The Accidental Activist: Dan Smitherman leads the charge against drilling the Wyoming Range
In a black cowboy hat and weathered chaps Dan Smitherman moves with ease, readying the horses.
As an outfitter he developed an innate ability to pack the horses on sight, so that when the loads were measured on the scale, almost nothing had to be moved to equalize the weight.
He straps on a gun before mounting. He starts into the mountains like the ending of a Western movie; the cowboy blending with the landscape, vanishing into the horizon.
When asked an important question there is a discernible pause while Smitherman thinks, and then words ease out in the slow speak of a Wyoming cowboy. He’s a far cry from the slick and sound-bite ready image that “spokesman” conjures. Yet Smitherman has become a spokesman and a familiar face representing a group of stakeholders in one of the most contested energy developments in the state.
Plains Exploration & Production Co.’s plan to drill 136 gas wells on 17 pads in the Wyoming Range generated almost 60,000 public comments in 2011, more than any other project on the Bridger-Teton National Forest.
It is a project that likely would have generated interest no matter what, said Jacque Buchanan, Bridger-Teton forest supervisor. Development on federal land always evokes passion. And the PXP project is expected to use hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a process that pumps water and chemicals into deep geologic formations to release oil and natural gas. In some places, such as Pavillion, some people suspect fracking may have contaminated drinking water. Citizens for the Wyoming Range hopes to block, or at least minimize the environmental damage of PXP’s plan to drill and produce 136 gas wells, propelling the project into the national spotlight.
Smitherman will be the first to tell you it’s been a group effort. He’ll suggest others in the group for interviews with the press. Yet he leads the charge, sending email blasts to a list of more than 800 stakeholders and letters to another couple hundred, calling elected officials and guiding hikes and horseback trips into areas potentially impacted by PXP’s drilling plans.
Leading a unified conservation effort among several environmental groups isn’t where the retired Marine, hunting outfitter and self-described conservative saw himself when he first came to Wyoming decades earlier.
“I am the antithesis of a tree-hugger,” he says.
Yet labels mean little to Smitherman when the stakes are high, and to him drilling in the Wyoming Range means the end of something he loves.
The locals’ range
The Wyoming Range spans about 85 miles on the Bridger-Teton National Forest straddling Sublette and Lincoln counties, and crossing into Teton County in the North,according to Mary Cernicek, public affairs officer with the forest. Its skyline reaches 11,378 feet at Wyoming Peak.
The forest is like a mixed salad; conifers and aspen line fields of sage. There are other places that are beautiful, like the Tetons, and other mountains that are remote, like the Wind River Range. But when Smitherman is in the Wyoming Range he has it all to himself. The few people he does see are usually his neighbors and friends.
“It’s the locals’ range,” Smitherman says.
A few old two-track roads crisscross the otherwise pristine landscape, up and down buttes and through the sage near the willows by a creek.
Smitherman is intimately familiar with the place and he looks at the landscape in many ways; at geographic features (the ridges and valleys); years of past experience (once he came upon a bear on its back in a pond as though reclining in a bathtub); and also potential changes in the future (where compressor stations might be installed, where each well-pad is planned).
Smitherman grew up on a farm and started hunting when he was about 5 years old. He visited Wyoming in the mid-1980s to hunt. He was struck by the landscape. While the Tetons are impressive, there was something about the Wyoming Range; the open space was endless and the area much quieter. He spent more and more time in Wyoming.
In the 1990s he started working as a hunting guide at a ranch he often visited. In 2005 he bought his own outfitting business and offered hunting trips, trail rides and pack trips in the Wyoming Range where he could look out over the Noble Basin, the site PXP is proposing to drill.
The same year a group of sportsmen and agencies such as Trout Unlimited, and the Wilderness Society approached him about joining a new effort; Citizens Protecting the Wyoming Range.
Smitherman has always been passionate about what he believed in, but he’d never ventured into the role of activist. He volunteered at the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, voted Republican and considered himself a conservative.
But he also looked at issues independently. He can list several Democrats he’s voted for, like former Gov. Dave Freudentahl, and while he supports oil and gas development in the state, he believes it shouldn’t take place in our national forests — especially not in the Wyoming Range. Smitherman says oil and gas development should be limited to places where access is easier and less intrusive.
The Citizens call the Wyoming Range “Too Special To Drill.” In hindsight, Smitherman wishes they’d called it, “Too difficult to drill. Every place is too special to somebody,” he said.
In Wyoming there has long been a disconnect between ranchers and outfitters – those who make their living off the land and conservation groups and environmentalists.
Ranchers and outfitters know if they want to benefit from the land in the future they need to take care of it today. Smitherman says environmentalists, in the beginning of the environmental movement, bulldozed people, insisting that things had to be a certain way without listening to the voices of those who’d cared for the land for generations. It created a culture of distrust and, even today, many ranchers who are active in protecting wild places hesitate at identifying themselves as conservationists.
Even Smitherman prefers the term activist when describing himself, despite working closely with the Wyoming Outdoor Council and the Wyoming Wilderness Society.
“I have never been anti-energy and I’m still not anti-energy,” Smitherman says.
But he had seen what happened in the Jonah Field and the Pinedale Anticlinein the Upper Green River Basin. The development of thousands of wells has stressed wildlife populations, pockmarked the landscape and degraded air quality. Smitherman said he couldn’t bear the thought of the same happening to the Wyoming Range.
So he listened to members of Citizens Protecting the Wyoming Range, a group started by three outfitters, aimed at protecting the mountains from future energy development. Smitherman said the group’s argument against drilling in the range made financial sense. Smitherman knew people wouldn’t pay to recreate in an area dotted with well pads and intersected by roads guiding roaring trucks and semis.
The efforts of Citizens Protecting the Wyoming Range led to the Legacy Act, passed in 2009, which permanently protected 1.2 million acres in the Wyoming Range from future development. But the Legacy Act also grandfathered existing oil and gas leases, allowing lease-holders to move forward with development. While the group celebrated a victory, PXP, who declined to comment for this article, was moving forward with plans to develop the leases it already owned.
The PXP leases were issued in 1994 and the federal analysis began in 2005, making the project one of the “most heavily analyzed public lands projects in Wyoming,” PXP spokesman Ed Memi told the Casper Star tribune in November 2011. “A tremendous amount of public resources have been spent reviewing this project for the past six years, and we believe it is appropriate to get a final decision out so the next steps in the process can move forward,” he said. “PXP remains confident that the project can be done in an environmentally sound manner with a minimal amount of disturbance necessary.”
Gary Amerine, president of the Wyoming Outfitter & Guides Association, was one of the founding members of Citizens Protecting the Wyoming Range. A trip Amerine took with the late Sen. Craig Thomas into the Wyoming Range served as the catalyst for the Legacy Act, convincing Thomas that the area was not meant for drilling.
“It steam-rolled,” Amerine said of the original group and its success in creating the Legacy Act. “It was a perfect storm… You had the ranchers, you had the outfitters, you had the greenest of the green and the average guy who walks down the street of Pinedale. … Would that happen today? I don’t think so.”
As part of the act, those with existing valid leases in the area, such as PXP, were not blocked from developing their mineral leases. So Amerine was surprised when group members wanted to fight PXP’s proposal. The group began to fracture. While Amerine doesn’t want the area drilled, he also feels that allowing PXP to drill is a worthwhile compromise to protecting the rest of the range. People shouldn’t fight valid and legal leases, he said.
“The greener side of the equation was showing their true colors,” he said.
Amerine left the group and Smitherman stepped in. Amerine saw it as the end of the activist group he helped found.
“The citizens group sort of became a non-entity at that time,” he said.
It was Amerine, on behalf of the Wyoming Outfitting & Guides Association, who met with PXP and helped create a binding agreement where PXP agreed to pay $6 million in mitigation money and close about half of their lease holdings from future development. Environmental groups were invited to the negotiations, but they declined, Amerine said.
While Amerine celebrated the deal, others, including members of the Citizens for the Wyoming Range, were less enthused, saying PXP didn’t promise much more than what would be required in existing mitigation required by the Forest Service. The acreage retired would have been too hard to drill anyway, and the most important fact, the deal didn’t eliminate the 17 proposed well pads in the Noble Basin.
It was the final split between Amerine and the now evolved Citizens for the Wyoming Range. The group became an environmental organization made up of people from Jackson and outside Wyoming, losing credibility with locals, according to Amerine. Most public comments submitted to the forest service regarding PXP’s plans are form letters from people in places like Boston or Wisconsin who have never been to the Wyoming Range, he said.
The land, Smitherman counters, belongs to everybody. All Americans.
It doesn’t matter, Amerine says, PXP has a legal right to drill and the group agreed to allowing existing leases to be developed when negotiating the Legacy Act.
“The idea they can’t be developed – someone’s just blowing smoke,” Amerine said.
Smitherman, and other members of the Citizens for the Wyoming Range, acknowledge the company’s rights to drill and say while ideally they’d like the leases retired, they realize the leases are valid, and the group is focused on how the project is completed.
Amerine won’t publicly criticize Smitherman, other than to note Smitherman is no longer an outfitter and he is paid for his work for the Wyoming Range. Amerine said when he was involved with the group he only received some travel reimbursement. Smitherman said he sold his outfitting business last year due to the economy not turning around. This was his first summer not guiding in the range. He also acknowledges he receives a small amount of money for the sometimes more than 50 hours of work a week he puts into the issue.
Despite their differences, Amerine does share some of the same worries as Citizens for the Wyoming Range. He doesn’t want the range destroyed, streams polluted and hillsides dug up.
While Amerine did not help in the Citizens’ latest campaign where 30,000 emails were sent to the company asking for a buyout, he does share the group’s belief that a buy-out is the greatest hope for the range. Access to the drilling area would include areas near his home. He doesn’t want to see large trucks on the roads and construction in the mountains, but he feels there’s nothing that can be done.
“Would I like to see PXP go away? Absolutely, yes,” Amerine said. “I’d love to see PXP go away. But at the same time they have valid leases and I don’t believe in taking from others and that’s what it would be if they didn’t get to use those leases.”
Drilling plan gets a closer look
When Amerine left, Smitherman stepped in as a leader for the Citizens for the Wyoming Range.
Once the Legacy Act passed, the group’s goals weren’t as clear, Smitherman said. PXP had valid leases and everyone recognized that there wasn’t a way to stop the project, which was frustrating for many involved. Now, it was about making sure the project, if it moves forward, is done with as little impact as possible.
When Jacque Buchanan stepped into the forest supervisor position in 2010, she noticed all the possible alternatives required a forest plan amendment for road density and the public hadn’t been notified – a legal requirement for such action. The plan also received a record number of comments – about 60,000, so Buchanan decided to take the plan back to forest service staff to create an amendment that would comply with current forest stipulations.
The release of the new plan, known as a draft environmental impact statement (or draft EIS), has been repeatedly pushed back this year, most recently because the Fontenelle fire on the Bridger-Teton earlier this summer, which damaged prime lynx habitat. New data on wildlife, such as lynx, will be incorporated into the new draft plan. The draft is now expected to be completed in mid-September, Buchanan said. Once released, the public will have 45 days to comment on it and those comments will go back to the Forest Service before a final plan is released.
The fact that the Forest Service is considering an alternative plan is a victory, Smitherman said.
“Without the large number of citizens voicing concerns, this project very easily could have moved forward,” Smitherman said.
Those voices come from across the country, something that some people criticize.
“They are public lands,” Smitherman said. “They belong just as much to someone in New York City as they do to someone in Bounderant.”
Buchanan agrees. Smitherman has expanded the issue beyond Wyoming’s borders, she said. Federal lands belong to everyone – they are the property of all American citizens, and they are maintained with public dollars. Yet American citizens don’t have a way to be involved in issues far from where they live, except for through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which is mechanism that allows the Citizens for the Wyoming Range and all other stakeholders to participate in the planning and analysis of the PXP project.
While the project has generated an unusual amount of comments and discussion, the conversation has remained respectful, Buchanan said. And that, at least in part, is due to Smitherman’s leadership, she said.
The numerous comments that flood the forest service office, also actually make Buchanan’s job easier, she said.
“The more information I have, the better decision I can make,” she said. ”If I only heard from one sector or heard one view, despite my best efforts, I could make a decision that wasn’t balanced. That’s one of the overall wonders of Wyoming. It’s a stand up state where you hear from all sides.”
Smitherman said he hopes the final plan will be restrictive enough that impacts either will be minimal, or the company won’t want to drill in the area.
The other scenario is PXP sells the leases to conservation groups and they are retired. How much it would cost for a buy-out is unknown. The leases likely cost several million dollars and that doesn’t factor in investments the company has put in for studies of the area and working through the NEPA process. Not knowing a price to buy out PXP’s leases hasn’t stopped Smitherman from pressuring the company to sell.
Most recently, the group launched an email campaign they called “Houston, We have a Problem,” encouraging PXP to sell its leases so they can be retired. As of publication of this article, no offers to formally buy the leases had been made and no price for the leases have been set, but the campaign did generate an estimated 30,000 comments to PXP with a form requesting to sell.
PXP did tell me in a May story for the Casper Star Tribune, it would entertain any market-based offers for the leases and offers would be evaluated on economic merits.
Smitherman’s strength that is he knows the land and the area so well, said Lisa McGee with the Wyoming Outdoor Council. The Wyoming Outdoor Council acts as the fiscal sponsor for Citizens for the Wyoming Range, allowing it to collect money under the council’s 501(c)(3) status. Money primarily comes from private citizens across the country and primarily goes to events, letters, posters and brochures.
But Smitherman is more than just a face for the conservation group, McGee said. Smitherman’s passion for the area is personal – whatever happens will impact him and his neighbors – and because he lives there he’s able to offer a local’s perspective on the issue. He writes regular newsletters and meets with elected officials.
Through it all, Smitherman’s held onto his own character and beliefs, said Stephanie Kessler with the Wyoming Wilderness Society. She remembers meeting Smitherman, a tall man with a big black cowboy hat, who seemed the quintessential conservative Wyoming rancher.
“Dan, in many ways continues to be that way and that’s the strength that he brings to all the work he’s been doing,” Kessler said.
Most people in Wyoming love the outdoors and wildlife, but generally don’t have much affinity for conservation groups. Early on, groups understood the importance of getting citizens, like Smitherman, involved, Kessler said. Small, single-issue focused community groups are not uncommon. Perhaps what is more unusual is the amount of people who have rallied and consider themselves members of Citizens for the Wyoming Range, from politicians like Rep. Keith Gingery (R-Jackson), to residents on the East Coast, as well as in Bounderant and Sublette County.
Building relationships between conservation groups and ranchers is a challenge, and Smitherman has helped bridge the gap between the groups, Kessler said. Some said they do care about oil and gas development in the mountains, but were worried to partner with a conservation group in case the issues turned to something like wolves, or grizzlies or wilderness area, Kessler said. Kessler and other conservationists, despite criticism from outside environmental groups, made commitments to keep the issue about oil and gas, and Smitherman has helped keep the focus on what works for that area of Wyoming and the issue of oil and gas development there.
Smitherman also makes sure other people are invested, by encouraging other members to take on leadership roles, Kessler said.
When Carl Bennett was 8 years old his father took him to the Noble Basin area in the Wyoming Range. Up on the rim, overlooking the valley, his father told him he couldn’t give him much, but, he said, gesturing to the land, I can give you this. Take care of it.
And so Bennett did, picking up garbage while hunting and one day attending a public meeting on the PXP drilling project in the Noble Basin.
Bennett, a trona mine worker from Rock Springs who also used to work in the oil fields, had never traveled more than a few hundred miles away from his home. Last year he found himself headed to Washington D.C. to meet with Wyoming’s congressional delegates and representatives from the Obama administration.
It was a culture shock, and also sobering. Bennett said he felt the government didn’t care. However, he also found comfort in feeling like he wasn’t alone and speaking on the issue in Washington made him feel even more invested – if that is possible – in the group and the issue.
“Maybe someday, I’ll be just as involved as (Smitherman),” he said.
Calls from people wanting support for an issue or a project are run of the mill for Keith Gingery, a state representative from Teton County. Gingery supports oil and gas development. “That’s what Wyoming relies on,” he said. “That’s our bread and butter.” But there are some places where development doesn’t make sense and one of those in the Wyoming Range, Gingery said.
Gingery said he could tell from the beginning that Smitherman really knew not just the issue, but the land itself. “This is one of the few times I’ve been contacted by someone who is so connected to this piece of property,” Gingery said. “He walks it and hunts it and knows it.”
“You get the idea his objective is to protect this piece of property,” Gingery said. “You almost get the idea that if it wasn’t for this, we wouldn’t have heard from Dan in any other way.”
That might be true. In fact, Smitherman plans to retire from his life as an activist when the PXP decision is final. He scoffs at suggestions he run for public office. There are other threats to the Wyoming Range, but he’s ready to step down from a leadership role and enjoy the mountains he’s fighting to protect.
Driving from Daniel Junction to the Wyoming Range, Smitherman passes sand hill cranes and baby antelope and is surprised to not see more wildlife.
“If they drill here,” he said, “I’m old enough I’ll never see it again.” Smitherman is confident the project won’t move forward. Yet he’s not sure what will be the eventual catalyst to prevent the project. PXP has already sunk an unknown amount of money into its plans, but if the forest service plan is too restrictive, perhaps drilling won’t be worthwhile to the company.
“I’m optimistic,” Smitherman says. “I’ve been optimistic from the very beginning and I continue to remain optimistic.”
Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at email@example.com.
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