CHEYENNE — The Bridger-Teton National Forest will not allow oil and gas leases on 70 square miles of the Wyoming Range, a new twist in a long debate over drilling in the western Wyoming mountains.
Tuesday's much-awaited decision drew praise from environmentalists and criticism from Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., who said in a statement that it was based on "everything but jobs, the economy, energy independence and national security."
Wyoming's new Republican governor, Matt Mead, also expressed concern. The presence of Canada lynx, a threatened species, was a key reason for the decision, and Mead said the elusive cat could affect other federal land management decisions.
"There is so little documentation and understanding of that species. To make decisions without a complete picture of its habitat creates a lot of uncertainty not only for energy companies but other users of the public's land," Mead said through spokesman Renny MacKay.
Forest Supervisor Jacque Buchanan said no single concern prompted her decision and that it resulted from a range of considerations including the cumulative effects of drilling in the forest.
She also listed potential harm to lynx, mule deer, air quality and recreation opportunities in her 17-page decision.
The decision not to authorize the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to lease the land for drilling capped a study that got under way almost three years ago. Much has happened since then with the issue of drilling in the Wyoming Range.
A federal law passed in 2009 banned drilling on 1,875 square miles of the Wyoming Range. In December, the national forest released a draft study that would allow Plains Exploration and Production Co. to drill 136 gas wells from 17 well pads in the upper Hoback River drainage.
The Wyoming Range Legacy Act of 2009 did not prohibit drilling on such pre-existing leases. Nor did it apply directly to the lease parcels in Tuesday's announcement, which total 44,720 acres on the eastern flank of the Wyoming Range.
The lease parcels are north and south of the planned PXP Eagle Prospect-Noble Basin drilling area — a project that's been the focus of intense recent debate in the media and at public meetings in western Wyoming.
The BLM auctioned off the leases in Tuesday's decision in 2005 and 2006. The BLM and U.S. Forest Service reconsidered the leasing following environmental protests.
Dan Smitherman, spokesman of the group Citizens for the Wyoming Range, said he was hopeful the decision would set the stage for more stringent environmental stipulations should the PXP drilling be allowed to proceed.
"It's just a very illustrative example of the way to do things as opposed to the way not to do things," Smitherman said, adding that the federal government never should have allowed the leases currently held by PXP.
Lummis said drilling in the Wyoming Range should be allowed using "environmentally responsible" methods.
"These resources can provide the country with secure, affordable fuel and offer people in Wyoming high-paying jobs that help support nearby communities. This misguided decision puts our multiple use lands under lock and key," she said.