Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso did as he promised and introduced legislation Thursday to protect 1.2 million acres of the Wyoming Range from new energy development. Some of the existing leases would be retired under the Republican legislator's Wyoming Range Legacy Act, but the bill does not address about 44,000 acres of contested leases in the area.

Barrasso's predecessor, Republican Sen. Craig Thomas, had planned to introduce similar legislation earlier this year, but Thomas died of leukemia in June (see NGI, June 4). Under SB 2229, no additional mining patents and no additional geothermal or mineral leasing would be allowed in about 100 miles of the range, which is located in western Wyoming, extending 50 miles from the Hoback Canyon south of Jackson to Big Piney. Rising higher than 11,000 feet, the range runs its course between the Greys and Green rivers separating Lincoln and Sublette counties -- where a lot of the state's current natural gas production is taking place.

The legislation comes following a recent request by Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, a Democrat, who asked federal officials to suspend energy leases in the area and offer refunds to producers planning to drill there (see NGI, Oct. 22).

"What we do today is join in the memory of our friend Craig Thomas to finish his work to keep and enhance the tourism, recreation, grazing, hunting and sportsmen economy of the Wyoming Range and forever preserve it as a key part of Wyoming's natural heritage," Barrasso said in a statement. "The Wyoming Range represents the heart and soul of our state -- independent, still wild, rugged and a wonder for those that come from all over to experience it."

Barrasso's legislation, which is cosponsored by Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi, would allow conservationists and sportsmen to buy back and retire leases from energy companies that are willing to sell them. However, Barrasso noted that energy development would remain a vital part of Wyoming's future.

"Energy development will always be a pillar of our economy, especially in partnership with recreation and tourism -- vital to our quality of life in Wyoming," he said. "We achieve that partnership by working to enhance the traditional economic base of the Wyoming Range." The bill would not lock up land, he said. "To the contrary, this is a bill for the economic prosperity of the recreation and tourism industry. What we do today is to recognize an economic base and enhance it."

Freudenthal, who appointed Barrasso to complete Thomas' term -- and who opposed new development of the Wyoming Range -- called the legislation "a big step forward, and I'm delighted."

The legislation does not block exploration and production in any of the currently producing areas of the vast Wyoming Range, which includes the prolific Jonah gas field, nor does not address about 44,000 acres of contested leases in the area.

"For the recently issued leases that amount to some 44,000 acres, I have great confidence that we'll be able to work out creative solutions with respect on all sides," Barrasso said.

Under the bill, leaseholders would submit a written request to the Department of Interior (DOI) for the retirement and repurchase of the lease. The lease purchase price would be "based on fair market value, as determined from an appraisal that is agreed to by the secretary and the lessee." The DOI may not use nonfederal funds to purchase the leases. States, private groups and others also would be allowed to purchase the lease for conservation purposes, or the leases may be donated back to the state by the leaseholder.

The bill will be taken up by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Marc Smith, executive director of the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, said his organization was "relieved to hear that this bill will not prevent the development of long-standing valid leases. And as development goes forward on existing leases, corresponding efforts will be made to protect and manage the unique natural resources in the area."

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