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Another win in the Wyoming Range

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Sarah Gilman | Oct 09, 2012 06:00 AM

I’m not usually sold on catchy one-liners, but today, I have a favorite conservation slogan. Care to guess? I bet you won’t get it.

Nope, it’s not “What Would Hayduke Do?” (Though I saw that one in Bluff, Utah, this weekend and had a chuckle.)

And no, it’s not “Go Green: Eat People.” (Though that one does call up the amusingly campy 1973 classic starring Charlton Heston, Soylent Green … er, oops ... that information has nothing to do with the film’s shocking conclusion!)

And, also no, it’s most definitely not “May The Forest Be With You,” (for what I hope are obvious reasons).

In fact, Dick Cheney and Mitt Romney might be proud of me for one fleeting moment here, because, by Jove, the answer is “Drill Baby Drill!”

Now, before you splurt coffee from your nose and start pounding furious messages into the comments section below suggesting that we here at HCN must have ingested too much fracking fluid and made a devil’s bargain with ExxonMobil, perhaps trading our souls for flatbed trucks tricked out with functioning hot tubs (because who wouldn’t want such a thing?!), just bear with me for a moment to savor the irony.

Wyoming Range

A sign from the campaign to protect the Hoback-Noble basin. Courtesy Emilene Ostlind.

Late last week, the Trust for Public Land announced that it will buy out 58,000 acres of oil and gas leases to prevent energy development from fragmenting valuable wildlife habitat on the Bridger-Teton National Forest in northwestern Wyoming, all of which will be returned to the federal government for permanent retirement. The $8.75 million deal puts an end to a controversial proposal from Houston-based Plains Exploration and Production Co. (PXP) to drill 136 wells for natural gas (serviced by 29 miles of roads and associated infrastructure) on largely untracked and prime hunting grounds along the Hoback River.

Why would PXP go along with such a proposal? Perhaps the company was won over by hunters’ concerns that mule deer numbers in the area could plunge as they have on the nearby Pinedale Anticline gasfield. But, as the Associated Press reports, the extremely low price of natural gas was also a significant factor:

"PXP has repeatedly stated our willingness to consider a buyout of our lease position if a valid offer was tendered," PXP vice president Steve Rusch said in a statement. … Low natural gas prices (also) played a role in the agreement. Rusch said PXP has been shifting away from low-margin natural gas toward higher-priced oil in recent years.

And here we come back to what the heck “Drill Baby Drill” has to do with last week’s considerable conservation triumph. Those natural gas prices dropped precipitously for the simple reason that producers drilled so much – especially in shale gas deposits in the East and South – that they flooded the market and obliterated their profit margins on wells tapping difficult and expensive to reach natural gas deposits.

Oops.

O' course, I don't want to disregard the fact that the deal is also likely due largely to local hunters’ and environmentalists’ spirited fight against the project. For background and some all-around good reading, check out former HCN intern and editorial fellow Emilene Ostlind’s story and subsequent blog posts – here and here – following their efforts, and some impressive past victories. The latest deal was made possible through a provision in the Wyoming Range Legacy Act, which put 1.2 million acres in the mountain range that contains the contested area off limits to oil and gas leasing, and offered a path to buy out those already awarded to companies.

“This agreement shows that we can find common ground between conservationists, hunters, anglers – and even oil and gas developers,” Trust for Public Land's Northern Rockies Director Deb Love said in a statement Oct. 5. Or, at least, it will if the organization can raise $4.25 million before the deal’s Dec. 31 deadline.

Sarah Gilman is High Country News’ Associate Editor

C Sinjin Eberle
C Sinjin Eberle Subscriber
Oct 09, 2012 10:31 AM
Great article, Sarah.

I have always wondered why we have not been able to employ this model more broadly. If we care about getting cows off of public lands, why haven't more grazing leases been bought (I think Wild Earth Guardians has done some of this, but not sure how broadly). If we want fewer oil and gas pads dotting the landscape, why can't conservation groups bid on them with the BLM (legitimately, not Tim DeC. style - although that was cool). In Colorado, we were able to pass a bill a few years ago so that water rights holders could donate their extra water to the state for the sole purpose of instream flows...and there are organizations that are trying to craft the purchase of water rights for instream flows, but the Constitution does not allow that as a 'beneficial use' - that one's gotta change.

Anyway, this model seems to me to be a good way to put our money where our mouth is - do we want to empower government to make all of the decisions about our public lands, or do those of us that love these places put some money into the hands (collectively) of others who are trying to preserve the same places? People whine about land trusts driving up the cost of housing (Crested Butte) but look at the beauty of the place that is preserved. It works.
C Sinjin Eberle
C Sinjin Eberle Subscriber
Oct 09, 2012 10:42 AM
And in another example of the same kind of thing (personal empowerment rules!), look at this effort by the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (people who shoot stuff and hook things) to preserve our heritage lands. A reward system to be on the lookout for illegal ATV use? Nice!

http://www.anglingtrade.com/[…]/

Sarah Gilman
Sarah Gilman Subscriber
Oct 09, 2012 10:55 AM
Hi SinJin--The group that's had the most success retiring grazing allotments is the National Wildlife Federation in the Northern Rockies: www.hcn.org/blogs/goat/sheep-versus-bear-agency-versus-agency . I believe most of the active efforts to buy out both grazing permits and oil and gas leases are either Congressionally authorized through specific legislation (see the Rocky Mountain Front for an example of oil and gas buyouts and Jodi Peterson's story on grazing: http://www.hcn.org/issues/4[…]vironmentalist-grazing-wars). I think in the case of the Northern Rockies, it's a function of how the National Forest Plan is drafted. Where there is neither enabling legislation, or a land management plan that calls for buyouts and retirements, I'm not sure it's legal to do so. Definitely a question worth looking into.

Sarah Gilman, Associate Editor of HCN
Veronica Egan
Veronica Egan
Oct 09, 2012 02:04 PM
Hi Sinjin,

Alas, it will take an act of Congress to enable permanent permit buyout and retirement. The Rural Economic Vitalization Act (REVA) would do just that; allow private dollars to buyout and then retire grazing allotments. It is a fiscally and environmentally sound effort backed primarily by the Sierra Club and Great Old Broads for Wilderness.
C Sinjin Eberle
C Sinjin Eberle Subscriber
Oct 09, 2012 02:09 PM
Hey Ronni! Great to see (hear from) you! Thanks for the info - I had no idea that was circulating. Will check it out.

Please be safe in Utah ;-)
Sarah Gilman
Sarah Gilman Subscriber
Oct 09, 2012 02:53 PM
Yeah, thanks Ronni! That's the one Jodi's article focused on. Here's the link if you're still interested, SinJin: http://www.hcn.org/issues/4[…]vironmentalist-grazing-wars
Martin Hagen
Martin Hagen Subscriber
Oct 11, 2012 01:33 PM
I'm sure there are some areas where cows have "over stayed their welcome" and have caused problems that you are refering to and I agree they need to be taken out of the drainage, but, I dissagree on a permanant basis if there is a long history of large animals having been part of the ecosystem. Let me remind you that our species affectively eliminated the bison on their native range and replaced them with domestic cows. The land in question needs large animals on it to be healthy. But, I have been successfuly diverted from my message. That being, well said Sarah! I'm a member of the coalition and it has been very gratifying to see that the priority of people, across the board, values what is there versus what we can get out of it.
Martin Hagen
Martin Hagen Subscriber
Oct 11, 2012 01:44 PM
Hello, just a post script to my comment that I ment to include. The question of cows on public lands given the facts boils down to, in my mind, a matter of where, and the management practices imployed to help emulate the effect bison had on their ancestral range (by the way, there was a species of mountain bison).
Veronica Egan
Veronica Egan
Oct 11, 2012 02:41 PM
Alas, Martin, the bison were able to migrate over millions of acres whereas domestic livestock are not permitted to do so. In addition, domestic cattle evolved in moist riparian zones in the Mid East and Asia, hence their preference for our extremely limited riparian areas in the arid American West. Modern domestic bovines kept in fenced pastures, no matter how large, are not interchangeable with bison.

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