Protecting the forests, and maybe the deserts, too

  • Noble Basin in the Upper Hoback region of the Wyoming Range, where the Trust for Public Land has agreed to pay $8.75 million to a Texas energy company in order to retire 58,000 acres of gas leases, conserving this part of the Greater Yellowstone in perpetuity.

    Dave Showalter, LightHawk Aerial Support

At an emotional press conference in Jackson a few weeks ago, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead expounded on his love for Wyoming, recalling how his family taught him to revere "the beauty ... the open space, the clean air, the wildlife, the recreational opportunity" found in the state's mountain forests. He reminisced about the trips that his family took through the spectacular Wyoming Range when he was a kid. Then he expressed his support for a deal –– announced at the same press conference –– that would help protect that forest, 30 miles south of Jackson, from natural gas drilling.

The governor described the deal as "a local idea, a local passion." Indeed, it was a milestone in a long bipartisan campaign involving hunters and anglers, green groups including the Wyoming Outdoor Council and The Wilderness Society, local government officials (most of whom, like Mead, are Republicans), even oil and gas workers who recreate in the range. Pretty much every Wyoming interest group played a part.

Back in 2003, Carole "Kniffy" Hamilton, then-supervisor of the Bridger-Teton National Forest (which includes the Wyoming Range), declared that 375,000 acres closer to Jackson should not be drilled. In 2006, Wyoming Sen. Craig Thomas, who was dying of leukemia, began drafting the Wyoming Range Legacy Act to prevent new oil and gas leases from being offered in the whole 1.2-million acre range. Thomas' successor, Sen. John Barrasso, pushed it into law in 2009. Since then, the campaign has tried to protect about 100,000 acres in the range that had already been leased to energy companies.

The vast majority of the 60,000 Wyomingites who commented on the issue were strongly opposed to drilling. Appeals and lawsuits stalled the drillers long enough for a deal to take shape: The Trust for Public Land has agreed to pay $8.75 million to a Texas company, Plains Exploration and Production, or PXP, for 58,000 acres of leases in the Upper Hoback Basin, in the heart of the range. A miner who spoke at the press conference, Carl Bennett, wearing a hunter's cap emblazoned with an image of elk antlers, reminisced that his father had introduced him to the Wyoming Range, and he wants to "hand the mountains down" -- intact -- to his kids. "I'm just one of many," Bennett said. "We've all poured our hearts into the effort."

Similar broad-based campaigns culminating with environmentalists buying out leases, or persuading companies to donate them for tax write-offs and good PR, have staved off drilling and mining in other Western "special places" -- a term repeatedly lofted at the press conference -- in the last six years. Such "special places" tend to be forested. In Montana, about 70,000 acres of oil and gas leases in the Lewis and Clark National Forest, along the Rocky Mountain Front, and about 200,000 acres of leases in the Flathead National Forest, on the edge of Glacier National Park, have been bought out or donated. In the Canadian portion of the Flathead River watershed, The Nature Conservancy and Canadian environmentalists are providing more than $9 million to buy out 400,000 acres of mining leases. In Colorado, a campaign is working to buy out or otherwise prevent drilling on more than 100,000 already-leased acres along the Thompson Creek Divide, in the White River National Forest.

These efforts differ from wilderness designation campaigns, because they focus on areas that have already been leased to industries, and their coalitions sometimes include anti-wilderness off-road drivers. But forest deals are never easy. The Trust for Public Land, which has an annual budget of about $110 million, has raised about $5 million for the agreement with PXP in the Wyoming Range, so it's scrambling to raise roughly $4 million more by the year-end deadline. The Trust's Northern Rockies director, Deb Love, says, "I've never been involved in a project where people from all walks of life were so appreciative about the prospect of saving a place."

Yet there's a fundamental irony. Almost all of the tens of millions of acres of federal land leased to drillers lie in lower-elevation sagebrush and desert, not mountain forests, because that's where geology has deposited most of the oil and gas. The companies have turned many of their desert sweet spots into industrial zones. Desert-oriented environmentalists like Erik Molvar, head of a small Wyoming group called Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, appreciate the forest deals, but wish the movement would pay more attention to "the crown jewels in the desert," as Molvar puts it.

Molvar, for instance, is trying to protect a place called Adobe Town in southern Wyoming -- more than 180,000 acres of volcanic ash, erosion-sculpted into hoodoo rocks, pinnacles, cliffs and arches, "the largest and most spectacular desert wilderness in Wyoming, on a par with many national parks," he says. Much of Adobe Town is a federal wilderness study area, but some of it is unprotected, including a checkerboard of private land. Drillers are coming in, and Molvar's group is filing legal challenges. "We need (deal-making) money," he says, to buy out the private inholdings and 58,000 acres of leases in Adobe Town. But his effort is handicapped: Adobe Town has its share of desert wildlife and recreation opportunities, but the forests generally have the kind of habitat and water that attracts hunters and anglers and deal-makers. "Deserts have their passionate advocates, but forests have a broader appeal," laments Molvar.

Meanwhile, the impressive save-the-forests campaign is trying to retire another 44,700 acres of leases in the Wyoming Range, and also to influence a new plan for the nearby Shoshone National Forest, to reduce the possibility of drilling. The love of forests is a byproduct of human history: We originally evolved from tree-dwelling African primates, and most U.S. environmentalists today trace their family roots back to forested Europe. Many of us still seem to think that way: Forests are green and good and lovely. The desert, however, is just desert.

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