As far as ranges go, the Wyoming Range is the proverbial diamond in the rough, overshadowed by its neighbors which sit like a heavy anchor on the northwestern corner of this solidly square state.
To the north are the Tetons and the madness of the National Parks. To the east, the Wind Rivers jut out, an upside down middle finger, half poised to flip off the towns of Lander, Rawlins, Casper and Cheyenne. Like the difference between heels and sneakers, the Winds and Tetons are flashy, but the Wyoming Range is functional.
After years of fighting for what they see as their range – their namesake – they are returning once more for what will amount to yet another uphill battle against a Texas-based energy development company.
Plains Exploration Company, or PXP, is awaiting an environmental assessment on their plan to drill 136 wells on the Bridger Teton National Forest located in the heart of the range. The proposal calls for 17 well pads, 29 miles of new and upgraded roads, about 400 acres of new surface disturbance and about 240 vehicles in and out of the area per day.
The draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was slated to be out by now, but due to the complex nature of this environmentally sensitive area, it has, not surprisingly, been delayed to sometime in October.
The area has long been a subject of debate and the pending release of the draft EIS is already stirring up an outpouring of emotion not commonly seen in this energy-dependent state.
“It’s basically an industrial field on the Wyoming Range,” says Dan Smitherman, spokesperson for the grassroots group, Citizens for the Wyoming Range. “It’s an extraordinarily rich piece of property that won’t be the same.”
For locals, to know this range, is to love this range.
“In reality, they don’t go to Wyoming,” Smitherman says of PXP. “To them it’s just another piece of real estate that can be developed for economics.” PXP did not respond to requests for an interview.
The Wyoming Range is not the craggy peaks of its neighbors, but high country, rolling hills of sagebrush and pine forests, valleys of willow and quaking aspen, birthing areas, migration corridors and winter range, home of elk, deer and moose and a few less-common fauna – lynx and Colorado River cutthroat trout.
It’s what biologists in these parts call “gooooood habitat,” the syllables rolling off their tongue, atisfied the same way the Spanish speaker relishes the roll of an “r.” These are the type of mountains a hunter looks at with a wistful face, knowing that just over that ridge lies something great and wild.
No doubt, it is rugged country. But not so rugged it draws attention on its own, which places it in a gray area on the public’s value chart, somewhere in between the visual knockout of the Tetons and the snoozefest of the Interstate-80 corridor. And if it is not valued for its scenic qualities, then what is it valued for and whose interest in that value is the most valid? It calls into question what “value” really means when applied to something so multifaceted, causing its assessors to take that uncomfortable look inward, sorting out priorities that are never simple and never clear-cut.
Thus, we are a state, a region, a country, left trying to categorize something that simply refuses to be categorized. Mountains – these mountains in particular – seem to have a way of doing that to people.
And if that were the whole story, surely it’d be enough. But it’s not.
The story of the Wyoming Range extends far beyond a single proposal to drill.
Back in 2004, during the height of the Bush administration and the bum rush on development in Wyoming, about 175,000 acres of leases were issued within the Wyoming Range by the Forest Service, some in roadless areas. There was no public comment on the plan; however the outcry was such that those leases were later scaled back until, eventually, there were about 44,600 acres offered in roaded areas only. Outside of that area, about 150,587 acres were already leased within the range, many of those leases held by PXP.
About the same time, the western side of the state was in the middle of a massive energy rush. The Jonah Field was being drilled at a rate never seen before and entire towns were being transformed. The once quiet town of Pinedale suddenly felt the weight of the boom. Hotels filled up. Streets became clogged with the traffic of energy trucks. The cost of an oil change skyrocketed. In what seemed like some of the most pristine country in the nation, ozone warnings were issued.
In many ways, the leasing of the Wyoming Range was the last straw for locals. They’d had enough.
Banding together in what can only be described as a case of “odd bedfellows,” groups of all backgrounds came together – groups that had opposed each other for years. Down was up and up was down and right winging gun nuts were agreeing with tree-hugging liberals. It was a bizarre time. New faces appeared in the crowd signaling the rise of the moderate thinker, that man in the middle who wanted neither to make a fuss over much, nor speak his mind too loudly. Suddenly his face was there, too, offering a seldom used word in the conservation movement.
Compromise, he said. Let’s just compromise.
Simultaneously, PXP started making noise about developing the leases it owned prior to the outcry – acres owned outside the area that was now under such scrutiny – and came out with its proposal to drill three wildcat wells in the range near a tributary of the famed and free-flowing Hoback River.
To be clear, the usage of the term “wildcat” typically means the company doesn’t know what they might find. They go in, drill a hole in the ground, cross their fingers and hope it doesn’t turn up dry. However, with advances in technology, it’s hard to say how wild wildcats really are anymore.
This notion did not sit well with this budding conservation coalition and what happened next seemed to send them over the edge.
The truth was this wildcat wasn’t really a wildcat. PXP CEO Jim Flores was quoted as calling this project the “Jonah in the trees,” telling his investors: “We’re hoping to get a thicker, much more commercial play, so we can develop a nice field right in the middle of the forest.”
It brought to light what veterans in the business had long suspected.
“You can’t be telling your shareholders one thing and then the public the other,” says Lisa McGee, National Forest and Park Program Director for the Wyoming Outdoor Council. “You’re lying to someone.”
This prompted a relatively scathing response from Gov. Dave Freudenthal in his 2007 comments on the Draft Environment Impact Statement (DEIS) for the three wells.
“Irrespective of the documented scope of the DEIS, it is clear that the supposed ‘wildcat’ must be viewed as setting the start of significant additional development within the proposed Project Area,” he wrote.
“To view it any other way betrays the reality of a situation where a publicly traded company would endure overwhelming public opposition, draft a full-blown EIS (on only a portion of their planned development) and spend a significant amount of money to drill three wildcat wells after having filed SEC statements that suggest that this project is functionally a ‘Jonah in the trees.’ Beyond the significant impacts that might follow from the full-field development of Plains’ proposed Project Area, my greater fear is that history will view this project as the first domino that fell towards the industrialization of over 150,000 acres of oil and gas leases within the Wyoming Range. I will actively oppose any development scheme that will result in such an outcome,” he wrote.
Looking beyond the borders of the state, conservation groups began to seek a solution from the federal government, and pinned their hopes on longtime Wyoming Senator, Craig Thomas. Thomas seemed open to the idea. However, just as plans for a bill were being put in place, Thomas passed away, leaving all action up in the air. But not for long.
Late in 2007, John Barrasso, appointed to replace Thomas, gave his first speech to the Senate, introducing what he called the “Wyoming Range Legacy Act.”
The bill, which ended up passing in 2009 in the massive Omnibus Public Land Management Act, withdrew 1.2 million acres of public land from leasing and established a negotiation table where companies could elect to sell back their leases for indefinite retirement. It did not, however, restrict development on about 150,000 acres of valid leases already issued.
At the same time this was occurring, PXP decided that, rather than continue with the environmental analysis for three wildcat wells, they would submit their proposal for larger scale development, resetting the entire public process.
Which brings us back to today, nearly three years later, as the Forest Service preps its assessment of the plan to drill 136 wells in an area that draws more public attention by the day.
“We’ve got a long road,” Smitherman says. “Our leverage is not as good as it was before.”
McGee says this draft will be a real test for the Forest Service, who, she says, has not been a permitting agency in this area before.
“Respecting valid leases of a company does not mean accepting wholesale their proposal,” she says.
Mike Burd, a vocal member of Citizens for the Wyoming Range, has spent much of his life hunting this area. As an employee in the energy industry, he says he sees the need for development. But he also thinks there are areas that should be off limits.
“I’m hoping to see there is a no-drill option or alternative,” he says. We’re not against jobs and we’re not against development. We’re just against some places being developed and having more of a balance.”
But it is that balance that is ultimately the hardest to strike because it gets to the crux of the issue: What is each side willing to give up? Whose definition of value is more important?
WHAT’S NEXT: Currently groups and industry are waiting for the release of the DEIS from the Forest Service, which will help determine how each entity moves forward. That draft was originally due in August and has been pushed to sometime in October. Once that is released, a comment period will be opened to the public. New West will continue to follow the process.