The proposed leasing would occur adjacent to BLM lands in the Upper Green River Valley, which already host more than 3,000 natural gas wells, with thousands more on the way and 75 percent of the valley currently under lease. This level of existing development already threatens unique wildlife migration corridors and air quality in nearby wilderness areas and national parks. Yet the Forest Service has decided to lease a vast swath of nearby public lands without undertaking a thorough environmental review of the combined impacts of all this development on wildlife, water, air quality, and outdoor recreation.
“Two years ago the Forest Service took a close look at the impacts of oil and gas leasing in other parts of the Bridger-Teton forest, including the Hoback Basin and Upper Green River, and decided that leasing in those areas wasn’t appropriate,” added Peter Aengst of The Wilderness Society. “All we are asking the Forest Service to do is take a close look at the impacts of leasing in the Wyoming Range before it commits that area to oil and gas development.”