Ruling that a proposed sale of an oil and natural gas lease likely will require an updated analysis of impacts to the environment and popular recreation areas, a panel of administrative law judges at the U.S. Department of Interior yesterday placed a temporary hold on a December 2005 sale of an energy lease in the Wyoming Range portion of the Bridger-Teton National Forest.
The Wyoming Range is located south of Jackson Hole near the Wyoming-Idaho border. It features tall peaks, high mountain meadows favored by deer and elk, the best lynx habitat in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and numerous blue-ribbon trout streams.
Jim Vilos, a native Wyomingite from Kemmerer who has hunted and fished the Wyoming Range for his entire life welcomed the news: “I think with those lease sales that all forms of uses are in jeopardy in the Wyoming Range — hunting, fishing, photography, biking. This is great news and it’s about time.”
The stay, granted by the Interior Board Land Appeals (IBLA) of the Department of Interior, stalls the issuance of a federal oil and gas lease auctioned in December. The lease would have granted an energy company the right to build roads and drill gas wells on national forest lands in the Wyoming Range.
The December lease was only the first in a series of lease sales that federal agencies have planned to encompass 44,600 acres in the Wyoming Range. In addition to the December lease sale halted by yesterday’s IBLA ruling, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) also auctioned Wyoming Range leases in April and June and plans another auction in August. The April and June leases are also subject to pending challenges by environmental groups, recreationists, and outfitters, but the IBLA has not yet issued decisions about those lease sales.
“Although this ruling affects just a small part of the 44,600 acres the Forest Service and BLM have authorized for oil and natural gas development in the Wyoming Range, it’s a promising first step,” said Lisa McGee with the Wyoming Outdoor Council. “It is clear from the growing chorus of voices opposing leasing in the Wyoming Range that this area is treasured by local residents. Before the Forest Service and BLM allow oil and gas development here, they need to reconsider the effects such development will have on the range. We hope this decision sends a message to the federal agencies to slow down and listen to the people who know and love the Wyoming Range.”
Earthjustice has provided legal assistance to a broad coalition of groups opposing the proposed Wyoming Range leasing, and Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso assisted the Wyoming Outdoor Council in seeking yesterday’s ruling from the IBLA.
“This is a win for the 18,000 working men and women and the citizens of Wyoming,” says Kim Floyd, the executive secretary of the Wyoming State AFL-CIO which protested the June lease sale. “Finally the federal government has listened. I hope this decision sets a precedent for further leasing on national forest lands. We’ll be watching.”
At issue in the IBLA proceedings was the BLM’s failure to prepare an updated analysis of the impacts that Wyoming Range leasing poses for wildlife, recreation, and air quality – especially in light of booming natural gas development in the nearby Upper Green River area that has already yielded major air pollution problems and reductions in local wildlife populations. The IBLA order, dated July 10, 2006, reads in part: “…we conclude that appellants have carried their burden to establish that they are likely to succeed on the merits of their appeal regarding NEPA compliance by BLM.”
Public opposition to the proposed Wyoming Range leases sales has been growing across the state. Governor Dave Freudenthal, as well as United States Senator Craig Thomas, has continued to express strong concerns about new leases in the Wyoming Range.
A broad variety of local Wyoming residents also have expressed opposition to leasing in the Wyoming Range. The governor, outfitters, local businesses, Wyoming AFL-CIO, conservationists, sportsmen groups, and 178 individuals all have spoken out publicly against drilling and have protested any new Wyoming Range lease sales.
Given yesterday’s IBLA ruling, a number of citizens urged the Forest Service and BLM to cancel the proposed August auction of more Wyoming Range leases pending a final decision from the IBLA.
“Holding off on the new sale of leases in the Wyoming Range makes the most sense,” continued McGee. “The public has said in no uncertain terms that the Wyoming Range is special – that its scenic and recreational values are important to them and their families. They are not willing to sacrifice this place that they love.”
In addition to the proposed additional leases, the Bridger-Teton National Forest already has 150,000 acres under lease and a number of working wells. In the nearby Upper Green River Valley, industry has drilled several thousand gas wells in recent years, fouling the air, displacing wildlife from crucial winter range, and disrupting migration routes, and the BLM is poised to authorize up to 10,000 new wells in the Upper Green over the next decade. Because the Forest Service has not studied the cumulative impacts, it does not know how new leasing and development in the Wyoming Range will add to the environmental damage.