JACKSON – After years of work by countless local residents from throughout the region and beyond, the Trust for Public Land (TPL) announced last Friday the group had reached a deal for an $8.75 million buyout of the Upper Hoback Basin oil and gas leases held by the Plains Exploration and Production Company (PXP).
The deal was reached after six months of negotiating between TPL and the Houston-based natural gas drilling company, Deb Love, the Northern Rockies director for TPL, told the packed audience that attended the press conference at Snow King Resort in Jackson. Approximately $4.5 million has already been secured in pledges and donations, meaning $4.25 million remains to be raised with a Dec. 31 deadline for 58,000 acres.
“We came together to find a win-win solution, but the story’s not over yet. We’re at the last chapter of the story, which some would describe as a very long saga,” Love said, laying out the figures for the buyout. “We’re off to a great start, but we’ve got a long way to go.”
Gov. Matt Mead, former Gov. Dave Freudenthal, Wyoming Game and Fish Department Director Scott Talbott and Susan Thomas, wife of late Sen. Craig Thomas, were all in attendance to go along with a number of local activists and politicians.
Before she got to the terms of the buyout, Love began the press conference with the good news that brought attendees to their feet.
“I’m here today to announce we have a deal to save the Hoback,” Love exclaimed to raucous applause.
The process began three years ago, Love continued, when Freudenthal and Wyoming’s Sen. John Barasso “joined ranchers, sportsmen, outfitters and conservation groups to celebrate the passage of the Legacy Act, which conserved 1.2 million acres of public land in the Wyoming Range from future oil and gas leasing while honoring existing oil and gas leases.”
The largest holder of leases in the Wyoming Range was PXP. The company planned to drill 136 gas wells out of 17 well pads. Other infrastructure included 29 miles of new roads and the construction of pipelines, compressor stations, industrial water wells, truck staging areas and other industrial features, Love said.
“If approved and developed, the impacts to water, wildlife and the recreating public would be severe,” she continued, adding the area encompasses the headwaters of the Hoback River, which is federally designated as wild and scenic.
The area is also pivotal wildlife habitat as both a winter range and a migration corridor for a wide array of local species.
“Drilling in this scenic location would threaten what is described as the most important wildlife corridor in the country, and certainly in the Greater Yellowstone, a crucial pathway for migrating animals like pronghorn, elk and mule deer,” Love said.
And as many locals can attest to, the Hoback Basin is an important area for hunting, cattle grazing, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, ATV riding and various other outdoor activities. This is just another part of the reason the “beloved” Hoback should not be drilled, according to those in attendance.
“This is why at every public meeting about the Hoback, virtually every single Wyoming citizen denounced PXP’s plan. It’s not that Wyoming residents oppose drilling. Folks recognize Wyoming is benefiting from the extraction economy,” Love said. “We just don’t want large-scale, industrial development in a place that is, frankly, too special to drill.”
Mead reiterated many of the same points when he took the podium. Growing up, the governor’s family made trips to move cattle between Daniel and Jackson. He remembers his grandfather talking about what a “beautiful, special place” the Rim and Hoback Basin were and remain.
Part of this beauty made the buyout process difficult, Mead said, as the wildlife, scenery and water and air quality Wyomingites enjoy are difficult to monetize.
“While we know it’s hard to monetize these things – what is the value of a place like this? Ten, 20, 50 years from now, there will be people out there who don’t know the name of Sen. Thomas, although they should,” Mead said, pointing to the man who originally founded the idea of the Wyoming Range Legacy Act. “What we do know is that someday, there will be a grandfather out there with his granddaughter or grandkids, and there will be a point where that grandchild will see their first eagle, or their first deer, or their first moose or have a chance to go fishing there for the first time. I can’t place a money value on that, but I know it’s invaluable.”
Mead also thanked a number of other individuals and groups, including PXP. As he said, the company owned the “valid lease rights.”
PXP also issued a statement, reemphasizing the buyout is a positive development for all parties.
“PXP is pleased to have worked with the [TPL] on this agreement. From the first day the Wyoming Range Legacy Act was passed, PXP has repeatedly stated our willingness to consider a buyout of our lease position if a valid offer were tendered. Today’s announcement fulfills that pledge. This agreement represents a win-win for all parties,” Steve Rusch, vice president of environmental, health and safety and government affairs at PXP, said.
Most emphasized local activists were at the heart of the matter, though, as residents had a “local passion that created a cure,” Mead noted. The groups’ persistence helped keep momentum and ensure the future of the Upper Hoback Basin.
Carl Bennett, a trona miner from Rock Springs, was one such person that spoke at the press conference. Bennett said he’s not against gas extraction overall, but when he heard about the PXP project he had to speak up and campaign against it.
“There are some places too special to drill, and the Hoback is one of them,” Bennett said. “Now I can hand these mountains down to my children without any fear of losing them. Hopefully, they can hand them down to their children for generations to come. Makes me proud to be a part of this.”
He, too, recognized other regional people who made it possible, including Bondurant resident Dan Smitherman, the spokesperson of the Citizens for the Wyoming Range and a central figure in the fight to save the Hoback.
Smitherman sent an email to followers Friday declaring the day “one of the best days of my life, and this email is the best email I have had the pleasure to write.” The Citizens, made up of residents throughout the region, have campaigned for a buyout of the leases and protested drilling since PXP made its intentions known. Part of this campaign involved more than 1,400 emails to PXP’s CEO back in spring.
“I’m obviously ecstatic,” Smitherman told the Roundup after the press conference. “We couldn’t have anticipated or hoped for a better conclusion. I mean, the bottom line is, it’s a win-win situation like the governor said. It’s Wyoming citizens solving a Wyoming problem in a way that benefits all of Wyoming.”
Smitherman also hopes the conclusion is a model for the rest of the U.S. and Wyoming, proving “that tough problems can be addressed if everyone puts their biases aside and sits down and talks things out.”
The Citizens and TPL were only two groups to issue statements; the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, the Wilderness Society, Wyoming Outdoor Council, Stop Drilling, Save the Bridger-Teton, Trout Unlimited and countless other groups sent releases applauding the buyout.
Even with all the announcements, for those that have worked years toward the buyout, in Sublette County and beyond, Mead may have said it best when he pointed out that future generations may not know the hard-working individuals’ names who made it possible. But they’d still be recreating in an area that, time and again, was called too special to drill.
“That’s what makes our state great, to know that long after we’re gone, our efforts will benefit generations and generations of people who may not know our name, but they will know that they live in a wonderful Wyoming that is as wonderful as its predecessors,” he said.
Donations toward the project can be made at www.tpl.org/SaveTheHoback. Love said $150 saves one acre, meaning if half the 60,000 people that made comments to the U.S. Forest Service donate the goal will have been exceeded.
TPL is responsible for the fundraising efforts, and trust representatives are confident the goal can be reached by Dec. 31. Failure to do so could result in going back to the table for renegotiations.