Can we do anything about it?

By Lisa McGee

MANY PEOPLE ASSUME THE WYOMING RANGE in the Bridger-Teton National Forest is protected by law. That this locally and nationally cherished mountain range is one place where we don’t have to worry about oil and gas development.

This is unfortunately not the case—as demonstrated by a proposal to develop an entirely new 136-well oil and gas field in the Upper Hoback Basin—a scenic part of the national forest prized for its hunting and recreational opportunities.

The Wyoming Range Legacy Act was a tremendous accomplishment. Signed into law in 2009, it prevents future oil and gas leasing on 1.2 million acres of the Bridger-Teton National Forest. It does not, however, protect the forest from proposals to develop the 77,000 acres of oil and gas leases in the range that were issued prior to passage of the legislation.

The current 136-well development proposal implicates some of these existing leases, owned by Plains Exploration & Production Company, or PXP.


If a company holds valid oil and gas leases and is intent to drill, as PXP seems to be, stopping a project is difficult.

Unless a drilling proposal will violate other laws or regulations, it is usually not a matter of whether a proposal will move forward, but how it will and under what conditions.

It’s important to remember, however, that an oil and gas lease is not a property right and drilling on sensitive national forest land is subject to numerous restrictions.

The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have tremendous authority to set limits and conditions on a drilling proposal after a lease has been issued.

The Forest Service has said it will release a draft environmental analysis of PXP’s drilling proposal later this month. The results of the analysis will help the public determine whether the project may move forward legally.

The Wyoming Outdoor Council will be advocating that short of prohibiting the project altogether, the Forest Service can and should set strict conditions on the project to protect wildlife, recreational uses, air, and water.

In addition to the company’s proposal, the Forest Service will consider other alternatives, one of which we believe will be a “buy-out” alternative. In this alternative, PXP would agree to voluntarily negotiate the sale, trade, or donation of its existing leases.

The Legacy Act envisions and would facilitate this best-case scenario. Companies like PXP can sell or donate existing leases—and because these leases fall within the boundary of the Legacy Act, they would be retired, and never leased again. This is a solution that respects the financial interests of the company and would protect the backcountry and wildlife character of the forest that so many of us value.

This type of business decision is not without precedent. At the urging of citizens, legislation similar to the Wyoming Range Legacy Act was also passed for the Lewis and Clark National Forest in Montana.

Several companies that held valid, existing oil and gas leases agreed to sell and retire their leases, while other companies donated leases outright. Other leases have recently been retired outside of Glacier National Park.

We believe these examples from Montana can serve as a model for the Bridger-Teton.


Please save the date and join Citizens for the Wyoming Range in Jackson on November 29th where Gloria Flora, former forest supervisor on the Lewis and Clark National Forest, will share these success stories. Along with Dan Smitherman, a Bondurant outfitter and leader of Citizens for the Wyoming Range, Flora will lead a discussion about PXP’s drilling proposal and ways we can attempt to safeguard the Upper Hoback.

We will let you know when the draft EIS is released, which could be this month. There will be a 90-day comment period and we hope you will weigh in with your continued support for the Wyoming Range.

For more information, feel free to contact me at lisa@wyomingoutdoorcouncil.org or visit the Citizens for the Wyoming Range website: www.wyomingrange.org.


About seven miles south of Bondurant, WY, the Upper Hoback Basin is a remote pocket.

Stands of aspen punctuate the basin’s mostly open, rolling terrain. Largely free of roads, elk and other big game animals abound.

Hunters from western Wyoming know this best, coming back each fall to set up camp. Our state’s biologists have identified the basin as one of the most crucial habitats in the state for moose. And the very same mule deer herd that winters on the Pinedale Anticline (the herd that has been carefully monitored due to its record population decline) spends the rest of the year moving through and stopping over in the Upper Hoback.

For wildlife watchers and anglers, the area supports the rare and threatened Canada lynx and numerous other sensitive species, and is home to the headwaters of the Hoback River, parts of which are now congressionally designated “wild and scenic” and support native trout.

The Forest Service manages most of this area for its backcountry character and wildlife values. Given its outstanding values, it is no surprise that the Upper Hoback was included in the protected boundary of the Wyoming Range Legacy Act.

From the perspective of someone who values these qualities, the Upper Hoback is a terrible place for an industrial gas field. Unfortunately, existing oil and gas leases in this part of the national forest date back to the mid-1990s, and a company called PXP or Plains Exploration & Production, now owns most of these leases. Because these oil and gas leases pre-date the Legacy Act, they remain valid.

PXP has proposed drilling 136 wells from 17 well pads—a project it claims will require constructing or upgrading a network of 30 miles of roads.

The noise and disturbance from truck traffic, compressor stations and drill rigs will replace the quiet solitude you can still experience in the Upper Hoback and the project threatens to destroy the integrity of the basin’s wildlife habitat. The Wyoming Outdoor Council and its partners, including Citizens for the Wyoming Range, are working hard to prevent this project from happening.

West Edge