The Bridger-Teton National Forest will not permit natural gas and oil drilling on 70 square miles of the Wyoming Range, a U.S. Forest supervisor said Tuesday.

The long-awaited decision, which affects 44,720 net acres, resulted from a variety of factors, U.S. Forest Supervisor Jacqueline A. Buchanan wrote in a 17-page decision. The potential harm to Canada lynx, mule deer, air quality and recreational opportunities also concern her, she wrote.

"After considering all the alternatives, and the environmental impacts associated with each, I have determined this is the best course of action," Buchanan said. "No single factor led me to this decision. Rather, it was the combination of the sensitivity and values of the area, the magnitude of other activities currently under way or planned with potentially cumulative impacts, and the concerns of citizens, organizations and other agencies."

Forest officials originally designated areas of the Bridger-Teton for gas and oil leasing in 1990, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) offered leases on the 44,720 acres in 2005 and 2006 (see Daily GPI, Aug. 8, 2006). Conservation groups and Dave Freudenthal, who was Wyoming's governor at the time, appealed that decision to the Interior Board of Land Appeals, claiming the BLM justified the sale using outdated information.

In late 2007 the USFS followed with a plan to allow Plains Exploration & Production Co. (PXP), which held leases in the Bridger-Teton National Forest and in the Pinedale Anticline, to drill up to 136 gas wells (see Daily GPI, Dec. 12, 2007).

However, the proposal was met with protests and state lawmakers advanced federal legislation to protect the Wyoming Range. In 2009 President Obama signed into law the Wyoming Range Legacy Act that, among other things, banned drilling on 1,875 square miles of the Wyoming Range (see Daily GPI, March 31, 2009). BLM then canceled 23 leases on about half of the affected area, and last December PXP agreed to retire almost half of its leasehold in the affected area (see Daily GPI, Dec. 16, 2010).

Wyoming Republican Rep. Cynthia Lummis said the decision by the USFS to ban drilling in a portion of the forest is based on "everything but jobs, the economy, energy independence and national security."

Lummis said drilling on the Wyoming Range should be allowed if producers use "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," she said. "This misguided decision puts our multiple use lands under lock and key."

Newly elected Republican Gov. Matt Mead also expressed concern, highlighting potential problems that the decision could have on other federal land management decisions in the state.

Producers holding existing, valid leases that are affected by the decision will be compensated for bids and lease payments, according to a USFS spokeswoman. There are about 9,800 existing wells and another 10,000 or more proposed in that portion of western Wyoming, she said.

Not affected are other leases that producers have in other parts of the Wyoming Range, including PXP, which also wants to drill in the Noble Basin. There, PXP has asked for permission to drill 136 wells from 17 well pads. The producer's Noble Basin Master Development Plan was issued in December and comments are being taken by the USFS until March 11.

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