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The U.S. Forest Service should look favorably upon a landmark agreement that will help preserve the Wyoming Range by significantly containing oil and gas drilling. It should also be embraced by environmental groups that have expressed some skepticism about the plan.

On Friday, two groups -- Wyoming Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife and the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association -- announced a deal with Plains Exploration & Production Company (PXP), an independent oil and gas company that has had leases in the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Sublette County since 2005. It plans to drill 136 gas wells in the Eagle Prospect/Noble Basin area.

While the Wyoming Range Legacy Act approved last year provided for the permanent withdrawal of much of the Bridger-Teton National Forest from future oil and gas leasing, the act protected existing leases like PXP's. Several environmental groups have urged the company to agree to a lease buyout to voluntarily retire some of their holdings.

Friday's agreement is an acceptable alternative to the lease buyout plan that would accomplish many of the same goals, while also earmarking money for environmental studies and other benefits.

PXP agreed to commit to permanently retire about 28,000 acres of its 64,000 acres of leases within the protected area in the forest. The company would also provide $6 million over the life of its project for a variety of uses, including air and water quality monitoring, community benefits, and a study to examine the health of moose populations in and around Sublette County. A total of $4 million would be spent on a fish and wildlife habitat fund to offset project impacts.

PXP agreed to drill its gas wells from a maximum of 17 pads in the upper Hoback Range drainage. The firm will seek permission from federal agencies to relocate two proposed pad locations to protect the surface of an additional 4,000 acres and to create a buffer along the Hoback River. PXP also agreed to several strict operational conditions, including installing equipment and facilities to minimize truck traffic in the area.

Gary Amerine, vice president of the outfitters group, said, "We put together what we believe is a model for how the oil and gas industry and the sportsmen community can and should work together in sensitive areas. The keys were perseverance, mutual respect for each other's ideas, and being willing to compromise."

Compromise is indeed important. While no one got everything they wanted in the agreement, a large area of land is being protected and the company agreed to minimize the impacts of the project.

Dan Smitherman, spokesman for another group, Citizens for the Wyoming Range, complained Friday that the deal doesn't change the fact that "there's still going to be an industrial oil field in a place where we don't want one."

"I'm not really sure that I see what the benefit is to the citizens of Wyoming, and particularly to the wildlife," Smitherman added.

Last Thursday, when the U.S. Forest Service released its draft environmental impact statement for the project, his organization blasted it as "a bad deal for Wyoming" and "business as usual." We don't disagree, but think the new PXP agreement has many positives compared to the alternatives offered in the draft EIS.

The company has agreed to keep the size of it project permanently contained. Grazing can co-exist with the drilling project. The portion of the forest that will be protected by the deal is considered prime summer habitat for elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, moose and antelope.

Combined with funds for fish and wildlife habitat and environmental monitoring, the agreement is beneficial for Wyoming. It should get the backing of the U.S. Forest Service, and other companies with existing leases should consider any similar offers.


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