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Wyoming Range

South Cottonwood Creek is seen meandering through the Wyoming Range just below Lander Peak in Sublette County. The creek is part of Colorado cutthroat trout native range and nearby oil and gas leases. The USDA permanently protected almost 40,000 acres from development Tuesday.

Oil and gas drilling will not be allowed in almost 40,000 acres of the Bridger-Teton National Forest, the U.S. Forest Service announced Friday, ending more than a decade of limbo for conservation groups and energy companies.

The Forest Service said the outcome was based on more than 62,000 comments on four possible options.

“What really came through was sense of place and what the Wyoming Range embodied in terms of the landscape and how people derive their economic welfare from it,” said Mary Cernicek, spokeswoman for the Bridger-Teton forest, citing varying uses in the area from ranching to outfitting, hunting and tourism.

The 30 leases were a holdover from when Congress passed the Wyoming Range Legacy Act in 2009, which protected 1.2 million acres from development. Stretching across the eastern side of the Wyoming Range, the oil and gas leases were never allowed to be developed, nor were they conserved as part of the broader tract of land.

Outdoor groups like the National Outdoor Leadership School, the Wyoming Wildlife Federation and Trout Unlimited worked for years to remove the acres from leasing. They hailed the final decision as a victory for outdoor recreation and the environment.

“After 10 years of standing up for the Wyoming Range and after two incredible success stories, this is the happy ending we’d hoped for,” said Mike Burd, spokesman for Citizens for the Wyoming Range and Green River trona miner. “Responsible energy development means some places, like the Wyoming Range, should be managed for wildlife, hunting, fishing and recreation, not oil and gas.”

The decision was disappointing, however, for oil companies who planned to drill in the leases.

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Peter Wold is president of Wold Oil Properties — one of six companies with leases in the area — and has been waiting since 2006 for the opportunity to develop them. He said his company could have drilled underground from existing leases resulting in no surface occupancy.

“The whole thing has been a frustrating experience,” Wold said. “They took our money and have not issued the leases. It’s hard for me to understand particularly because we’ve said we would have no surface impact on forest lands.”

Wold’s leases were on the very edge of the area that could have been drilled, said Aaron Bannon, environmental stewardship and sustainability director for the National Outdoor Leadership School. Some of the other leases were in the heart of the forest in the middle of where NOLS runs two-week outdoor courses for 14- and 15-year-olds.

“There was a decent potential if the decision wasn’t what it is, we could see some pretty significant oil and gas development right on our operating area,” he said.

Trout Unlimited, which fought against the leases citing areas of native cutthroat trout habitat, applauded the Forest Service’s decision.

“There is a time and a place in Wyoming for oil and gas development, but the Wyoming Range isn’t one of those places,” said Tasha Sorensen, Wyoming field representative for Trout Unlimited. “Maintaining access to intact natural landscapes in Wyoming is essential to maintaining our sporting heritage and outdoor recreation businesses.”

The decision by the Forest Service is final and will be signed by USDA Undersecretary Robert Bonnie in 30 days.

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Follow Managing Editor Christine Peterson on Twitter @PetersonOutside

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