But before the citizen groups could get off the ground, Yates Petroleum Corp., a New Mexico-based operator drilling on the Anticline, sued the U.S. Department of Interior over the BLM's decision to impose mitigation measures on drilling if necessary. The lawsuit also argued that the citizens' group violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act, or FACA, which sets rules for federal advisory committees in order to keep their advice open and accessible to the public. The government responded by ordering the Pinedale group and its subcommittees to cease work. Energy companies, meanwhile, continued drilling.
According to Gene George, a Yates consultant who participated in PAWG subcommittees from 2000 to 2007, the company wanted to make sure that the advisory group did not override the government's legal decision-making authority. "They jumped off immediately and decided they would also start advising on the (National Environmental Policy Act) process and all sorts of other things and that's where it kind of got astray," George says.
Although a U.S. District Court for Wyoming dismissed Yates' complaint, the BLM decided that the Pinedale group needed to be chartered under FACA anyway. The agency took four years to resolve the suit, write a charter and appoint new members. Under FACA, the Interior secretary must approve those new members -- a lengthy process that still hinders the group today.
By the time the new PAWG convened in 2004, hundreds of wells had been drilled. The Bush administration told the working group that it could not pick up where it left off, but would have to start over, writing new monitoring plans.
Meanwhile, the BLM had started working on a proposal from Questar Corporation, an Anticline operator, to lift seasonal restrictions on drilling in crucial mule deer winter range. Although the agency asked for input, PAWG members say what it really wanted was a rubber stamp of approval. The group's wildlife subcommittee had neither the time nor the baseline monitoring data to properly evaluate the proposal.
The Yates lawsuit wasn't entirely to blame for the problems, says Dennis Stenger, who inherited the beleaguered group in 2006 when he took over as Pinedale BLM field manager. It was also a struggle for the agency to find volunteers willing to commit to the time-intensive working group. "You couldn't even get a quorum there in the end," he says.
But critics say the BLM drove away volunteers by ignoring their advice. For example, PAWG member Kirby Hedrick famously quit after concluding that the BLM had no interest in listening to him. A former vice president of production for Phillips Petroleum and a U.S. Department of Defense consultant, Hedrick had urged the BLM to limit habitat disruption by requiring that more wells be drilled directionally from fewer pads. But he got little response.
"This is one of the smartest groups of people I have ever seen working together. If the BLM doesn't listen to the advice of this group, they are making a big mistake," Hedrick said before he walked out of his last meeting in August 2005. "I get the impression the BLM wished this group would go away." (Hedrick declined to comment for this article.)
Belinda, who worked for the agency at the time, backs up Hedrick's critique. "I was in numerous (BLM) meetings where people said, ‘We wish this (the PAWG) would just go away,' " says Belinda, who ultimately quit in frustration and went to work for a conservation group.
Stenger, who is now retired, says the group's legal charter limited its authority. The group was allowed to comment only on decisions outlined in the 2000 plan, not on the newer proposals under consideration by the time it reconvened. BLM officials were careful to consider how their interpretation of the charter might set a precedent -- opening the door to special interests -- for other field offices, Stenger says.
"Out of this PAWG, you have certain people, they have a goal and there's no wavering from that goal," he explains. "Sometimes that gets in the way of what should actually be done on the ground."