by Tom Kenworthy
A national land conservation group has stepped in to save a rugged, isolated corner of northwestern Wyoming from oil and gas development that had threatened the area prized for its wildlife habitat, mountain scenery and hunting and recreational opportunities.
Under the agreement being announced today, The Trust for Public Land will pay $8.75 million to purchase oil and gas leases on 58,000 acres in the Wyoming Range from Houston-based Plains Exploration and Production (PXP), and permanently remove the threat of drilling by retiring the leases. The trust has raised about half of the purchase price but must secure the remaining funds by the end of the year. The story was broken by the Associated Press.
The area, known as the Noble Basin or Upper Hoback Basin, is part of the Bridger-Teton National Forest and is located about 30 miles south of Jackson, WY.
The threat to the Noble Basin was portrayed in a video report by the Center for American Progress earlier this year:
Much of the region around the Noble Basin was protected by the Wyoming Range Legacy Act, passed by Congress in 2009, that shields 1.2 million acres of the Bridger-Teton from development. But existing oil and gas leases, including the leases obtained in 2005 by PXP, were honored. PXP had planned to drill 136 natural gas wells in the area, which would have involved the construction of 29 miles of new or upgraded roads, and 17 well pads.
The basin, which includes the headwaters of a wild and scenic stretch of the Hoback River, contains vital summer range and birthing and migration areas for mule deer, elk, moose and antelope. Some of the herds that use the area have been severely impacted by development of huge natural gas fields to the south near Pinedale, Wyoming. The basin is also critical habitat for lynx, a threatened species, and two subspecies of native cutthroat trout.
Residents of western Wyoming mounted a furious fight to save the Noble Basin from energy development and preserve the area for hunting, ranching, fishing, horseback riding and other pursuits. They banded together in an organization called Citizens for the Wyoming Range that pressed the Forest Service to block or mitigate the development, and explored ways to buy out PXP’s valid leases.
Dan Smitherman, a former Marine and hunting guide in western Wyoming who serves as a spokesman for Citizens for the Wyoming Range, told the Associated Press, “we always felt like a lease buyout was the cleanest, and a win-win solution. It’s a Wyoming solution to a Wyoming problem.”
Tom Kenworthy is a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress.