The Boar’s Tusk rises from the Red Desert. The Red Desert is known as "Red Dirt Country" in the Shoshone language, according to Eastern Shoshone member Jason Baldes. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

Undeveloped areas will be largely off-limits to industrial-scale energy projects — be they fossil fuels, trona, hard minerals, wind, solar or a combination — under the Bureau of Land Management’s preferred “conservation” scenario for managing 3.5 million acres of federal land in southwest Wyoming, some observers say.

That’s primarily because the BLM’s conservation priority spelled out in “Alternative B” — one of four management scenarios in the Rock Springs draft environmental impact statement guiding its resource management plan — would vastly expand “exclusion areas” for rights-of-way, hampering greenfield development for projects that require new roads, pipelines and electric transmission lines.

Nearly 2.5 million acres — 71% of the planning area — would be excluded from consideration for new rights-of-way. That’s a 481% increase in acreage off-limits to things like maintained roads, power lines and pipelines. BLM officials say it’s also a means to inhibit permanent industrial facilities in other areas — a state-owned land section, for example — because they typically require infrastructure like power lines and pipelines. 

This map depicts rights-of-way exclusion areas in the Bureau of Land Management’s current management plan. (Wyoming Bureau of Land Management)
This map depicts rights-of-way exclusion areas as proposed in the Bureau of Land Management’s preferred “conservation” Alternative B of the Rock Springs Resource Management Plan draft environmental impact statement. (Wyoming Bureau of Land Management)

“Conservation, that’s what’s driving that particular alternative,” Wyoming BLM spokesman Brad Purdy told WyoFile. “So there would be less development overall. 

“Rights-of-way,” Purdy continued, “that’s how we [permit] solar. It’s how we do roads, how we do power lines. I think all of those types of things would be impacted.”

The proposed rights-of-way exclusion areas take into account conservation values weighed against “marginal” energy yield opportunities in yet-to-be-developed areas, according to the BLM. Legislative leaders, however, say it’s another example of the agency’s failure to find a balance that doesn’t harm Wyoming’s “bedrock industries.”

The BLM’s preferred conservation plan places “the interests of the people of this state in peril” and ought to be removed from consideration, Senate President Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) and House Speaker Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) wrote in a Sept. 28 letter to BLM Rock Springs Field Office Manager Kimberlee Foster.

They’re also asking for a 120-day extension for public comments. Currently, the deadline to submit comments on the draft EIS is Nov. 16.

Gov. Mark Gordon has called for a “complete withdrawal” of the draft environmental document, describing the BLM’s proposal as a “federal fiat.”

Meantime, BLM officials say whatever the agency puts forward as its preferred alternative in the final draft early next year will likely be modified.

“I’m going to beat the drum,” Purdy said. “The range of [all four] alternatives is going to remain on the table throughout the entire process. If you think when you open up that final [EIS] in several months and it’s just going to be [Alternative B] again, I don’t think the public comment is really going to allow that to happen.”

Conservation vs. industrial expansion 

A close examination of where the 2.5 million acres of rights-of-way exclusion areas are drawn suggests a recognition of marginal development opportunities, particularly for wind, solar and geothermal energy, according to Wyoming Outdoor Council Energy and Climate Policy Director John Burrows. 

There are simply higher-value wind resources in other areas of the state, Burrows said, while the preferred alternative still allows for adequate growth in both wind and solar development where industrial infrastructure already exists — primarily along the Interstate 80 corridor. The proposed exclusion areas, he noted, mostly encompass large areas of the northern and southern portions of the management area, where there’s little to no existing industrial infrastructure.

This map depicts Wyoming wind resources. (U.S. Department of Energy)

“The BLM’s preferred alternative keeps just under 1 million acres of land open and available to wind and solar leasing,” Burrows said. “In our assessment, this is more than adequate to give future opportunities for responsibly sited renewable development while also protecting the truly outstanding wildlife habitat, wide-open spaces, cultural resources and other values across the planning area.”

Industrial-sized carbon management projects such as the Sweetwater Carbon Storage Hub, which would pump and store carbon dioxide deep underground, and Project Bison, which would pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in what’s referred to as “direct air capture,” are located just outside the BLM’s Rock Springs Field Office management area. However, those projects require pipelines, power lines and other infrastructure that may need rights-of-way approval from the BLM in the Rock Springs management area.

For example, the Sweetwater Carbon Storage Hub partnership will rely on constructing facilities to collect carbon dioxide from multiple existing trona mining facilities near Green River and pipe it to injection sites near Granger.

Trona, oil and natural gas 

The BLM’s preferred conservation alternative would also further restrict potential expansions of trona mining and, especially, oil and natural gas development due to the proposed growth of rights-of-way exclusion areas and myriad wildlife habitat projections.

It would “increase the level of impacts to trona development and could result in further reduction of trona extracted via mining activities,” according to the draft EIS. It would also result in a 73% drop in projected federal oil and gas drilling over the next 20 years “due to an increase in areas that are closed to fluid mineral leasing and managed with [no surface occupancy] stipulations.”

These map comparisons depict differences between the Bureau of Land Management’s current plan for oil and gas development access and its proposed “conservation” alternative now under public review. (Wyoming Bureau of Land Management)

“No surface occupancy,” in federal land management terms, refers to restricting industrial activities on specifically designated lands. It does not restrict human presence for recreation, hunting or other non-industrial activities.

Most rights-of-way approvals in the Rock Springs management area, according to the BLM, have been related to oil and natural gas development. Conservation advocates note that nearly half of the 3.5 million acre management area has already been leased to the oil and gas industry, arguing that what remains undeveloped provides marginal prospects for oil and gas yields. 

“We have significant concerns about the current [preferred] plan as it stands,” Petroleum Association of Wyoming Vice President and Director of Communications Ryan McConnaughey said.

“The Pinedale Anticline in Sublette County was viewed as low potential before it wasn’t, and it became the largest natural gas field in the country,” McConnaughey said, referring to the revolutionary advancement of hydraulic fracking in the early 2000s.

Technological advances also allow the industry to have a shrinking footprint on the landscape, McConnaughey said, but the myriad restrictions that would result in “no surface occupancy” under the BLM’s preferred management plant go too far. 

Despite BLM’s assurances that it will be responsive to “substantive” public comments and likely put forth a modified preferred alternative, the Petroleum Association of Wyoming has its doubts.

“There could be changes that come out in the final [draft],” McConnaughey said. “But we’re looking at this and the fact that this is where they’re starting from.

“And, clearly,” he continued, “their preferred alternative, from their own admission, would cut economic output in the field office by over half.”

For now, comments on the draft RMP are due Nov. 16. Whether the BLM extends the public comment period is up to officials at the agency’s headquarters in Washington.

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 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

Join the Conversation


Want to join the discussion? Fantastic, here are the ground rules: * Provide your full name — no pseudonyms. WyoFile stands behind everything we publish and expects commenters to do the same. * No personal attacks, profanity, discriminatory language or threats. Keep it clean, civil and on topic. *WyoFile does not fact check every comment but, when noticed, submissions containing clear misinformation, demonstrably false statements of fact or links to sites trafficking in such will not be posted. *Individual commenters are limited to three comments per story, including replies.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. It seems like quite a few people think the same way people thought pre-1900, ie “empty” land is unproductive and un-American. However, quite a few others have realized that humans can and have impacted every square inch already and that we should probably keep some of it in its natural state for the benefit of wildlife and our own enjoyment. “The ‘greatest good for the greatest number’ applies to the number within the womb of time, compared to which those now alive form but an insignificant fraction.” – Teddy Roosevelt

  2. We should probably develop every last inch of ground and pump every last drop of oil so that in a few years, when life can no longer exist and the last human dies because we have inalterably destroyed the climate, all rancor and argument will cease.

  3. To see how much of the Pinedale and Rock Springs BLM management areas are currently leased for oil and gas, with existing lease rights that go back decades and are held “in production,” copy and paste this URL to see an interactive map:

    These existing oil and gas leases can be drilled and developed RIGHT NOW.

    Also check out the “Layers” list to see crucial winter ranges and migration corridors for mule deer, pronghorn, sage-grouse and moose that overlap existing lease rights.

    The question is, does Wyoming want every square mile developed, or should we leave a little room for hunting, fishing, and enjoyment of our public lands and open spaces?

  4. WOW! More heavy-handed authoritarianism intended solely to shut down the extractive industries in Wyoming because they provide lucrative, good-paying jobs to thousands of Wyomingites ! LEAVE IT ALONE BIDEN CRONIES !