Greens fight lonely battle near Yellowstone

  • WILDLIFE EVERYWHERE: RV park in Dubois, Wyo.

    Norma B. Williamson photo
 

The car wash in Dubois, Wyo., offers more than high-pressure soap and water - it's got a larger-than-life fiberglass moose perched on the roof. Next door at the veterinary clinic, visitors escort sick pets through an enormous buffalo skull, and the heads of elk and bighorn sheep stare at customers from the walls of the grocery store and the bank.

Live animals are almost as easy to see. Bighorn, elk, moose and mule and whitetail deer inhabit badlands, riversides and subalpine forests, all within striking distance of town. Ever since a Louisiana-Pacific sawmill shut down in 1988, Dubois has capitalized on its wildlife buffet, becoming an alternative to glitzy Jackson Hole on the other side of Togwotee Pass.

This helps explain why local outfitters, the town council and the Dubois Chamber of Commerce - all of them usually conservative - joined environmentalists in the early 1990s to fight oil and gas exploration near Brooks Lake, a popular wildlife-watching and fishing spot on the Shoshone National Forest. Oil and gas development would mar the shore, the critics said in a rare show of collegiality, and pipeline construction would cut off the tourist migration route between Jackson and Dubois.

"The area was better left to wildlife and scenic recreation, to support local business in Dubois," says Joe Brandl, the tanner who led the local chamber of commerce into the fight. The Forest Service listened, and Brooks Lake remains free of industrial development.

But now, environmentalists say, even though a new gas and oil exploration plan threatens more of the Shoshone National Forest, including crucial wildlife habitat and migration routes, opposition has been limited.

Forest Service shrinks public's role

Meredith Taylor of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition says she tried to reconstitute the Brooks Lake team of activists, local government and outfitters. She arranged an outfitters' meeting with a hunting guide from Alberta, Canada, who described how oil and gas development wrecked his business. Only two locals showed up. Since 1990, Taylor says, it is the private-property movement that has gained strength, while residents have grown reluctant to side with greens on an issue that doesn't focus on a well-loved local place.

As long as the outdoor tourism business seems safe in the short run, says local dogsled racer and outfitter Bill Snodgrass, outfitters won't get excited about opposing drilling. "The only time people (in Dubois) pay attention is when suddenly rigs start pulling in," he says.

"My biggest interest in the whole thing is that development on my dogsled trails could be devastating to my business," Snodgrass explains. "An oil rig in the middle of them and trucks running up and down the road would bomb me out."

On the other hand, if the Forest Service forces oil companies to abandon sites during winter, or if they steer development away from his territory, Snodgrass doesn't mind more drilling. He and other outfitters are comfortable with leasing as long as the Forest Service examines potential leases site by site and denies inappropriate requests.

But the oil and gas plan, approved in 1995 with a single environmental impact statement, opened almost a million acres throughout the forest for leasing. Oil companies are free to choose parcels where they'll build roads and drill test holes; citizens can intervene only after a company has leased a parcel and is ready to drill a hole in the ground. Moreover, once a company holds a lease, it has the legal right to the oil or gas. The public can convince the Forest Service to place certain limits on drilling, but can almost never stop it altogether.

Keeping nature's arteries open

The Forest Service leasing plan concluded that there's only a one-in-1,000 chance that the next decade will bring serious development.

Even if no one strikes oil, say environmentalists such as Caroline Byrd of the Wyoming Outdoor Council, companies could cut roads into the forest as they look for it, fragmenting habitat and disturbing wildlife.

Elk and deer populations around Yellowstone move in and out of the high plateaus in a yearly cycle. They spend summertime gathered in the north, especially in Yellowstone National Park and in the Absaroka Range just to its east. As winter hits the high pastures, animals disperse toward lower elevations.

The animals that draw visitors to the town of Dubois, especially during hunting season, get there by traveling from the high country through the Dunoir Valley to snow-free stretches around the Wind River, says Byrd. The same valley shelters at least 15 grizzly bears and the first of the new Yellowstone wolf packs to den outside the park, she adds. Canada lynx tracks have been seen not far away.

Yet without public involvement, large parts of the valley could be leased to an oil and gas company. Byrd says even the bears' place on the endangered species list wouldn't stop drilling, because the valley is outside the official Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone (HCN, 11/9/98).

The EIS and the oil and gas plan make no reference to the bears or wolves in the Dunoir Valley, nor to the possibility that the lynx might be placed on the endangered species list.

Wyoming Outdoor Council's Dan Heilig adds that the EIS was "programmatic in nature. There was no on-the-ground analysis; it was just done from maps."

A coalition including Heilig's group took the Forest Service to court last fall, arguing that the agency flouted the National Environmental Policy Act by cutting out a layer of public involvement. In January, a federal court ruled against the conservationists, but Heilig says the Wyoming Outdoor Council, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and other conservation groups will challenge every lease offered on the Shoshone.

Former HCN intern Gabriel Ross now produces Radio High Country News.

You can contact ...

* Dan Heilig, Wyoming Outdoor Council, 307/332-7031;

* Susan Daggett, Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, 303/623-9466;

* Shoshone National Forest, Washakie Ranger District, 307/332-5460;

* Meredith Taylor, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, 307/455-2161, [email protected]

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