Residents are fighting to keep the mountains and their wildlife safe from oil and gas development
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DANIEL, Wyo. - In a state graced with mountain ranges like the Tetons and Wind Rivers, the Wyoming Range isn't well-known, even in its namesake state.
But to residents living within its late afternoon shadows, the Wyoming Range is no less awe-inspiring.
''The experience of the Wyomings transcends all talk about them,'' resident Pete Doenges said. ''They are a treasure and a sacred place, and getting people out to feel the healing power of this place can leave deep impressions.''
''This is heaven,'' resident Mary Borgeson said. ''We got everything up here.''
But ''heaven'' is under attack in their view by a federal government that has offered tens of thousands of acres of public land, including national forest land, in the Wyoming Range for possible oil and gas exploration and drilling.
With oil and gas activity already at a fever pitch in the expansive flatlands of Wyoming, the idea of leasing forested areas within the scenic range has created a groundswell of opposition and alliances between environmentalists and outfitters - groups normally at opposite ends of the political spectrum.
''They can't keep up with what they're doing now,'' said Gary Amerine, an outfitter who charges a fee to guide people to hunt, fish or just enjoy the scenery in the Wyoming Range. ''We aren't against what's going on in the other areas, so why don't they keep going there and leave the forest alone?''
Federal land managers say oil and gas development is just one of the many activities allowed in the range, and energy industry representatives maintain that some parts of the Wyoming Range can be drilled without permanently damaging the environment or shutting down other recreational activities.
''There are certainly areas that need to be protected, I'll agree wholeheartedly with that,'' Bruce Hinchey, president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming. ''But there some outlying areas that possibly can be looked at.''
The Wyoming Range is about 400,000 acres - 70 miles long and 25 to 30 miles wide, running north to south in far western Wyoming, with it's north end about 20 miles south of Jackson. It's teeming with elk, moose, deer, antelope, grizzly bears, black bears, mountain lions and lynx. Wyoming Peak is the highest among its mountains at 11,363 feet. The east side of the range is mostly sloping mountainsides, while much of the west side falls off steeply into the Greys River, which separates the range from the parallel Salt River Range.
Leland and Mary Borgeson's home has an expansive view of the Wyoming Range outside their back windows and a view of the Wind River Range to the east outside the front. ''Town'' is 12 miles away at Pinedale, which has a population of about 1,700.
It's not unusual for deer, elk, moose and antelope to wander around the home, where they've lived the past six years in retirement. One time a moose peered through a house window at them; another time a deer followed Mary Borgeson into her garage.
The Wyoming Range, already dusted with snow in late September, sustains them with meat from wildlife they hunt and firewood to heat their house. The mountains and forest also provide them with camping, fishing and four-wheeled recreation.
Doenges, a computer and electrical engineer, spent four years building a log home in a heavily wooded, hilly area near the base of the Wyoming Range. It's about a 25 minute drive to his mailbox.
He and his wife hike extensively in the Wyoming Range and cut dead timber for firewood to heat their cabin.
''It's just magic. It's a tough kind of magic,'' he said.
The Wyoming Range is entirely within the huge 3.4 million-acre Bridger-Teton National Forest managed by the U.S. Forest Service, which is in the process of revising its management plan for the forest. The current plan, enacted in the 1990s, allows for oil and gas leasing as one of the many uses in the Wyoming Range.
Over the past year, the Forest Service has put up for sale 44,600 acres in the Wyoming Range, according to Greg Clark, district forest ranger. An additional 150,000 acres has been leased since the 1970s, but most has not been developed, Clark said.
Oil and gas operators had most recently sought leases on some 175,000 acres in the Bridger-Teton National Forest, but the agency pared that down to 44,600 after receiving protests from Democratic Gov. Dave Freudenthal, Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., and others, Clark said.
But the 44,600 acres is still contentious. Because of protests from local residents, conservationists and others, a federal land management board has halted any development on some 21,000 of the 44,600 acres and is considering appeals on other areas.
Clark said the 44,600 acres offered for sale by the Forest Service through auctions run by the Bureau of Land Management are in areas where roads or logging already exist.
''We didn't lease at all in any roadless areas,'' he said.
But conservationists, state officials and area residents contend the Wyoming Range should be off limits.
They note that the valley between the Wyoming Range and the Wind River Range is being heavily drilled already.
''I know the nation needs electricity,'' Borgeson said. ''But I think Wyoming is doing far more than it's share to support that.''
Doenges said the heavy truck traffic, pollution and noise associated with drilling would shatter the peace and disrupt the abundant wildlife in the Wyoming Range.
''This is not a crusade against gas and oil or political parties, but there are places in the West that should be hands off,'' Doenges said.
Doenges, Amerine and others have formed a group called Citizens Protecting the Wyoming Range. It has attracted ranchers, hunters, outfitters and others usually not associated with the more traditional environmental groups.
''They all have a shared respect for the mountain and don't want to see it developed,'' Doenges said.
Amerine said his outfitting business would suffer because hunters and sightseers that he guides don't want to see gas wells in the middle of a pristine forest.
He acknowledged the fight against the Wyoming Range leases has created an unusual alliance with more traditional conservation groups.
''Some of them don't want even me up there,'' Amerine said. ''They want to put a fence around the forest.''
But any previous differences have been put aside for now because both sides realize that a combined effort is more effective in stopping the development, he said.
Exxon Mobil Corp. has a few existing wells and is drilling another well on the southern fringe of the forest in the Wyoming Range, but no major development has occurred or is happening.
Hinchey, of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, said the dozen wells Exxon Mobil drilled in the 1980s have not caused any problems.
''They've done a great job of protecting the environment and taking care of the wildlife,'' Hinchey said.
The leases in the Wyoming Range are being sought based merely on the speculation that there might be oil and gas deposits there, he said.
And any company finding oil or gas faces daunting obstacles: rugged terrain, the lack of access by ground, the harsh weather conditions and high reclamation costs, he said.
''They can't keep up with what they're doing now. We aren't against what's going on in the other areas, so why don't they keep going there and leave the forest alone?''
An outfitter who charges a fee to guide people to hunt, fish or just enjoy the scenery in the Wyoming Range