Grass roots prevail in ANWR and Wyoming

Conservationists chalk up two big victories — but they’re bracing for a long war

  • Tim Brinton
  • "My goal was to do good environmental analysis." - KniffyHamilton, Bridger-Teton National Forest

    David O Connor
 

Two days before the Department of the Interior celebrated the 100th anniversary of the nation’s wildlife refuge system, Interior Secretary Gale Norton stood before the U.S. House Committee on Resources and described Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as “flat, white nothingness.”

As overseer of the nation’s refuge system, she urged committee members to support legislation that would open a portion of the 19 million-acre refuge to oil and gas drilling. Norton’s audience was receptive: The House had already voted once, in August 2001, to lift a ban on drilling in ANWR, and is expected to approve it again this month within the House energy bill.

But in mid-March, 52 members of the U.S. Senate ignored Norton’s advice, and closed the most recent chapter on drilling in ANWR. Opponents of drilling had threatened to filibuster any proposal to open the refuge, so supporters had tacked ANWR onto the 2004 Congressional Budget, which cannot be filibustered. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., foiled supporters’ plans and introduced an amendment to remove ANWR from the budget. By a narrow — and almost entirely partisan — vote, the Senate approved Boxer’s amendment, upholding the ban on drilling in the refuge.

The Senate vote marked a substantial victory for the environmental movement; the Bush administration had vowed to prioritize drilling in the Arctic, and the oil and gas industry had pumped millions of dollars into lobbying and public relations campaigns in support of drilling.

What made the movement to protect ANWR so successful, says Adam Kolton of the National Wildlife Federation, was “people outside the Beltway” — the millions of Americans who wrote letters to their senators and representatives, the scientific community, and religious and native leaders.

“We (did) what we do best: grassroots organizing,” says Dan Lavery, conservation assistant for lands-protection issues for the Sierra Club. “And in D.C., we met with our congressional champions, focused on them, and looked for those swing votes.”

But ANWR’s protection isn’t guaranteed: Although Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., a supporter of drilling and chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has promised that ANWR will not be included within a draft of the Senate energy bill, Washington insiders say it’s only a matter of time before drilling proponents try again to sneak the provision through.

“There are a lot of different ways that proponents have tried to open (ANWR) to drilling,” says Lexi Keogh with the Alaska Wilderness League. “We’re just taking it one step at a time, and fighting it every step of the way.”

The people speak in Wyoming

While national attention has been focused on Alaska’s North Slope, there’s been plenty of action in the Lower 48, too.

In early March, Carole “Kniffy” Hamilton, supervisor of Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest, upheld a draft decision to keep oil and gas companies off 376,000 acres of the forest east and south of Grand Teton National Park (HCN, 3/26/01: Forest supervisor faces down oil drilling). In March 2001, the Forest Service released a draft environmental impact statement that proposed to deny oil and gas leases within four units, or 11 percent, of the forest. Two years passed — an unprecedented amount of time between a draft and final EIS — and some environmentalists worried that Hamilton would buckle to political pressure, and open the areas to oil and gas drilling.

But in a letter dated March 7, Hamilton informed the Bureau of Land Management — the agency that administers subsurface mineral leases in the forest — that her final decision was to deny oil and gas leasing. She pointed out that 18 percent of the forest is already open to leasing, and the Forest Service’s priority is to address a backlog of leases within that area. “My goal was to do good environmental analysis, and make sure that we had all the information to come to the proper decision,” says Hamilton.

But as at ANWR, much of the credit for this decision goes to the grassroots efforts of the public. During the project’s public comment period, more than 11,000 Wyoming residents wrote letters and attended hearings — and most supported the “preferred alternative” that kept the oil and gas industry out. The Teton County commissioners passed a resolution supporting the Forest Service’s preferred alternative, and the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce also supported keeping the oil and gas industry out of “sensitive areas” of the national forest. Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., even wrote a letter to Wyoming residents who commented on the plan, saying that while other areas in the state are “more appropriate” for oil and gas exploration, Bridger-Teton should be protected.

“The Forest Service should be commended,” says Peter Aengst, a regional associate with The Wilderness Society in Bozeman, Mont. “It took them a while, but they listened to the public. This has given me hope that the (public) process can work.”

“Little Arctic refuges”

Oil and gas executives may be wringing their hands over the loss of potential revenue from drilling in the Arctic and the Bridger-Teton National Forest, but conservationists are bracing for more fights over energy production on public lands.

“What the Senate did last week was a huge victory, but it’s by no means over,” says the Sierra Club’s Lavery. “With Congress as anti-conservation as they are after last November’s election, we expect they’ll be more aggressive going after public lands, particularly in the West.”

One week after Interior Secretary Norton testified in support of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Assistant Secretary Rebecca Watson stood before the same House Committee on Resources and announced that natural gas from coal beds under public lands should play a role in meeting the nation’s energy demands (HCN, 9/2/02: Backlash). In support of President Bush’s Energy Plan, the BLM is now completing plans to expand drilling in the San Juan Basin in Colorado and the Powder River Basin in Wyoming. Watson also explained that the BLM is developing policies to “streamline” the permitting process for drilling.

Sen. Domenici has already drafted legislation for a pilot program for what he calls “one-stop shopping” of federal permits for oil and gas production in New Mexico, Wyoming, Montana and Colorado. Under the pilot program, the BLM would issue drilling permits, not only for its own lands, but also for lands under the control of the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Army Corps of Engineers.

As the Bush administration’s focus turns increasingly toward the Rocky Mountain region, conservationists are likely to use the same tactics that worked in their fight to preserve the Arctic Refuge and to support the Forest Service’s decision in Wyoming — rallying public support, and making sure elected officials hear about it.

“We need to make all these places in the Rocky Mountains (like) little Arctic refuges,” says Chuck Clusen of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “In their own way, these are special places that deserve protection; they’re still important in the scheme of saving the last wild places.”

The writer is an assistant editor for High Country News.

You can contact ...

      Alaska Wilderness League, 202/544-5205;
      The Wilderness Society, Bozeman, Mont., 406/586-1600;
       • Natural Resources Defense Council, 202/289-6868.
High Country News Classifieds
  • PUBLIC LANDS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a candidate with excellent communication skills and a commitment to environmental conservation for the position of Public Lands Program Manager....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Western Slope Conservation Center in Paonia, CO, seeks a dynamic leader who is mission-driven, hardworking, and a creative problem-solver. WSCC is committed to creating...
  • 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...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.