October 10, 2012
Special Conservation Report: Energy Lease Purchase Could Protect 58,000 Acres of Prime Hunting and Fishing Lands
Marshall: Area Never Should Have Been OK’d for Development
Herring: Purchase Sets Precedent for What Amounts to Ransom
By Bob Marshall
When it comes to making moral and just decisions on the use of public resources, normally I hate the term "money talks" (and especially its second half, which I won’t repeat here). We'd all like to think that the public interest is the first concern of our politicians when deciding how to manage public trusts and money be damned—especially since conservationists typically don't have much of the green stuff.
But an exception came last Friday with this news: 58,000 acres of prime fish and wildlife habitat on Forest Service lands in Wyoming's Hoback Basin south of Jackson Hole may be saved from energy development because the company holding leases to that area agreed to sell them to The Trust for Public Land for $8.75 million.
The deal was announced after TPL came up with a down payment of $4.5 million for lease-holder Plains Exploration & Production Company. If the non-profit can raise the other $4.25 million by the end of the year, the leases will be transferred - and TPL said it would then retire them permanently from development. (To contribute, go to www.tpl.org/SaveTheHoback).
Sportsmen cheered the news for good reasons. The Hoback Valley, a typically spectacular Wyoming Range setting of high plains and knife-ridge peaks, contains one of the few untrammeled mule deer migration and stop-over corridors left in a region that has been overrun with energy development during the last 10 years. The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, of which TPL is a partner, said that development is responsible for the 60 percent drop in mule deer populations over the last decade documented by fish and game agencies. The Hoback also provides outstanding elk, moose and bighorn sheep hunting, as well as fishing for Snake River cutthroat trout.
This good news didn't happen by accident, however. It's primarily the result of hard work by sportsmen's groups—and a fortunate decline in natural gas prices.
The story really begins with a leasing program conservationists long objected to because it did not place proper priority on assessing the impact to fish and wildlife populations. That could change under reforms being championed by the Obama Administration, which would direct mineral leasing on multiple-use lands to less environmentally sensitive areas.
The next chapter in the story involved the passage of the Wyoming Range Legacy Act, legislation pushed by sportsmen which allows leases to be retired permanently when purchased instead of being resold to other oil and gas companies, as previously required.
The price of purchasing the Hoback leases came within reach of conservationists when a glut of natural gas forced prices lower, shifting PE&PC's business plan toward oil and making the sale a worthy business decision.
That possibility quickly garnered support from local sportsmen and wildlife advocates including Wyoming entrepreneur and philanthropist Joe Ricketts, who became the leading local contributor by pledging $1 million to the Hoback buyout.
There are many morals to this story, especially the clear example that sportsmen's groups partnering with various other conservationists can achieve what seems impossible, and save precious public resources for the nation.
But as Ed Arnett, director of the TRCP Center for Responsible Energy Development, points out, it would be far better to prevent the extra cost of buying back public resources in the first place.
“While the TRCP commends this agreement and the implementation of the Wyoming Range Legacy Act, responsible energy development begins with better planning that avoids such important areas in the first place,” Arnett said. “Our goal should be to eliminate the need for buyouts as a mitigation tool as we continue to develop energy resources on public lands.”
By Hal Herring
Friday, October 5 was a landmark day for Wyoming sportsmen and anyone who loves the Wyoming Range and the wild scenery from Bondurant to Jackson. A gathering of over 100 sportsmen, environmentalists, ranchers, outfitters, kayakers, fishing guides, and just plain outspoken citizens celebrated the agreement to purchase drilling leases across 58,000 acres of the headwaters of the Hoback River, a wildlife and trout-rich tributary of the Snake River, on the southern approach to Grand Teton National Park.
The Trust for Public Land, a non-profit conservation group, has pledged $8.75 million to buy the energy leases from the Houston-based energy company Plains Exploration and Production (PXP) which had announced plans to drill 136 gas wells across what local sportsmen have called a “wildlife superhighway” (see this map of pronghorn and mule deer migrations through the area), with 29 miles of new roads, a pipeline network, well pads and other infrastructure. The buyout was supported by everyone from Governor Matt Mead- one of the most pro-energy-development leaders ever elected to office in Wyoming (and that’s saying a mouthful) - to the wilderness-warriors at Back Country Hunters and Anglers. Trust for Public Land (TPL) still needs to raise $4.25 million by December 31 to complete the purchases, and is asking for help from the public to help it meet its goal.
I listened in to part of the celebration through the miracle of conference call, and am proud that I did, because I got to hear Governor Mead as he talked about running cattle near the old Mountain Man Rendezvous community of Daniel as a child, and the importance of undeveloped landscapes like the Upper Hoback to future generations of Americans. Carl Bennett, a miner from Rock Springs whose family has property near the proposed development and who has worked for years to oppose the drilling plans, thanked the crowd, and said, “We are the public in public lands, and we do have a voice… I was one of those people who didn’t believe that my voice could make a difference, and I learned that it can. On behalf of my father who handed these mountains down to me, and on behalf of my daughter, who I’ll hand them down to, I thank everybody who helped us save this place!”
There were some fantastic and moving speeches given, and listening in, you could feel the power and the happiness of a crowd of people who had fought hard for something, fought from their hearts, and won. I am very happy for them, and for all of us who will one day catch cutthroats on the Upper Hoback, or hunt elk or mule deer in Noble Basin, or simply marvel at the staggering beauty of that part of Wyoming.
But I have to share a warning.
By prioritizing energy development by private firms over all other uses of public lands, we are setting ourselves up for an endless series of conflicts like this one. The situation is akin to a man holding a knife to the canvas of the Mona Lisa and demanding cash not to cut. Governor Mead was careful to point out that the Upper Hoback buyouts are being done without a single dime of taxpayer cash, which is great, but it would have been taxpayer cash that would have been used to address many of the impacts of the developments, had PXP insisted on going ahead with the development in spite of record low prices for natural gas. It would have been taxpayers who bore the brunt of the impacts to the Hoback River, and to the wildlife and recreational economy of this place at the southern edge of Grand Teton National Park.
We have given too much power over public lands to private industry, perversely creating incentives to hold some of our most important wildlife habitat and watersheds hostage for ransom. PXP leased the drilling rights in the Hoback over 25 years ago, and the fight to get them back dates back over almost a decade, so it’s not a Republicans-versus-Democrats, industry-versus-environmentalist issue. It’s about some public lands that should never have been leased.
Natural gas prices are at record low levels, making such lease buyouts attractive for industry and for conservationists alike. But that is a situation that will not last. Export terminals for liquefied natural gas are being constructed, right now, in Louisiana and Oregon, to serve the insatiable hunger for energy in China and Japan. We are moving fast in the U.S. to convert heavy trucks, equipment, and passenger cars to run on clean-burning compressed natural gas, just as we have converted much of our electricity-generating capacity from coal to natural gas. There are huge positives with natural gas- using our own domestic resources, as well as cleaner-burning and powerful source of energy. The future, as they say, is here.
It took years, and thousands of hours of effort, and it will take millions of dollars to simply keep the Upper Hoback the irreplaceable way it is right now. That battle may prove to be the norm in the coming years, and most of those battles will not be won by conservationists, as the potential profits rise, and, let’s face it, economically stressed Americans have less time to fight. The trillions of cubic feet of recoverable American natural gas can be one answer to our energy prayers. But if we don’t do this right, if we do it in the wrong places, if we squander the lands, waters, and the energy we harvest, we will exemplify the old truism: more tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.