Bridger-Teton National Forest
The Bridger-Teton National Forest is perhaps one of the best-known and most beloved forests in the country. Its niche is that of a wild and backcountry forest, whose abundant wildlife and scenic vistas are world-renowned. Unfortunately, it is also the forest in Wyoming most at risk from the threat of oil and gas development. Currently, there are two developed fields on the southern portion of the forest. Some of the leases giving rise to development rights in this portion of the forest date back to the 1960s. Much has changed since then.
On surrounding BLM lands in the Upper Green River Valley, gas reserves in the Pinedale Anticline and Jonah fields have proven to be some of the most productive and lucrative in the nation. While development brings increased revenue to the state and solidifies Wyoming’s role as a key energy provider to the country, there is a downside. Air quality is markedly poorer than it was before large-scale gas development appeared. Documented impacts to wildlife populations, particularly sage-grouse and mule deer, are well known. The oil and gas boom is also affecting the quality of life in small towns like Pinedale (see this New Yorker article, for example), causing spikes in the housing market and adversely affecting tourism, the state’s second largest industry.
Given these changed circumstances, people have begun to realize what we stand to lose if development continues to spread throughout the valley and into the nearby Bridger-Teton National Forest. At the news that the Bridger-Teton is at risk of new industrialization from well pads, drill rigs, roads and pipelines, some have wondered, “Is nothing sacred?” The slogan that has arisen from citizens who hope to keep new development at bay on the national forest is, “Enough is enough.”
In 1990, in conjunction with releasing its forest plan, the Bridger-Teton completed an oil and gas study that determined areas on the forest that are available for oil and gas leasing, areas that could be leased with no surface occupancy, and areas off-limits to leasing. This availability study will be re-evaluated during or immediately after the forest planning process that is currently on hold, but may be underway in the near future and will give the public an opportunity to offer feedback about the appropriateness of oil and gas development on the forest.
In forest planning meetings in communities around the Bridger-Teton in December 2006, people were asked to give initial feedback about whether and where oil and gas development was appropriate on the Bridger-Teton. The public was overwhelmingly opposed to any new oil and gas development anywhere on the forest. Read more about efforts to keep new leasing and development out of the Bridger-Teton National Forest’s Wyoming Range, the imminent threat one project poses to the Upper Hoback area and the recent successful grassroots effort to pass federal legislation that permanently protects the 1.2 million acres of the Bridger-Teton National Forest’s Wyoming Range from future oil and gas leasing.
The Wyoming Range, our state’s namesake mountain range, is one of Wyoming’s lesser-known gems. In the southern part of the Bridger-Teton National Forest, this 150-mile range is home to prized herds of big game, native cutthroat trout populations and threatened species like Canada lynx. It is a place where locals find solitude in huge tracts of forest backcountry when nearby wilderness areas and national parks are crowded with out-of-state visitors. It’s also a place that supports traditional, sustainable activities such as outfitting, guiding, ranching, and recreation. These values are at risk, however, because the Wyoming Range is the area on the Bridger-Teton National Forest that energy companies have targeted for new oil and gas development.
In 2004, the federal government offered about 175,000 acres for oil and gas leasing in the Wyoming Range. This proposed lease sale brought together outfitters, hunters, anglers, tourism-related business owners, ranchers, labor union members, recreational users and conservationists—as well as Governor Dave Freudenthal and the late Senator Craig Thomas—all in opposition to the leasing. Much of the land offered in the sale was within inventoried roadless areas. Although the U.S. Forest Service responded to public pressure and reduced the eventual offering to 44,720 acres—any new leasing in the Bridger-Teton turned out to be simply unacceptable to the general public.
The Forest Service’s sale of 44,720 acres of oil and gas leases in the Wyoming Range in 2005-2006 catalyzed what became a broad-based effort to protect the Wyoming Range. From the beginning, local citizens—outfitters, business owners, hunters, anglers, oil and gas field workers who recreate in the forest on their days off, labor union members and ranchers, together with conservation groups—all worked to secure federal legislation that would offer long-term protection for the Wyoming Range by prohibiting new oil and gas leasing, and creating a process that would allow current, undeveloped leases to be traded or purchased back at fair market value. Local residents founded a group called Citizens Protecting the Wyoming Range. Although not opposed to oil and gas development, the group advocates for responsible oil and gas development, which means that some places, like the Wyoming Range, are too special to drill. (See Wyoming Range: Too Special To Drill - Part 1 and Wyoming Range: Too Special To Drill - Part 2.) Another group of hunting and fishing advocates, Sportsmen For the Wyoming Range, also came together to see that the range was protected.
On October 25, 2007, Wyoming Senator John Barrasso, with co-sponsor Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi introduced the Wyoming Range Legacy Act. This was an exciting milestone in the effort to safeguard our state’s namesake mountains as well as a tribute to the late Senator Craig Thomas, who had envisioned this very legislation prior to his passing. In February of 2007, a subcommittee of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on the bill. Governor Dave Freudenthal and Citizens Protecting the Wyoming Range founder Gary Amerine testified in support of the bill. It was approved by the committee in June 2008 and by the end of the year was packaged with more than 150 other public lands measures in an omnibus bill. The Omnibus Public Land Management Act passed the Senate and House in early 2009 and on March 30, 2009 President Obama signed it into law.
Proposal to drill 136 gas wells in the Hoback Basin
In 2006, Houston-based Plains Exploration and Production Company proposed to drill three new natural gas wells seven miles south of Bondurant on the Bridger-Teton National Forest. In response to a draft Environmental Impact Statement in the spring of 2007, which explored the potential impacts of drilling one to three exploratory wells, the Wyoming Outdoor Council submitted detailed technical comments opposing the project, finding fault with the limited scope of the environmental analysis. We noted the company had bragged to its shareholders that the area shared characteristics with the Jonah field—a huge and highly productive field in SW Wyoming—and said that it hoped to develop its leases into “a nice field right in the middle of the forest.” The public, with support from Governor Freudenthal, fought the Forest Service’s decision that the environmental analysis could be limited to the impacts of just one to three exploratory wells, and asked the federal agency to reassess its strategy.
In response to the public opposition, Plains, in June of 2007, asked the Forest Service to withhold its decision on the EIS and to instead prepare a new analysis that would take into account full-field development. The company then submitted a new proposal for consideration: 17 well pads with 136 wells and nearly 30 miles of new or upgraded roads. The Forest Service published a notice of intent to prepare an EIS, held two public meetings at the end of January, 2007, and accepted scoping comments through February 7, 2008.
Two promising developments have occurred since we submitted our last round of scoping comments. First, the Forest Service has agreed to include a buyout/trade alternative in the draft EIS. If Plains is willing to consider this alternative it would be a “win-win” for all stakeholders involved. Second, the Forest Service has agreed to prepare a quantitative air quality model and analysis. The Forest Service has an affirmative responsibility to protect visibility in the Class I areas it manages, such as the nearby Bridger Wilderness. It cannot authorize projects that would violate other non-discretionary statutes, such as the Clean Air Act.
The Forest Service released a draft EIS in December 2010 and accepted public comment on the analysis. Nearly 60,000 citizens wrote letters to the Forest Service raising opposition to or concerns about the project. This was a record-setting number of comments; the Bridger-Teton National Forest has never received such a voluminous response on any other project. Hundreds of citizens attended public meetings this winter in Jackson, Bondurant, and Pinedale: video here.
While recognizing PXP's leases are valid, the Wyoming Outdoor Council, and nearly everyone who attended the public meetings want to safeguard the forest by supporting a buyout of PXP's leases. If PXP doesn't agree to sell or donate its leases, the Wyoming Outdoor Council believes the Forest Service can and should require the most stringent protections if development is to proceed. The Forest Service should enforce the PXP's lease stipulations that constrain development in the Upper Hoback and adhere to standards and guidelines for road density and wildlife protection in the Bridger-Teton's forest plan.
We await a decision from the Forest Supervisor regarding whether the comments received warrant preparation of a supplemental draft EIS. We believe they do. In the meantime, we are working with Citizens for the Wyoming Range. If you're interested in learning more about the project and ways you can get involved, sign up to receive alerts on this site.
Leasing of 44,720 acres on the eastern edge of the Wyoming Range
In 2004, the Bridger-Teton National Forest released a proposal that would have allowed oil and gas leasing on 175,000 acres of the Wyoming Range. Although it eventually scaled back the proposal to 44,720 acres in 2005, the public remained opposed to any new oil and gas leasing in the forest. Despite widespread opposition, the Forest Service nevertheless instructed the BLM (the agency charged with managing federal minerals) to auction the lease parcels to oil and gas companies in four separate sales from December 2005 through August 2006. The Wyoming Outdoor Council submitted formal protests to these lease sales, citing numerous reasons why leasing should not go forward, but especially not without updated, supplemental environmental analyses. The BLM dismissed the protests and issued the leases from the first two sales. The Outdoor Council appealed and asked for a “stay” on development while the merits of our appeals were pending. The Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA) granted our stay requests, finding that we were likely to succeed on the merits of our appeals, and effectively halted development on some 20,000 acres of National Forest land. Because of the IBLA’s findings with respect to the first two lease sales, the BLM decided to defer lease issuance from the third and fourth lease sales. The good news is that our legal advocacy efforts have kept the 44,720 acres safe from development. Unfortunately, this is only a temporary victory. The fate of these important acres, which are the eastern gateway to the Wyoming Range, still hangs in the balance.
Rather than awaiting a decision on the merits of the appeals and spurred by demands from high bidding companies to quickly remedy the delay, the BLM requested remand of the pending appeals. The Forest Service as the surface managing agency was then charged with updating its environmental analysis in order to adequately assess changed circumstances and to determine whether these changes warranted a different decision—in other words, withdrawing and canceling the leases. In an upsetting turn of events, the agency decided that one of the high-bidding companies could pay for and actively oversee the drafting of the updated analysis. When Governor Freudenthal, the Wyoming Outdoor Council and others cried foul on this arrangement, the Forest Service conceded that it made a mistake and ended the improper relationship. The agency agreed to fund and prepare the analysis itself, which it is now in the process of doing. We were successful in convincing the Forest Service that it was necessary to prepare a thorough environmental analysis, including a quantitative air quality model and a sufficient range of alternatives.
A draft EIS was released in January 2010 identifying the Forest Service's preferred alternative was the "no action" alternative, which would require cancellation and withdrawal of the 44,720 contested acres. In January 2011 the Forest Service issued its final decision upholding the no action alternative. Several high-bidding companies appealed to the regional forester and the Forest Service decided to withdraw its decision and to prepare additional analysis. A new supplemental draft EIS is anticipated in spring 2012.
What does the Roadless Rule do?
Prohibits new road construction and reconstruction in inventoried roadless areas on National Forest System lands, except:
- To protect health and safety in cases of an imminent threat of flood, fire, or other catastrophic event that, without intervention, would cause the loss of life or property.
- To conduct environmental clean up required by federal law.
- To allow for reserved or outstanding rights provided for by statute or treaty.
- To prevent irreparable resource damage by an existing road.
- To rectify existing hazardous road conditions.
- Where a road is part of a Federal Aid Highway project.
- Where a road is needed in conjunction with the continuation, extension, or renewal of a mineral lease on lands that are under lease, or for new leases issued immediately upon expiration of an existing lease.
Prohibits cutting, sale, and removal of timber in inventoried roadless areas, except:
- For the cutting, sale, or removal of generally small diameter trees which maintains or improves roadless characteristics and:
- To improve habitat for threatened, endangered, proposed, or sensitive species, or
- To maintain or restore ecosystem composition and structure, such as reducing the risk of uncharacteristic wildfire effects.
- When incidental to the accomplishment of a management activity not otherwise prohibited by this rule.
- For personal or administrative use.
- Where roadless characteristics have been substantially altered in a portion of an inventoried roadless area due to the construction of a classified road and subsequent timber harvest occurring after the area was designated an inventoried roadless area and prior to the publication date of this rule.
The National Forest Management Act of 1976 requires that every forest develop a Land and Resource Management Plan or “forest plan,” an overarching document that guides management decisions on individual forests. Forests must revise the plans every 10-15 years and it is within this revision process that the public has a chance to tell the Forest Service how we want our national forest lands to be managed. Since 1982, the role of forest plan revision has been to update decisions, after preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), about what areas are suitable for timber harvest, oil and gas development, new wilderness recommendations and motorized travel, just to name a few. Forest planning is important; a good forest plan indicates that good future project-level management decisions will likely follow.
In 2005 forest-planning rules changed dramatically. In what it deemed a “paradigm shift,” the Bush administration transformed forest plans from pragmatic documents to merely aspirational, goal-setting guidance devoid of any enforceable standards. Plans were also proposed to be “categorically excluded” from the requirement to prepare an EIS. In March 2007, a federal court enjoined the new planning regulations finding that the Forest Service had improperly issued them. Having been sent back to the drawing board and after further analysis, the Forest Service issued substantially similar rules in early 2008. These rules are again being challenged in federal district court and we await a decision.
The Bridger-Teton National Forest began its plan revision process in the summer of 2005. It hosted several meetings with the public and with state and local government representatives to assess aspects of the current plan that needed to change in order to make the new document relevant for the next 10-15 years. Since spring of 2007, however, the Bridger-Teton’s plan revision process has been on hold.
Roadless areas and the Bridger-Teton National Forest
Roadless areas are rarely discussed without mention of the now familiar “roadless rule.” During the1970s the Forest Service conducted two inventories that identified and mapped unroaded areas of the forest for wilderness consideration. Because these inventories were simply research-based projects that didn’t immediately affect the management of these places, few people had ever heard of roadless areas. All that changed, however, in 2001 with the passage of the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, one of the most significant administrative rules affecting public lands in the last century.
Roadless areas are rare; they comprise only 5 percent of the entire acreage of the state of Wyoming.
Roadless areas provide havens for wildlife and sources of clean drinking water for nearby communities. They also provide places of coveted recreational value, places where people hunt, fish, camp, hike, mountain bike, and horsepack. These sustainable activities bring enormous revenue to the state on an annual basis and contribute to the quality of life of Wyoming residents. The roadless rule protects 58.5 million acres of national forest land (roughly 30 percent of the lands the Forest Service manages) from new road building and large-scale, commercial timber harvest.
When the rule was first adopted in 2001, numerous lawsuits were filed. The state of Wyoming was among the parties who sued the Forest Service, claiming the agency had issued the rule without proper environmental review. It also argued that the rule violated the Wilderness Act by creating de facto wilderness in circumvention of congressional authority. The Forest Service, then under the direction of Bush administration officials, refused at first to defend legal challenges to the rule. As a result, the Wyoming Outdoor Council and several other conservation organizations intervened on behalf of the agency to ensure the proper defense occurred. Despite our best advocacy efforts, Wyoming U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer, enjoined the rule nationwide.
Then in 2005, while that decision was on appeal to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the Bush administration repealed the rule altogether and replaced it with a process that allowed governors to petition the federal government for the protection of roadless areas within their state’s borders. In September 2006, a federal court in California enjoined the petition process rule, reinstating the 2001 Roadless Rule. For a brief time, the Roadless Rule was again the law of the land. The state of Wyoming, however, brought an identical second lawsuit to the same Wyoming court in order to challenge the rule’s reinstatement. In August 2008, Judge Brimmer enjoined the rule again, creating dueling court orders. In December 2008, the California court limited its injunction, making clear that it was not applicable in Wyoming. Appeals of the Wyoming court’s decision and the California court’s decision are pending in both the 9th and 10th Circuits. On March 28, 2009 an important interim directive was announced: For the next year, any new road building or timber harvest proposals in inventoried roadless areas on National Forest lands must first be authorized by the Secretary of Agriculture. While this directive doesn’t prohibit these activities, it creates important oversight until the legal disputes are finalized or until the Forest Service or Congress addresses its intentions for the long-term management of these lands.
The Wyoming Outdoor Council remains a defendant-intervenor in the Wyoming lawsuit and continues to advocate that a solution—whether through legislation or other means—for the long-term protection of our country’s last, best backcountry forest lands should be found in the years to come. Until then, we actively monitor projects on the national forest land in Wyoming to ensure no new road building or commercial timber harvest occurs in roadless areas. We have been vocal advocates in the forest planning process that roadless areas should be retained as backcountry areas and deemed unsuitable for future oil and gas leasing and development. Luckily, both the Shoshone and Bridger-Teton National Forests’ roadless areas are safeguarded temporarily from new oil and gas leasing. In June 2006 an agreement between these forests and the state of Wyoming was reached ensuring that no new leasing will occur until new forest-wide oil and gas availability studies are finalized.