Forest supervisor faces down oil drilling

The public lands aren't open for business - yet

 

JACKSON, Wyo. - During her first year as supervisor on the Bridger-Teton National Forest in northwest Wyoming, Kniffy Hamilton kept a low profile. She spent her time learning the issues, traveling to different ranger districts, filling vacant positions and dealing with last summer's wildfires.

But this winter, Hamilton made a controversial decision that has thrust her into the limelight. In December, Hamilton announced in a draft environmental impact statement that she does not plan to allow oil and gas drilling on nearly 370,000 acres near the Gros Ventre Wilderness, southwest of Jackson Hole. It was a bold statement, comparable to former forest supervisor Gloria Flora's decision to shut oil companies out of Montana's Rocky Mountain Front (HCN, 10/13/97: Forest Service acts to preserve 'the Front').

Ever since industry's first proposal in 1996, environmentalists have fought the plan, saying that drilling would "industrialize" the area, which provides wetlands and forage for elk, bear, coyotes, wolves and other animals. Proponents pointed to the forest plan, which allows drilling in the area, despite its intact nature and its proximity to the wilderness area.

A lack of consistent leadership on the forest - Hamilton is the third supervisor since 1996 - resulted in the drilling battle being prolonged for five years. But after a year on the job, Hamilton issued her decision and braced herself for controversy.

"I am not afraid to make decisions," she says. "I wanted to take action and make things happen."

A blizzard of letters

The draft decision, if implemented, would be one of the greatest defeats in recent years for drilling proponents in Wyoming. More than 7,000 people commented on the draft study, and not everyone was happy.

Claire Moseley of the Colorado-based Public Lands Advocacy argued the agency disregarded scientific facts.

"Quite simply, the proposed no-lease decision appears to be politically motivated and designed to cater to the strong environmental lobby in the Jackson Hole area," she wrote.

Jackson Hole rancher Kate Mead adds, "We have to think about the big picture. We are a community, but not just a community of Jackson Hole. Energy needs are real."

Dennis Brabec, president of Wyoming Frontiers of Freedom, claimed the Forest Service has created a de facto wilderness area.

But environmentalists and government agencies support Hamilton's decision and encourage her to stick to it.

Cynthia Cody of the Environmental Protection Agency wrote, "The ecological significance concerning endangered species habitat within the proposed leasing area is essential," arguing that the area is an important buffer between wilderness areas and developed private lands.

Franz Camenzind of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance praised Hamilton. "You have decided the highest and best use for this area, and that is leaving it intact," he wrote. "That is exciting."

Sticking to her guns

Kniffy Hamilton says her decision stemmed in part from the agency's change in attitude toward forest management.

"Public lands have been discovered as something other than commodity extraction," she says. "The public is in a different place than they were 15 years ago." Hamilton says she believes in the "multiple use" mandate of the U.S. Forest Service, and maintains that this decision does not violate that directive.

"To me, multiple use doesn't mean you have to do everything on every piece of land," she says. "You have to look for the appropriate places to do things and my job is to try to figure out the best places for these things to occur."

Bridger-Teton officials are reviewing the public comments and expect to have a final decision this summer. The rule might not have much support at the top: Bush administration officials say they plan to explore drilling opportunities on public lands and even national monuments, and new Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman has already reviewed outgoing Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck's decisions on three national forests in Colorado. But Hamilton is confident that the new administration will not overturn her decision.

"This is a Forest Service administrative decision," she says. The Clinton roadless initiative, now delayed until mid-May, would give additional protection to about three-quarters of the area.

Opponents of the final decision will be able to file an appeal with the regional forester.

The author writes for the Jackson Hole News.

You can contact ...

  • The Bridger-Teton National Forest supervisor's office, 307/739-5500;

  • Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, 307/733-9417;

  • Public Lands Advocacy, 303/860-0099, ext. 3.

You can find the draft study on the Web at www.fs.fed.us/btnf.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Rachel Odell

High Country News Classifieds
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Mountain Lion Foundation is seeking an Executive Director. Please see our website for further information - mountainlion.org/job-openings
  • WASHINGTON DC REPRESENTATIVE
    Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Washington, DC Position Reports to: Program Director The Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) is seeking a Washington, DC Representative...
  • REGIONAL CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    Position Title: Regional Campaign Organizers (2 positions) Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Preferred Billings, MT; remote location within WORC's region (in or near Grand Junction...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....