On the edge of the Wyoming Range, the withdrawn oil and gas leases cover a landscape that includes sensitive wildlife habitat for lynx. Myriad other species use the 40,000 acres for seasonal habitat and as migration routes. (Bridger-Teton National Forest)

The outgoing Obama administration has formally withdrawn a set of controversial oil and gas leases covering nearly 40,000 acres inside an environmentally sensitive section of Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest.

The Forest Service on Tuesday issued a record of decision withdrawing the leases comprising 30 parcels covering 39,490 acres in the eastern slope of the Wyoming Range. The area contains critical wildlife habitat, including prominent backcountry recreational sites within the boundaries established by the Wyoming Range Legacy Act, sponsored by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and signed into law in 2009 by President Obama.

The law permanently removed 1.2 million acres in and around the Bridger-Teton forest from energy development, but it grandfathered in dozens of existing drilling leases covering roughly 120,000 acres, including the leases on the 30 parcels that were issued more than a decade ago.

The Forest Service said yesterday in a press statement that the decision to withdraw the leases is based upon “overwhelming public comment and significant recreation, wildlife and watershed values identified” in the area covered by the leases.

Robert Bonnie, the undersecretary of Agriculture for natural resources and environment who oversees the Forest Service, reserved the authority to sign the ROD, formally approving the decision and bypassing an administrative appeals process.

Ordinarily, Bridger-Teton Forest Supervisor Tricia O’Connor would sign the ROD, which would kick off an administrative appeals process before the decision could become final.

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But Bonnie’s decision to sign the ROD 30 days after publication in the Federal Register of a final supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) analyzing the leases makes the decision final — three days before President-elect Donald Trump is inaugurated.

The Republican has vowed to roll back Obama administration regulations and open more federal lands to fossil fuel development and mining activity.

“My decision is a result of carefully reviewing scientific documentation, studies, expert opinions and public comments,” Bonnie wrote in the ROD.

“Public comments spoke with a clear voice regarding the collective effect of this project on ‘sense of place’ in the Wyoming range,” he added.

“Comments from the citizens of Wyoming and local communities, even those that make their living directly or indirectly from the energy sector, provided significant rationale and affirmation of the analysis to justify choosing” the so-called no leasing alternative evaluated in the final SEIS.

This map shows in orange where most of the withdrawn lease parcels are located west of Pinedale. Some other parcels are located south of this main block. (Bridger-Teton National Forest)
This map shows in orange where most of the withdrawn lease parcels are located west of Pinedale. Some other parcels are south of this main block. (Bridger-Teton National Forest)

It’s not clear how the oil and gas industry will respond. Officials with the Petroleum Association of Wyoming could not be reached for comment. But the industry has expressed concerns in the past about cancelling already approved leases.

The 30 parcels in the northeast corner of the Bridger-Teton forest near the Upper Hoback River were issued in December 2005 and April 2006. The Forest Service first decided to cancel and withdraw the leases in 2011 but withdrew that decision after two of the energy companies appealed.

Environmentalists and some residents said they feared that increased drilling in the region would endanger big-game species like elk and mule deer. They also worried about drilling impacts on the 3.4-million-acre Bridger-Teton forest, whose combination of majestic mountain vistas, big-game wildlife and proximity to both Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks makes it one of the West’s most iconic landscapes.

Bonnie acknowledged in the 24-page ROD that the analysis of the leases in the final SEIS “indicate that incremental effects” of drilling “on individual species and resources are likely to result in less than 200 acres of disturbance disbursed through the area.”

But he wrote that “the cumulative effect of individual project components could result in noteworthy and negative effects to the sense of place associated with the project area. These effects include increased noise, lights, dust, truck traffic, air pollution and a more industrial rather than natural setting.”

This story was authored by Scott Streater, E&E News reporter — Ed.

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