Don’t count on a rush of drilling rigs in the Shoshone National Forest

— August 23, 2013

This week the Sierra Club’s Wyoming Chapter seized on the number of public comments in favor of conservation and against oil and gas development — along with potential expansion of motorized use — in the Shoshone National Forest.

Dustin Bleizeffer

Ninety-eight percent of 23,475 public comments favor one or more “conservation-oriented” management goals on the forest, such as special “wilderness” protections, no surface development for oil and natural gas, and additional limits on motorized use areas, according to data released by forest officials.

Of the 1,065 individually submitted comment letters, 70 percent supported conservation measures, with 52 percent specifically opposing additional motorized acreage, 45 percent supporting additional wilderness, and 47 percent opposing oil and gas development, according to the National Forest data. Only 19 percent wanted more oil and gas development.

The Sierra Club focused on public comments submitted to the U.S. Forest Service, responding to the Shoshone National Forest’s Draft Land Management Plan — the first major update to the plan in 27 years. The Forest Service is revising its draft plan and could issue a final plan sometime this fall.

“We’re not surprised by these numbers,” said Connie Wilbert of the Sierra Club’s Wyoming Chapter. “We regularly hear from Wyoming folks who want to keep the undeveloped areas of the Shoshone like they are today. Now we only hope that the Forest Service is listening to how the public wants these public lands to be managed, for the future.”

Then again, few are surprised by these numbers. The forest — spanning 2.4 million acres along the eastern and southern borders of Yellowstone National Park — is already made up of 55 percent wilderness and 30 percent roadless — designations that prohibit oil and gas development. Only a handful of oil and gas wells have been proposed in the Shoshone National Forest in recent decades. Today, there are 8,570 acres of oil and gas leases on the forest.

Fly-fisherman Jim Harris casts his line on the Shoshone River, near Cody. (Ruffin Prevost/WyoFile – click to enlarge)

Much of the tussle among users of the Shoshone National Forest is between skiers and snowmobilers, as reported by WyoFile back in February 2013. Yet they all agree that the Shoshone is a recreational users’ forest. A year ago, local businesses formed an alliance called Wind River Front, specifically to impress upon the Forest Service the importance of recreation to the local economy.

However, the Sierra Club and many others still worry about the potential migration of drilling rigs coming up from Wyoming’s basin areas into forested areas. Look no further than the industry’s position on access to public lands: nearly nothing should be off limits.

“We’ve made huge strides finding oil and gas in areas we really didn’t think were that prospective five years before,” said Kathleen Sgamma, Western Energy Alliance’s vice president for government and public affairs.

In Sgamma’s mind, there’s already too much land off-limits due to wilderness and roadless designations in the forest. “If we lock lands away we are potentially denying American people sources of energy. … Why not leave us the flexibility in some areas to access the (energy) resources while still protecting the land, water, air and wildlife?”

Then there’s the messaging war over public comments. Of the 23,475 public comments submitted regarding the forest plan revision, well over 20,000 were “generic post cards” submitted via mail or email, according to Carrie Christman, who works on the Shoshone National Forest planning staff. Regardless, public comments are not regarded as votes, she said. They’re just one factor among many that forest officials use in their evaluation and analysis.

Yet the number of acres available to oil and gas development in the current draft of the plan were reduced significantly — at the request of state, tribes and U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials, according to Christmann. She said BLM and the tribes also revised their plans for oil and gas development, and their no-surface occupancy designations at the forest boundaries seemed to mismatch the forest’s preferences for no-surface occupancy.

The forest shifted its proposed no-surface occupancy for oil and gas development lands to better align neighboring BLM and tribal lands.

Sierra Club officials also noted that the public comment responses on the Shoshone National Forest management plan revision coincides closely with results of a 2008 Colorado State University poll — commissioned by the State of Wyoming. It found that 74 percent of respondents in Fremont, Park, Hot Springs, and Teton Counties supported wilderness qualities in roadless areas, and that 93 percent supported non-motorized recreation on the forest, and only 19 percent favored expanding motorized recreation.

— Dustin Bleizeffer is WyoFile editor-in-chief. You can reach him at (307) 267-3327 or email dustin@wyofile.com. Follow Dustin on Twitter at @DBleizeffer

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Dustin Bleizeffer

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 22 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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