Enough is enough

  The announcement this June that Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal opposed new oil and gas leases in the Upper Green River Valley startled both conservation groups and the oil industry. After all, Wyoming is one of the few states fortunate enough not to face a budget crisis because of oil and gas royalties.

Yet, in the state’s fastest-growing county of Sublette, even pro-development locals were having second thoughts about one more gas field. Rob Shaul, editor of the Pinedale Roundup, said in a recent editorial: "Sublette County has a rich and proud heritage of oil and gas development. But today, we’re taking a stand against the future development of oil and gas (on federal land) in Sublette County."

Others have become even more emphatic. In a letter to the editor of the community paper, Maggie Palmer of Pinedale wrote, "When the oil prices plummet, and eventually they will, the oil companies will be gone quicker than fire through a gas line, and all of us will be left picking up the pieces of our destroyed local economy — not to mention the plunder and pillage of our public lands."

Bounded by the Wind River Mountains on the east and the Wyoming Range on the west, the Upper Green River Valley is home to one of America’s greatest wildlife concentrations. It is also, by a twist of geological fate, underlaid by one of America’s greatest concentrations of natural gas. Oil and gas development has so thoroughly dominated the region that 93 percent of the Pinedale Resource Area is currently under lease.

The Bureau of Land Management’s scenario for "reasonable foreseeable development" calls for 10,000 new wells in the next 10-15 years — more than three times the number of wells in current production.

Perhaps Gov. Freudenthal’s statement of opposition to new leases had its genesis at the recent Wyoming Conservation Congress, held in Pinedale four months ago. Nearly 300 people showed up, filling every hotel room in town. When Freudenthal told the gathering, "I do not intend to preside over the end of wildlife in this state," you’d have thought wild applause would have broken out. Instead, the response was merely polite. The audience responded more enthusiastically to sportsman Craig Thomson, who said flatly: "Wildlife is a huge portion of Wyoming’s soul, and it’s not for sale."

The flashpoint of this new bout of federal leasing is Trappers Point, a hill just west of Pinedale where one of the Western Hemisphere’s greatest wildlife migrations occurs (only the caribou trek more miles). Wyoming’s pronghorn herds migrate 170 miles, from Grand Teton National Park, south to their wintering grounds in the upper Green River Valley. Along the way, the animals — often called antelope — pass through Trappers Point, one of three migration bottlenecks made narrower by a new subdivision that reduces the bottleneck to less than a half-mile wide.

The Pinedale Anticline rises just east of Pinedale, and it is an area inhabited mainly by deer, pronghorn and sage grouse. Leasing on the Anticline was granted with the stipulation that drilling activity would cease during the winter to allow for wildlife to use this crucial winter range.

Yet, the gas companies routinely ask for, and receive, exceptions. In a move that outraged local conservationists, the Bureau of Land Management granted nearly 100 percent of requested exemptions.

Farther to the south lies the aptly named Jonah Field, considered one of the richest gas fields in the West. Here, the entire landscape has been converted into an industrialized zone, with well pads spaced every 80 acres. Operators are currently seeking approval for one well on every 16 acres. Seen from the air, the developed field looks like a giant subdivision, with each cul-de-sac leading to a drilling rig or compressor station.

One of the conference’s vivid images came from wildlife biologist Hal Sawyer. He tracks the migration of pronghorn using data gathered by Global Positioning Systems on radio-collared animals. A bird’s-eye view showed pronghorn heading straight for the Jonah Field along their traditional migration routes, then making a right-angled dogleg around the gas field.

By late afternoon of the second day, my head was full, and I left the conference for a walk around town. I gazed up at the Pinedale Anticline, forming the Western skyline. Already, one drilling rig rises from across the river, and I pictured a skyline filled with many more, drilling through the night.

Greg Gordon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives and writes in Gardiner, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.