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Know the West

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