GUEST OPINION: Protect Our Legacy

By on May 10, 2016

Unite for the Wyoming Range, but don’t stop there.

A view of the distinctive Wyoming Range from Monument Ridge. (Photo: craig benjamin)

A view of the distinctive Wyoming Range from Monument Ridge. (Photo: craig benjamin)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – I’ll never forget the first time I saw the Wyoming Range. Though at the time, I had no idea what it was called. It was late September 2001 and I was nearing the completion of a two-day drive from my parent’s former home on the outskirts of Fort Worth, TX to Jackson Hole. Anxious and excited to start my new post-college life pursuing deep pow in big mountains, I couldn’t believe the size of the mountains on my right as I passed through Pinedale. But as I crested the rise just west of Hwy 352 and began to drop towards Daniel, I thought to myself, “Wow, this feels like Wyoming.” Fields of sagebrush covered in pronghorn and cattle, the Green River meandering through the valley, and a distant mountain range piercing the sky. Fifteen minutes later I passed over Hoback Rim and saw the Wyoming Range in all its glory. My jaw dropped at the beauty of its purple peaks towering over the valley below. To this day I look forward to this view every time I drive home on Hwy 191.

The Wyoming Range does more than inspire awe. It’s home to healthy and abundant populations of elk and mule deer, and half of Wyoming’s moose population. Its streams provide some of the best remaining native cutthroat trout habitat. It’s the secret stash where locals from Sublette, Lincoln, and Teton Counties go to escape the summer crowds and experience the wild, rugged beauty of our incredible state.

But only a decade ago, quickly expanding oil and gas drilling and exploration in the Upper Green River Basin threatened the pristine Wyoming Range. The U.S. Forest Service consented to lease 40,000 acres along the eastern front of the range for drilling. In response, citizens from all walks of life spoke out and came together. Local landowners, ranchers, outfitters, sportsmen, business owners, and conservation groups set aside their differences to focus on one common goal: safeguarding all that was special in the Wyoming Range from oil and gas development. Former governor and Democrat Dave Freudenthal, along with Wyoming’s Republican Senators John Barrasso and Mike Enzi supported these citizens. They led the bipartisan effort to pass the Wyoming Range Legacy Act in 2009, protecting 1.2 million acres of the range from future oil and gas leasing.

What brought this diverse group together in support of the Legacy Act was a simple idea: Some places are too special to drill. The Act allows Wyoming to continue producing more than its share of energy resources, while protecting a special place that defines our state and our outdoor heritage. It’s since become the foundation citizens have built on to preserve the irreplaceable hunting and fishing lands, wildlife habitat, and recreational opportunities in the Wyoming Range.

While the Legacy Act was a tremendous achievement, it did not directly affect the 40,000 acres of leases found, after protests and appeals, offered improperly by the Forest Service. It also didn’t affect valid existing leases—like ones in the Upper Hoback Basin. Companies holding existing leases were still allowed to apply for drilling permits. And this is exactly what a company proposed to do in 2007 in the Upper Hoback. Many of you will remember the “Don’t Frack the Hoback” campaign in which, after years of hard work and negotiation, an agreement was reached to buy out and retire these leases for $8.75 million. The Legacy Act ensures the investment by so many generous donors (large and small alike) is a sound one, as it prohibits the area from ever being leased again.

For Citizens for the Wyoming Range, a local group of sportsmen, ranchers, outfitters, steelworkers, and land owners—a group that is not opposed to oil and gas development—the image of drilling rigs, compressor stations, roads, pollution and noise in the middle of prime big game habitat and their favorite recreational areas is just too much. Some places are too special to drill.

The improper offering in 2006 of 40,000 acres for oil and gas development brought citizens together and inspired what are now two incredible success stories: the Legacy Act and the Hoback lease buy-out. Now the issue that started it all is the last one we need to resolve. It’s time to unite one final time for the Wyoming Range.

After 10 years of starts and stops, the Forest Service has at long last released a draft analysis for its final decision about these 40,000 acres of oil and gas leases on the eastern slope of the Wyoming Range.

Fortunately, the Forest Service identified “No Leasing” in their draft analysis as their preferred alternative, but they need to hear from us in order to make sure they follow through in the final decision, as a no leasing decision is the only one that will protect the Wyoming Range and protect our legacy.

Here’s what you can do to help.

First, and most importantly, please visit JHAlliance.org/protectourlegacy to write the Forest Service by May 23, 2016, in support of protecting the Wyoming Range through a “No Leasing” decision.

Second, join dozens of your friends and neighbors at a Citizens for the Wyoming Range event and free screening of a short film about the Wyoming Range’s incredible values and the citizens who have never stopped fighting to protect. The event is 5:30 to 7 p.m., Monday at Teton County Library.

Third, consider that when we say some places are too special to drill, we imply some are not. But where is it OK to drill? The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? The Gulf of Mexico? The Niger Delta? The Ecuadorian rainforest? The boreal forests of Canada?

That leads me to the last thing you can do. Think about the fact that as long as we as a society remain addicted to fossil fuels, the special places we cherish will remain under threat. This means that until we stop clinging desperately to the dirty energy economy of the past and start leading the charge toward the clean energy economy of the future, we’re going to be endlessly running defense as the pressure mounts to expand energy extraction. PJH

Craig Benjamin is the executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.

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About Craig Benjamin

Craig Benjamin is the executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.

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