On January 25, Jacque Buchanan, the supervisor of the Bridger-Teton National Forest, made a somewhat unusual decision when she told the Bureau of Land Management to buy back 44,720 acres (roughly 70 square miles) worth of gas leases -- called 44-7 for short -- that the agency sold at auction in 2005 and 2006.
Environmental groups had appealed the 2005-06 sales, saying they were based on an outdated environmental analysis. The Department of Interior's Board of Land Appeals, which decides appeals of federal decisions to develop public lands resources, agreed and told the Forest Service, which controls the surface rights on the leases, to redo its environmental review. When the Forest Service conducted a "supplemental environmental impact analysis" it found lots of new information, including confirmation that threatened Canada lynx live on the forested slopes of the proposed leases. And the new review took into account cumulative impacts from over 8,000 wells already drilled on the three biggest fields in the Green River Basin with another 4,000 plus approved or proposed. Even though the impacts to air quality or mule deer from the 44-7 alone might not be so bad, when they are added up with all the other emissions of ozone precursors and gobbling up of deer habitat in other local gas fields, the impacts are substantial, the Forest Service found.
So, after weighing all this information, in January Buchanan decided the leases should be canceled (pdf). The BLM, which administers all federal mineral rights, will pay the energy companies back for the leases and take them off the table.
When the 44-7 were first sold, a whole bunch of Wyomingites got mad that natural gas development, which was already creeping across the sagebrush in the adjacent Green River Basin, would start to thrash their favorite fishing, hiking, horse packing and ORVing spots in the mountains. So hunters and fishermen, even roughnecks and labor union members, led by the late Senator Craig Thomas, organized to write the Wyoming Range Legacy Act, signed into law in 2009, which draws a line around the Wyoming Range and prohibits any new gas leasing inside. As HCN has reported, even though the act prohibits new leasing, hunters and others are still fighting to retire existing leases (subscription required) within the area.
The Forest Service decision to cancel the leases drew mixed responses in Wyoming.
"This is fantastic," Mike Burd, a miner from Green River, told the Citizens for the Wyoming Range. "All sportsmen on this side of the state are very happy. This is not about killing jobs. It’s about preserving our Wyoming heritage and recreational lifestyle. The Wyoming Outdoor Council celebrated the lease cancellation on its blog.
But others are not so happy. US Representative Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., told the Jackson Hole News and Guide, "The Forest Service’s decision took into account everything but jobs, the economy, energy independence and national security."
And Gov. Matt Mead, R-Wyo., worries that protection of the endangered Canada lynx could squelch other public land resource development. "There is so little documentation and understanding of that species. To make decisions without a complete picture of its habitat creates a lot of uncertainty not only for energy companies but other users of the public's land," his spokesperson told the Billings Gazette.
The cancellation of the 44-7 is a victory for conservation of the Wyoming Range, but another 85,066 acres (roughly 133 square miles) of valid leases could still be developed. This includes the pending Plains Exploration and Production development of up to 136 wells along the Hoback River, just to the north of the 44-7.
Map adapted from the Wilderness Society. The mid-tone yellow-orange shapes are the 44-7, which can now be colored in green to show they will be permanently protected.
Emilene Ostlind is an editorial fellow at HCN.