FEATURE: How the West Was One

By on June 28, 2016

Wyoming’s new old range wars over drilling south of Jackson persist.

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JACKSON HOLE, WY – The battle for the Wyoming Range wore on and on. So long, it’s been a difficult story to follow with rapt interest. Most know the outline: Big Oil threatened to drill in some of the most pristine acreage the state has to offer. Opposition mounted. Citizens rallied.

And then, the most unlikeliest of endings. Bambi beats Godzilla. A loose-knit band of sportsmen, hunters, ranchers, and tree-huggers put away their differences long enough to stare down a common enemy. Only that wasn’t the end. After the credits rolled came a teaser for the sequel. Energy extraction companies are again polishing their drill bits, hoping to squeeze out some of the estimated three trillion barrels of shale oil from beneath the surface—the largest such deposit on the planet.

Years ago, it took an act of Congress and nearly nine million in payoff money to ransom the range back from oil interests. But one thing bothered conservation movement leaders like Dan Smitherman and Lisa McGee. Even as they popped the champagne in 2012, they had an uneasy feeling. A map of the protected mountain range revealed tiny pockets of grandfathered drilling permits. They were nothing, right? Totaling just three percent of the 1.2 million acres, maybe the oil companies would forget about them.

They didn’t.

The land before time

The dispute over which was more valuable—the land or the juice trapped in the rock beneath it—began long ago. What made the Wyoming namesake range so special happened much, much earlier.

Geologists call it the Green River Formation. It’s a product of the Eocene epoch dated to about 40 to 55 million years ago. At the beginning of this six million year period, earth was a sauna—Wyoming, a lush jungle. Dinosaurs had been dead and gone for some 10 million years and now other stuff was growing like crazy.

And you think we have greenhouse gasses? Scientists estimate oxygen levels were double what they are today. Plant and animal life flourished to the degree that carbon dioxide and methane gases were correspondingly off the chart. All this kept the planet warm until it didn’t. By the end of the epoch, massive glaciers covered Wyoming, and trapped all that prehistoric photosynthesis under varves and varves of sediment.

Add a few uplifts and a fold-and-thrust belt, and the surface of the Wyoming Range sprouted mountains, rivers, and valleys. But the rugged land’s beauty ran more than skin deep. When the energy age came, roughnecks and riggers powered a nation on the mineral trapped underground. Recent improved technology suddenly made a forgotten lake algae known as cyanobacteria the hottest commodity going. Oil shale deposits could literally be wrung from rock, brought to the surface, and burned in our cars and homes. And far below the hooves of her wild animals, Wyoming was sitting on a fortune of it.

The battle begins

In 1994, Plains Exploration and Production (PXP) bought leases to drill on 60,000 acres of Bridger-Teton Forest in the Wyoming Range. They and other energy extraction companies were certain the same play that made the Jonah Field and Pinedale Anticline some of the biggest producing oil and gas fields in the world extended as far north as the Hoback Rim, less than 50 miles from downtown Jackson. For a decade they wondered how they would get at it.

But this area wasn’t scrub brush and desert. It was part of the last intact temperate ecosystem on Earth. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem depends on all portions of habitat working in unison. From rocky alpine forests to the arid sagebrush steppes, the Wyoming Range is a crucial migration corridor linking ancient seasonal Arcadias. That’s what got folks worked up.

By the mid-2000s more detailed science and better extraction techniques, including hydraulic fracturing and directional drilling, had made mining operations in the Wyoming Range viable. PXP approached officials at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Bridger-Teton National Forest (BTNF) with a tentative plan—a little look-see involving three exploratory holes in Noble Basin near Hoback Ranches. The backlash was uproarious.

“It got people fired up,” Dan Smitherman admitted. Smitherman became a reluctant leader against drilling the range. The former outfitter, who now heads the Wyoming office of The Wilderness Society, began contacting everyone he knew about PXP’s plan to drill. Then he reached out to people he didn’t know. Armed with little more than a love for the land he made a living on, Smitherman managed to mount an impressive and ultimately successful campaign to save the range. He says he did it by uniting diverse groups whose interests had previously pitted them against one another.

“The key to grass roots organizing is you have to be focused on one goal. You have to leave positions and politics at the door. You can fight over that all day long,” Smitherman said. “You’ll never collaborate if you come in with a position. You should come in with an interest or a value, but not a position. In this case you’ve got the Wyoming Range—and if you are a rancher it’s grass and water; if you are a sportsman its recreation. Maybe you are a union guy working in the oil patch and it’s camping for you and your family. Maybe you are a bird watcher or a hunter. You bring those interests together and you say, ‘OK, now the best way we can protect all those interests is what?’ And it’s to not drill the Wyoming Range.”

160629CoverFeat-2_origSmitherman made sure to include everyone, not just easy greenies in Jackson Hole. “Rather than concentrate our environmental efforts in Jackson, which is actually pretty easy because Jackson is a conservation-minded community, we’ve done a lot of our public meetings in Rock Springs and throughout Sublette County. It hasn’t been traditional environmentalists and tree-huggers,” he said.

Smitherman made it clear from the beginning he and his new coalition—Citizens for the Wyoming Range—were not against drilling. “We all drive cars, we all need electricity,” he admitted. But what he was able to do was convince groups like Muley Fanatics, Trout Unlimited, and Wyoming Wildlife Federation that they had a common cause and a common foe. He made sure to include trona miners and roughnecks themselves who stepped up at public meetings, despite the threat of losing their jobs, who said they couldn’t bear to see that country get tapped for juice.

The message reached the ears of prominent NPO directors, regionally and nationally. It swept up politicians including then Wyoming state representative Keith Gingery, the late senator Craig Thomas, and former Wyoming governor Dave Freudenthal on its way to the White House where the Obama Administration signed into law the Wyoming Range Act (2009), which forever protected the area from future drilling leases. However, PXP and others still held valid grandfathered extraction permits in the area.

When congeniality alone and dogged persistence wasn’t enough, Smitherman turned to legal experts like McGee. The plucky lawyer started at the Wyoming Outdoor Council in 2005 and was immediately thrust into the complicated legal war between PXP and the citizens of Wyoming, with land management agencies BLM and BTNF in the middle.

“It is a lot to navigate, and it’s complicated and confusing,” McGee said. “You’ve got a ‘drill baby drill’ message coming down from the Bush administration. Then you’ve got two different federal agencies with the Forest Service and BLM. [BLM manages subsurface activities with USFS offering its input when mining is proposed on the land they manage]. But we raised big game concerns, fisheries concerns, and recreational and economic arguments as well. Folks come from all over the country, the world, and they want a wild experience. If you have oil and gas wells, that takes away from that experience. There was a bunch of reasons why we didn’t think leasing was a good idea.”

The ups of drilling down

While Smitherman rallied the rank and file of the range—generations of families who passed on to their offspring the unspoiled wonder of one of the largest roadless areas in the Lower 48, as well as new converts awed by the pristine wildness—McGee filed motions and petitions. She accused the B-T of not doing their homework. She called environmental impact studies flimsy and outdated. “They were less than 20 pages, done between 1991 and 1993,” she said.

160629CoverFeat-3_origNo one questioned the validity of the leases. They were legit—grandfathered in the Legacy Act. Instead, McGee assured both the land agencies and PXP that if drilling took place it would be under a hawk eye. “We really tried to hold their feet to the fire,” she said.

“Are you going to do this? Are you going to do that?” McGee asked PXP officials through the B-T. “Will you conduct baseline water characterization? Are you going to have a liquids gathering system? Are you going to use tier 4 drilling rigs? Are you going to adhere to all the contractual stipulations in your lease?”

If forest supervisors were not going to ride herd on PXP, McGee let it be known she would.

Smitherman cautioned, “We did not want to be adversarial with the company, publicly or privately. We would never use the term ‘fear factor.’ We just said, ‘You are going to do it by the book.’ We were prepared to hold them to a ‘gold standard’ of drilling.”

McGee succeeded in getting a stay. The leases in Noble Basin, at the backdoor of Hoback Ranches, were put into limbo while forest officials conducted a better study. The wait, the pushback, all presumably took its toll on PXP. Their 15-year-old rights to drill the Hoback Rim were going nowhere. By 2010, some thought the Houston-based oil company might be amenable to a deal that would send them packing.

“We made their life difficult the last however many years,” McGee said. “We felt as if their proposal was not at all the gold standard. We were really pushing them to do it right and hoping that doing it right on the Bridger-Teton might be too expensive. So a buyout would start to look really good for them.”

But before PXP would buckle, they upped the ante. Three exploratory wells turned into 136 wells from 17 pads and 15 miles of new road. Their expanded master plan bloated to a 532-page document with 879 pages of appendices, and increased the flak aimed at them, bringing more heavyweights into the fray.

Gov. Dave Freudenthal urged the feds to scrutinize how emissions from hydraulic fracturing, flaring and drilling would affect the area. Wyoming Game and Fish director John Emmerich asked the B-T for seasonal restrictions to protect crucial birthing grounds and migration corridors for elk, mule deer, moose and pronghorn. He also noted the importance of the basin for bears, wolverines, trout, sage grouse, owls, and other species.

Gene Bryan is chair of the Wyoming Tourism Board. “Wyoming and the nation need to continue to develop our energy resources, but at the same time it is equally important to protect and preserve the attributes that bring [millions of] money-spending visitors to Wyoming, annually,” Bryan said. “There are some places which should be spared from development.”

Even the Wyoming executive secretary of the AFL-CIO, a man who represented most of the roughnecks in the Jonah and Anticline, said he was hearing from his own union members, who enjoyed the Wyoming Range on their time off, that they were opposed to putting holes in the Hoback.

“We are not anti-development by any stretch of the imagination. We represent coal miners, trona miners…” Kim Floyd told PXP execs at a public meeting in the late 2000s. “But there is a place and a time for development in the state. If you put 136 wells on 17 pads, with all that—trucks and pipelines—you are going to ruin the winter ground. There has to be a place in this state that we protect.”

Then, in 2010, a deal was struck. Gary Amerine, representing Wyoming and Outfitters Guides Association, along with Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, claimed they had a handshake treaty with PXP. The oil and gas company would voluntarily retire 28,000 acres of their less-desirable acres, and fork over $4 million for wildlife mitigation and another $2M to fund air and water quality monitoring.

At first glance, the deal looked to be a good one…and perfectly timed. A day before, the B-T announced they had restudied and reconsidered everything, and were recommending drilling go forward with few stipulations.

Smitherman, McGee and others acknowledged Amerine’s good intentions but thought they could do better. The deal fizzled.

“They firmly believed they were making the best deal possible at the time. There were just some of us that were holding out,” McGee said. “I think PXP was trying to splinter the groups, to create a split with a deal that didn’t hurt them much, by retiring half the leases in NSO (No Surface Occupancy) and throwing a bunch of money at us.”

The war waged on. McGee threw the book at the B-T and roadblocks at PXP. An extensive mule deer and pronghorn migration study was done. Important fisheries to the Green and eventually the Colorado River were identified as being the last, best place to make a stand to save the Colorado spotted cutthroat. Air quality issues were also a big concern in the Pinedale area during winter inversion days.

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Trying to avoid what attorney and former state rep Keith Gingery called a ‘Jonah in the Woods,’ conservation groups continue to challenge drilling leases in three sections of the Wyoming Range—North (Merna, Horse Creek, Dry Beaver Creek), Middle (South Cottonwood), and South (Riley Ridge, Snyder Basin).

Finally, McGee’s colleague dug up an obscure condition called the Krug memorandum that had been overlooked by everyone. “It dated to the 1940s when it was put in place in Jackson Hole as an oil and gas stipulation that required a 1,500-foot setback from existing roads and had some pretty intense protections for wildlife,” McGee said. “It no longer makes sense today but it did apply to these leases and was never addressed in the Forest Service evaluation or PXP’s proposal. The Forest Service kind of forgot about it. It was a significant omission, and that’s a contractual problem.”

Yet another stay bought more time for conservation groups. Kniffy Hamilton, who was the B-T supervisor when the process began, changed her opinion as the drawn out dispute continued. Once pro-drilling in the Wyoming Range, Hamilton handed the reins to Jacque Buchanan in 2010 with a parting word of advice.

“As forest supervisor for more than a decade, I heard over and over the resounding public sentiment that new oil and gas development on the Bridger-Teton is not acceptable,” Hamilton said. “I do not believe the impacts from gas development, especially the full-field development PXP is proposing, can ever be mitigated well enough to maintain the extraordinary wildlife, scenic and recreational values that we currently have on the Bridger-Teton. Drilling in the Hoback is simply not compatible with the wild, backcountry niche of the Bridger-Teton. As far as I’m concerned, the only way to avoid destroying this niche is to avoid development altogether in this very, very special place.”

Buchanan, in turn, called a relaunched NEPA/SEIS study the most important decision of her 22-year career. As yet another decision approached, Citizens played its final card: They turned to Trust for Public Land (TPL), a national land protection agency specializing in delicate agreements with Big Oil. The time was right—oil and gas prices had begun to plummet and citizen groups in Wyoming had become a major pain in the ass.

“We made the decision to go after the company. We already had a commitment from a foundation. We figured that we can’t go negotiate with this oil company if we don’t have some money. So we had seed money,” Smitherman remembered.

Swiss billionaire Hansjorg Wyss, a philanthropist living in Wilson, pledged $4.25 million. Joe Ricketts kicked in another one million. TPL took it from there.

“We were asked to look at the potential retirement of PXP’s oil/gas leases in the Wyoming Range. We had worked with them on another project in California and had a good working relationship with them,” said senior project manager Chris Deming. “At the point in time when we began talking with PXP, the EIS process and fight with the local communities had been going on for nearly 10 years. It became clear that the timing may be right for us to find a solution to the gridlock.”

Negotiations were top secret. “PXP did not know that we knew,” McGee said.

“And TPL wouldn’t acknowledge they were representing us,” Smitherman added.

For eight months, no one heard a thing. Then Deming called McGee over to his house one night and said a deal was done. For $8.75 million, PXP was willing to walk away from their leases in Noble Basin.

The deal was announced on October 5, 2012. It was contingent upon conservation groups raising the rest of the money by the end of the year. It was time for LISTSERV contacts and frequent commenters to put up or shut up. Three-and-a-half million was needed in less than three months.

“Over a thousand individuals donated in that time,” McGee said. “I remember we got down to the point where the math said we had $150 an acre left to go, so we had this ‘save an acre’ campaign. My husband, my son and I, we saved three acres in the Wyoming range, which is a lot of money for us. Others gave an acre as a Christmas gift. Whatever people could afford.

“That made it really special. Because for years what we asked citizens to do was write a letter or send a comment to the agencies. And you never know whether that really has an effect, or to what degree. This was something tangible that you could show and be proud of. It was an exciting time.”

When the effort came up $750,000 short by late December, Ricketts put the last present under the tree, covering the difference with another donation.

The victory was announced at the beginning of 2013. Governor Matt Mead called it a Wyoming solution to a Wyoming problem. “What this is, is a local idea, a local passion, that created a Wyoming cure,” he said.

Carl Bennett said it best in the days following the announcement that the Upper Hoback had been saved. The Rock Springs trona miner owes his livelihood to what riches terra firma grudgingly surrenders, but confesses his life is enriched beyond money by what the land openly shares.

“I couldn’t imagine tearin’ this place up. I would have to find a different place to go and bring my kids. We wouldn’t want to come here. Nobody wants to see drilling rigs and pump stations. They come here to see the beauty and the wild,” Bennett said. “Wyoming can be proud. Places like this are disappearing right and left. I think it shows the rest of America that the citizens have a say. A lot of people just sit back and let things happen. Your voice can be heard. If more people find that out then maybe they will step up and, together, we can change things and make a difference.”

New, old fight

But this isn’t the end of our story. Additional leases on 30 parcels totaling 39,490 acres are the last permits held in the Wyoming Range that are not currently producing. They were purchased in 2005-2006 when McGee and others convinced the Forest Service to look closer at them. Since then, the leases have been through the wringer.

Since withdrawing their decision of no leasing in 2011, USFS has been drafting a new SEIS (Supplemental Environment Impact Study) that was finally released last April. Again, the preferred alternative was no drilling in the Wyoming Range. It was supported by the fourth B-T supervisor to hold court over the process.

“I support the preferred alternative of no leasing,” current B-T super Tricia O’Connor said. “This is one of those situations where we weigh social and environmental impacts pretty heavily, and we should. I flew over the area and I see why Kniffy [Hamilton] said what she did. I want to get out there this summer and see the ground; to walk the land I am dealing with.”

The draft will go through a 45-day objection period during which time energy companies like Stanley Energy, who holds several of the leases, can present their protests. When resolved, a final draft is expected in October 2016 and a decision announced January 2017, according to USFS officials.

Keeping people engaged when most thought the nightmare was over has been difficult. Drilling threats are also difficult to focus on while the state experiences the worst of an economic downturn. Layoffs in oil fields statewide have most politicos more concerned with stimulating revenue than saving forests.

“The challenge is still trying to keep people informed; to keep it in their minds,” said Mike Burd, who now heads Citizens for the Wyoming Range. “What really scares me to death is the land grab going on now at the federal level with Cynthia Lummis in favor of selling off our federal lands to the state. The state does not have a good track record of caring for its lands. With the amount of money in the world today you would have billionaires fighting over purchasing land and the mineral rights underneath it. And you don’t have to be an American to buy the Bridger-Teton, for example.” PJH

Representatives from PXP and Stanley Energy declined to comment for this story.


About Jake Nichols

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