JACKSON — Deborah Love stood before a jubilant crowd in Jackson on Friday and delivered a sobering message: The story isn’t over yet.
Love, the Northern Rockies director for the Trust for Public Lands, told a group of about 150 that the trust had reached an agreement to purchase 58,000 acres worth of oil and gas leases in the Wyoming Range.
But the group had raised only half the $8.75 million purchase price. The other half, based on terms of the agreement, must be raised by Dec. 31.
“We’re at the last chapter of the story,” she told the crowd of ranchers, farmers, legislators and wildlife and conservation officials. “We still have the last chapter to go.”
The Trust for Public Lands intends to buy the leases in the Wyoming Range from Plains Exploration and Production, Love announced. Most of the land is located on the Bridger-Teton National Forest.
The trust — negotiating on behalf of several Wyoming environmentalist and conservationist groups — reached a deal with the company to acquire leases in the Noble Basin near Bondurant after six months of negotiation.
The deal ends about six years of planning by Houston-based PXP, which wanted to drill about 136 wells and install 19 pads in the basin.
Many who were against the project had come to believe it was inevitable, according to Dan Smitherman, spokesman for Citizens for the Wyoming Range, a group opposed to the drilling.
“It means everything,” he said in a Star-Tribune interview. “The common denominator is disbelief that we were successful. A lot of people held the faith but felt the best we would be able to do is make drilling restrictive and environmentally conscious as possible.”
Most of the leases will instead be permanently retired under the Wyoming Range Legacy Act, which was signed into law in 2009. The bill protected much of the Wyoming Range but honored existing leases — like PXP’s, which were acquired in 2005.
Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., was instrumental in introducing the bill in the Wyoming Legislature. His widow, Susan, spoke at the conference Friday.
“As a staunch and stalwart supporter of multiple use and domestic energy, there’s no doubt Craig believed in energy development,” she said. “He also believed in special places.”
Gov. Matt Mead also spoke, thanking the parties involved for reaching a deal. He also thanked the citizens involved in making the deal happen.
“What this is, is a local idea, a local passion, that created a Wyoming cure,” he said. “You were the driving force that said, ‘This is a special place for us.’”
Steve Rusch, PXP vice president of environmental, health and safety and government affairs, said in a release Friday that the company was happy to make the deal.
“From the first day the Legacy Act was passed, PXP has repeatedly stated our willingness to consider a buy-out of our lease position if a valid offer was tendered,” he said. “Today’s announcement fulfills that pledge.”
Rusch called the deal a “win-win.”
“Throughout the history of this project, we have focused our efforts on collaborating with stakeholders willing to seriously engage on the issues,” he said. “[The trust] reached out to PXP and subsequent discussions exemplify the types of successes that can be realized when diverse parties seek to find common ground.”
Carl Bennett is a trona miner from Rock Springs who’s opposed to the drilling project. He told the crowd he felt relieved.
“It feels like a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders,” he said. “Now I can hand these mountains down to my children.”
The Trust for Public Lands has raised $4.5 million in pledges and promises. The sale will be funded entirely by private donations.
Love said a $150 donation pays for one acre of land. She’s confident the trust can raise the needed funds by the end of the year.
“This is your chance,” she said. “Make a difference.”