The supposedly protected Wyoming Range faces new energy development

by Emilene Ostlind

Under an October sky that threatens snow, a steel-gray diesel Dodge pickup lurches down a rutted two-track through the foothills of the Wyoming Range. Driver Chad Willoughby, 35, wears a ratty blaze-orange cap; a hunting rifle leans against the seat beside him. His dad, Dave Willoughby, and two friends share the back seat, dressed in camouflage. Every hunting season, the men take time off from their jobs in southwest Wyoming's oil and gas fields to hunt deer, antelope and elk in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Now, the industry that employs them has set its sights on their hunting ground.

"This is great mule deer country," says Dave, 65, describing the Noble Basin, which drapes from the rocky ridges of the high country just to the north. Its rumpled draws are sprinkled with fading aspen and dark conifers. One skinny four-wheel-drive road snakes over a hill and out of sight. "(There are) antelope out on that ridge. Hundreds of elk in summer. We hunt bear here in the spring. That'll all go away."

He holds a stack of fliers he's been giving to hunters. They show a map of a proposed drilling plan and an aerial photo of spider-webbing roads and natural gas wells with the words "It's open season ... the Hoback-Noble Basin is under threat!" The fliers protest the proposed exploration and development of a half-dozen natural gas leases on the national forest.

Last year, Wyoming's Democratic governor and Republican senators, wilderness advocates and hunters, roughnecks and outfitters united to celebrate passage of the Wyoming Range Legacy Act, which stopped gas leasing on 1.2 million acres in these mountains. But the victory was incomplete. About 72,000 acres of the Wyoming Range, including the Noble Basin, had already been leased, and now Houston-based Plains Exploration and Production (PXP) is looking to develop its holdings.

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These hunters know firsthand about gas development's environmental impacts, and they don't want to see it on their hunting and fishing grounds. They helped start an organization called Citizens for the Wyoming Range, and it and other conservation groups want PXP to relinquish its Noble Basin leases; failing that, they hope to push the Forest Service to put protective restrictions on gas development. "We have a vested interest in Wyoming and we want to keep it wild," says Bill Perkins, an electrical engineer who works in the gas fields and is a member of the advocacy group. "If we have to sacrifice somewhere, turn the Red Desert and the Jonah into pincushions."

Some 30 miles to the southeast lie two of the nation's most productive natural gas fields -- the Jonah Field and the Pinedale Anticline -- where energy development has come at a high environmental cost. Since drilling started a decade ago, mule deer and sage grouse have been disappearing, haze obscures the Wind River Mountains, spikes in ground-level ozone threaten health, carcinogens contaminate groundwater, and light and noise pollution fill the air.

Five years ago, PXP acquired leases in the Noble Basin and prepared to drill three exploratory, or wildcat, wells. The proposal coincided with a Bush administration push to lease an additional 175,000 acres in the Wyoming Range. PXP's plan did not address how full development would affect the wildlife that moves between the Noble Basin and the other gas fields. The proposal "epitomized all that was wrong with drilling in these mountains," says Stephanie Kessler of The Wilderness Society in Wyoming. "There was a huge outcry."

Locals demanded more accountability for the cumulative impacts of development. In response, the U.S. Forest Service scaled back the new leases to 44,720 acres, and PXP withdrew its wildcat proposal in 2007. Now, the company has re-submitted a more thorough master plan describing how development might proceed if the wildcat wells strike gas. In the new plan -- currently under review by the Bridger-Teton National Forest -- PXP still proposes to start with three wells from a single pad. If those wells strike gas, the full plan outlines improving and building 29 miles of road and drilling 136 wells from 17 well pads in the Noble Basin, directly disturbing up to 400 acres of land over the roughly 16,000-acre field.

The potentially substantial gas reserves on these leases can "help meet our nation's domestic energy needs," PXP's Vice President of Corporate Communications Scott Winters wrote in an e-mail, adding that the company emphasizes "environmental protection in all its operations."

Citizens for the Wyoming Range -- along with The Wilderness Society, the Wyoming Outdoor Council and other groups -- want PXP to take advantage of a provision of the Wyoming Range Legacy Act that allows companies to donate or sell leases for permanent conservation. There's a precedent in northern Montana, where several companies voluntarily gave up leases they'd held for decades after legislation similar to Wyoming's Legacy Act passed in 2007.  Broad public support for protecting the Rocky Mountain Front, the uncertainty of unproven gas reserves, and tax incentives convinced those companies to abandon leases. A few of the leases were donated, but private foundations paid large sums for most of them. Valid undeveloped leases remain in the Badger-Two Medicine area, and conservation groups hoping for relinquishment continue to work with those leaseholders.

Retiring leases can be tricky for both federal agencies and energy companies, says Gloria Flora, past supervisor of Montana's Lewis and Clark National Forest and advocate for the Rocky Mountain Front. An agency has to admit that selling the leases was a mistake and try to find a graceful way out, while energy companies are under pressure to develop their investments. It's a matter of "untangling the predicament," she says. "Everyone has something at stake."

In Wyoming, conservation groups have yet to find the funds it would take to buy PXP's leases if the company is willing to sell them. But in the meantime, they hope that the Forest Service's environmental analysis will propose strict rules to protect air, water, habitat and wildlife.

Energy development in the Noble Basin cannot harm critical habitat for the federally threatened Canada lynx, and it must meet the rigorous requirements of the Bridger-Teton Forest Plan: minimizing roads, keeping drilling byproducts out of streams, obliterating all roads and structures after drilling is complete, and causing "the least possible disturbance to wildlife on or adjacent to the leased land." PXP's drilling proposal has "a long way to go" to meet such stipulations, says Dan Heilig of the environmental law nonprofit Western Resource Advocates. The Forest Service could require PXP to transport equipment by helicopter, or allow only one drill at a time for just a few months each year.

Gov. Dave Freudenthal, D, has asked the agency to scrutinize how emissions from hydraulic fracturing, flaring and drilling would compound those of other local energy development. And Wyoming Game and Fish Director John Emmerich wrote the Forest Service in 2008 to ask for seasonal restrictions to protect crucial birthing grounds and migration corridors for elk, mule deer, moose and pronghorn in the Noble Basin. He also noted the importance of the basin for bears, wolverines, trout, sage grouse, three kinds of owls, and other species. "Significant impacts to many of the wildlife species will be very difficult if not impossible to mitigate," Emmerich wrote.

For now, advocates can only speculate about how development might be restricted. Forest Service officials declined several requests to comment for this article, writing that "it would be more appropriate to have this discussion" after the environmental analysis is released. "PXP knew going in this would be a challenging area to develop," says Lisa Dardy-McGee, national forests director for the Wyoming Outdoor Council. "It can't be business as usual."

Back in the Wyoming Range foothills, Chad parks the truck on a hill capped in yellow grass overlooking the Noble Basin. The knob we are standing on is "Davie's Hill," he says proudly, "named after Dave Willoughby." Chad claps his father on the shoulder with a smile. If gas development proceeds in the basin, even with restrictions, the Willoughbys and their friends foresee an end to their hunting here. They'll be pushed into places already used by other hunters, landscapes where they haven't spent their lives learning every draw and break and stand of timber. Chad's three daughters are just old enough to start hunting, and he and Dave look forward to sharing the family tradition with the girls. "It's not all about just going out and shooting things," Dave says. "It's about camaraderie, being together, bonding with our family and friends, setting around a campfire at night and talking."

The Forest Service's updated environmental analysis is scheduled for public review before the end of the year. Meanwhile, the Citizens for the Wyoming Range are writing editorials, organizing meetings -- 60 people showed up at one in Rock Springs in early September -- making billboards and distributing fliers to raise awareness about the pending development. "This is country you don't touch," Chad Willoughby says, looking out across the basin. "It's just a shame what they want to do."

© High Country News