Bridger-Teton National Forest: Drilling doesn’t belong here

This year your support helped pull 44,700 acres of western Wyoming’s beautiful Bridger-Teton National Forest lands off the oil and gas chopping block, but now we must report to you that our victory is being threatened — and could even be reversed — by the powerful oil and gas industry. The announcement came after complaints from the oil and gas industry — and political pressure from the Congressional Western Caucus.

Bridger-Teton National Forest has announced it is now withdrawing its February decision to cancel drilling leases on the 44,720 acres of unspoiled wild lands in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

Originally, The Wilderness Society, with your support, helped convince the Forest Service to cancel the group of contested leases, which would have damaged wildlife habitat and air and water quality in the area.

These lands will now be reviewed again, and pending the outcome of a second Forest Service decision, they could go back into the line-up of western lands slated for oil and gas development.

Bridger-Teton Supervisor Jacque Buchanan said the Forest Service will further evaluate the leases and several key issues, including, but not limited to, the potential impacts to air quality and mule deer migration routes.

When that happens, it could be good or bad news for the contested 44,720 acres and the entire Wyoming Range.

What you can do

If there is any silver lining in this story, it is that the public will be allowed to comment and influence the ultimate fate of the area, commonly known as the “44k.”

We need you to help us show support for the Forest Service’s original decision not to allow drilling. If you are not already a member, please sign up for our free WildAlerts and we will let you know when your letter is needed.

Or become a member of The Wilderness Society to help support our work on this and other important issues.

Background on the contested leases

In 2009, The Wilderness Society’s helped pass the bi-partisan Wyoming Range Legacy Act, which withdraws 1.2 million acres of the Bridger-Teton from all future energy leasing.  The Legacy Act specifically noted that the fate of these contested leases would be determined by the Forest Service analysis, and the agency has the ability to cancel or allow the leasing.  If the Forest Service ultimately decides to cancel the leases — as we still hope — the lands would then be permanently protected from future leasing under the provisions of the Act.

Threats to wildlife, air quality and outdoor recreation inspired the bipartisan Legacy Act, and those threats remain as long as drilling is allowed in the 44k.

Clearly Congress has deemed Bridger-Teton National Forest worthy of protection, and the Forest Service has been doing the right thing in trying to pull back the 44k contested leases, so it’s important that we continue to show them our support for their original decision.

Drilling proposal on hold in nearby Upper Hoback

Just to the north of the contested 44k acres in Bridger-Teton National Forest lies the Upper Hoback Basin, where Houston-based Plains Exploration and Production Company (PXP) hopes to drill 136 natural gas wells. Unlike the contested legitimacy of the 44k leases, this drilling project is proposed on valid, grandfathered leases issued nearly 20 years ago.  PXP is the same oil and gas company currently under investigation by the California Fish and Game Department for potentially violating the state’s water quality laws.

Like the 44k, development in this area would significantly harm air quality, water quality and wildlife habitat. Thanks to your overwhelming response to our WildAlert, a record-setting number of public comments poured into the Bridger-Teton National Forest opposing PXP’s  plan. Currently, the Forest Service process is on-hold while the agency evaluates the many deficiencies of the drilling plan and their analysis.

Many of the comments pointed out how the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the PXP proposal lacked the best available science examining potential impacts on mule deer migration, local drinking water and the postcard views that now extend all the way up to Grand Teton National Park.

We are hopeful that the Bridger Teton Supervisor’s recent decision to improve the scientific analysis and credibility of the 44K decision bodes well for the Forest’s next steps on the adjacent Hoback drilling project.  “By sending the contested 44k leases back for more and better analysis, we hope the Forest Service is paving the way for the best possible protections anywhere in the Wyoming Range where drilling is still proposed,” said Steff Kessler, Wyoming Program Manager with The Wilderness Society.

This call for better scientific data and analysis may help convince PXP that drilling in this special place is too costly — to their bottom line and to the wild land nature of the Forest.  Ultimately, our hope is to see the company abandon this project and allow their leases to be bought out and permanently retired.