WYOMING RANGE – From a distance the country looks gentle. Tall mountains flow into rolling hills. Rivers and creeks snake down gorges and into valleys as they wind haphazardly through sagebrush plains.
Those streams are some of the most important Colorado cutthroat trout habitat in the state. The mountains are home to prized elk and deer herds, a struggling moose population and a backcountry playground used by thousands of hunters, anglers, campers and others from the southwest corner of the state and beyond.
But after almost a decade of work to protect that playground, outdoor enthusiasts say it is still threatened. The U.S. Forest Service is considering whether to lease more than 41,000 acres of the area for oil and gas development.
The leases were first discussed in 2004, prompting an uproar from outdoor groups like Trout Unlimited, the National Outdoor Leadership School and coalitions of outfitters and sportsmen.
Congress passed the Wyoming Range Legacy Act five years later in response to the controversy, prohibiting oil and gas development on 1.2 million acres of federal land.
Yet in a twist, the original 41,000 acres was never conserved, leaving the region’s future uncertain. The Forest Service plans to release its draft decision in January after years of study and delays.
Sportsmen say the long-term economic and cultural gains from the area far outweigh the short-term development possibilities. But one energy company waiting for leases expressed frustration with the delays, its owner saying the company wants to lease only a fraction of the area and plans to use horizontal drilling to avoid disturbing the surface.
“Sportsmen hadn’t seen leasing in that type of country, and so when those leases were put up, folks took notice,” said Steven Brutger, the Wyoming energy coordinator for Trout Unlimited. “These are where all this started. This is a major access to the mountains, a gateway to the range.”
On a map, the leases appear to cover large chunks of native Colorado cutthroat trout habitat. Small, often disconnected streams are all that remain for the trout.
Fisheries officials and conservation groups worry that sediment from additional roads or possible chemical spills could crash the area population.
Those and other concerns led a coalition of sportsmen and conservation groups to begin protesting in 2004, when the Forest Service told the Bureau of Land Management it could lease the area.
Several companies bid on the leases. But in 2006, before any leases were distributed, the Bureau of Land Management sent them back to the Forest Service, citing an inadequate environmental assessment, said Gary Amerine, a former outfitter in the area who was involved in the process.
In the meantime, a grass-roots effort started to build. Hundreds of sportsmen and sportswomen, outdoor enthusiasts and dozens of groups started looking at leasing possibilities in the entire Wyoming Range.
Years of discussion, debate and political maneuvering led to the Wyoming Range Legacy Act, which allowed companies to donate leases back to the forest or encouraged private organizations to buy out and retire the leases. The act also prohibited any new leases from being developed.
“Dozens of our own state elected officials wrote letters asking that these not be developed," said Aaron Bannon, environmental stewardship and sustainability director for the National Outdoor Leadership School, which runs courses in the area.
"Game and Fish, Wyoming Travel and Tourism, state agencies, 40 sportsmen conservation groups and the thousands of people that hunted and fished there and came up on the weekends who value this place put time and energy into making sure it wasn’t developed. It blew me away to see the support for this place.”
The act received bipartisan support, drafted by the late Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., and introduced into Congress by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., under Democratic Gov. Dave Freudenthal.
But the legislation also had a clause dealing with unresolved leasing issues. Since the 41,000 acres – which at the time was 44,700 acres – had already been put out to bid in 2004, they remained in administrative limbo.
In 2011, years after the Forest Service pulled the leases to continue studying them, it announced that the area should not be leased for oil and gas development.
Energy companies and county commissioners in the area immediately appealed the decision, disputing some claims made by the Forest Service, said Rob Hoelscher, Big Piney district ranger.
The Forest Service once again withdrew its decision pending more study, which is where the leases stand today.
The case for preservation of the 41,000 acres is only stronger now than it was a decade ago, said Steve Kilpatrick, executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation.
That specific portion of the Wyoming Range brings on average $5.1 million to Wyoming a year in hunting and angling alone, he said.
“Energy development is, if you look at it by time, a one-shot boost in the arm that goes away,” he said. "It's a balance of energy development and maintaining untrammeled areas that is the key to long-term sustainability of human communities."
Some of the leasing area already has more roads than the Forest Service and wildlife officials determined should exist for undisturbed elk habitat, he said. A fragile moose herd could be tipped further down with additional trucks, drilling and 24-hour activity.
The National Outdoor Leadership School runs summer and winter courses in the area for 14- and 15-year-olds on permits it has held for decades. Oil and gas drilling, especially on the scale proposed in 2008 by one company, would permanently alter the students’ experience.
The Lander-based international organization doesn’t jump into every conservation battle, Bannon said.
“We will take steps that we can to preserve what we consider to be our outdoor classroom,” he said. “These are areas that draw people from around the country and the world. That’s our commodity.”
If the leases are used, the school might be forced to find a new site for classes.
At least one of the companies interested in the leases does not plan on any surface disturbance. Wold Oil Properties, which already has thousands of acres of oil and gas leases in the area, bid on 3,867 acres of the contested leases.
The gas reservoirs below the surface of those acres can be accessed by horizontal drilling, and the company is willing to sign a no-surface-disturbance stipulation with the Bureau of Land Management, said the company's president, Peter Wold.
"It is frustrating. There are provisions for the allowance for these leases to be issued, and we meet all of the criteria, and for one reason or another the issuance of them is postponed," Wold said. "We can tap the natural gas that’s under these leases without going onto them."
The Forest Service plans to release its draft decision in January, Hoelscher said. Public comment will follow, which the Forest Service will then review. A final decision could be released in June or July.
In the meantime, everyone involved will wait.