JACKSON -- Tensions flared while forest officials tried to reel in discussion during a public meeting here Tuesday night as people hammered a proposal to drill for natural gas in parts of the Wyoming Range.

About 250 people crammed into a conference room, some standing, and representatives of the Teton County Sheriff's Office hovered around the perimeter. Most came to tell officials from the Bridger-Teton National Forest that a proposal by a Houston company to drill in the Noble Basin of the Hoback Rim area just south of Bondurant is a travesty.

Bridger-Teton Supervisor Jacque Buchanan repeatedly told the crowd the decision to lease the area had already been made by the Bureau of Land Management back in 1992. She said the issue in front of the U.S. Forest Service and the public today surrounds considerations to allow the leasing, and how to manage the activity.

"What's in front of us is how to allow this project to go forward," she said, and how to mitigate impacts for the project. Buchanan repeatedly said the decision was not whether to allow drilling.

"I don't take this lightly," she said, adding she recognized it was "probably the most important decision" she has made in recent years, if not during her career in the Forest Service.

Although the meeting was scheduled to be an open house forum, where people come and talk to representatives from the agency and proposing energy company -- Plains Exploration and Production -- that structure was changed to allow Buchanan to speak to the entire group. Following Buchanan, Greg McGowan, a principal ecologist with Arcadis, the California company hired to write the draft environmental impact statement, spoke.

The Forest Service then opened the floor to people who wanted to speak publicly, which accounted for about 75 percent of the allotted two-hour meeting time. Those comments, however, were not submitted as part of the public record, frustrating speakers who felt they were wasting their time since they had to submit written comments in order for them to be formally considered.

Former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Leslie Petersen earned applause as she told the Forest Service that drilling in Sublette County has caused numerous problems.

"We simply cannot let this shoddy oversight continue in this very special place," she said. She stressed the idea that there should be years of baseline study of air and water quality, and wildlife studies, to understand changes that may occur and force industry to protect the area.

That sentiment was echoed throughout the night.

Horton Spitzer of Teton County said energy companies are in control, and they are simply told to correct problems with no consequences.

"We've got problems in Sublette County and we will have them here in Teton County," he said. "You put that [hydraulic fracturing] fluid in the area, and that water is toast."

Also known as fracking, hydraulic fracturing is the method of pumping water and chemicals deep into the ground to split apart rock to extract gas.

People questioned what was known about the water in the Hoback Basin area, and what was known about the fracking fluids slated to be used.

Leigh Reagan, a Jackson filmmaker, asked if the Forest Service would disclose the depth of fracking and the chemicals used.

McGowan said the agency doesn't know that level of detail, but said monitoring the groundwater is "a huge priority."

Not everyone at the meeting was there to plead with the Forest Service to spare the lands of the Wyoming Range.

Jonathan Johnston from Star Valley said he is "very respectful" of wildlife, but he has never had a moose or an elk pay his mortgage.

"How many jobs will it create?" he asked of the plan. McGowan said it would depend on the pace of development. A member of the audience said 60 percent of the jobs would be filled by out-of-area workers.

In an e-mail last week, Cheryl Sorenson, vice president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, said Plains has worked "diligently with local interest groups and residents to keep any controversy to a minimum."

"They have worked out agreements to develop responsibly in this area with local interest groups, landowners and residents, showing that co-existing is possible in high-profile areas such as the Wyoming Range," she wrote.

Many other people commented during the meeting that the area is rich in wildlife and is one of the only timbered corridors connecting four mountain ranges -- the Salt, Snake, Wind River and Gros Ventre -- and is a key area for genetic transference for wildlife.

The Jackson meeting was the first this week to discuss Plains Exploration and Production's proposal to drill 136 wells on 17 pads in the area south of Bondurant in the Wyoming Range. There was a meeting Wednesday night in Bondurant at the Bondurant School, and another is today at the Pinedale Library from 7 to 9 p.m.

The draft environmental impact statement is out for public comment through March 11. Forest Service officials said they expect more than 20,000 comments on the proposal, with a final environmental impact statement sometime late summer or early fall.

On the Web

To see a copy of the Wyoming Range drilling draft environmental impact statement, visit http://www.fs.fed.us/r4/btnf/projects/nepa_project.shtml?project=14799.

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