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LANDER, Wyo. (AP) – A national conservation group has asked Interior Secretary Gale Norton to stay the course set by her predecessor to limit drilling in a portion of western Wyoming.

At issue is about 600,000 acres of mostly federal land in the Jack Morrow Hills near Farson. The land is prized by environmentalists for its distinctive, desert geography and by drillers for its vast petroleum reserves.

The National Wildlife Federation asked Norton not to derail efforts to increase conservation of public lands in the hills despite petitions by Gov. Jim Geringer and mineral interests to promote oil and gas drilling.

The federation said Thursday it will file a petition with Norton on behalf of more than 30 ranchers, businesses and conservation organizations. The group notified Norton of its intentions in a letter Wednesday.

“The lands are owned by all Americans and should be managed to reflect their values, including the many who hike, camp, rock climb, explore, photograph, hunt, and simply enjoy the public lands in the Jack Morrow Hills,” said Craig Thompson, a member of the Wyoming and National Wildlife Federations who lives in Rock Springs.

A draft study issued by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in June 2000 said some oil and gas development, in stages, is possible without significantly compromising the environment or scenery.

Babbitt visited the hills in November and ordered the BLM to consider an alternative that leans toward conservation, not extraction.

The BLM is still reviewing the 12,000-plus comments submitted for the earlier plan and has not yet begun drafting a proposal to address Babbitt’s directive. The agency is also awaiting direction from Norton.

Conservationists say drilling could harm habitat for sage grouse, antelope, deer, elk and the endangered mountain plover. They also are concerned about the effect on archaeological sites and what remains of the Oregon, California and Mormon Pioneer trails.

“Wyoming residents enjoy these public lands for their incredible wildlife, beautiful scenery and Western history,” said Tom Bell, founder of the Wyoming Outdoor Council and former president of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation.

“To a lot of folks, this area is the Plymouth Rock of the Wild West, and they don’t want it drilled and manipulated by those whose primary concern is extracting oil, gas, and minerals,” he said.

Environmental groups also want Congress to designate a national conservation area to prevent new oil and gas leasing and other mineral extraction.

Attempts to reach representatives from several drilling companies in southwest Wyoming were unsuccessful.

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