Shoshone National Forest
The country’s first national forest, the 2.4 million acre Shoshone National Forest borders Yellowstone National Park to the east and includes parts of the Wind River, Beartooth, and Absaroka mountain ranges. Mixed terrain from sagebrush steppe to forested foothills leading to snow-capped alpine peaks provide habitat to an array of wildlife species. More than half of the Shoshone is designated wilderness and coupled with roughly 30 percent of the forest additionally considered “roadless” it is arguably one of the wildest forests in the system. Some have noted that it probably looks much the same as it did when Teddy Roosevelt visited. Because of its niche as a wild, largely undeveloped forest, there is much to protect on the Shoshone and the Wyoming Outdoor Council is vigilant in its oversight of proposals—such as new oil and gas development—that could adversely impact this world-class forest.
New gas well on the Shoshone National Forest
Unlike the Bridger-Teton National Forest, which for many years has been threatened by oil and gas leasing and development proposals, the Shoshone National Forest has remained relatively safe from these pressures—that is, until now. In October 2008, the Shoshone National Forest announced its intention to seek public comment on a company’s proposal to drill the first new natural gas well on the forest in nearly a decade. This area on the northeastern part of the forest is known as the Beartooth Front.
Windsor Energy, the project proponent, is the operator responsible for a well blowout in August 2006 along Line Creek in Clark, WY. This dangerous situation occurred just over the forest boundary on private land and within a few hundred yards of the site now under consideration for development on the Shoshone National Forest. The blowout contaminated ground water aquifers and caused an emergency evacuation of the town of Clark. Windsor has undertaken a voluntary remediation program with the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, but many local residents are not satisfied with the adequacy of these efforts and still fear for the safety of their drinking water.
Instead of proceeding cautiously and considering the larger-scale development that could likely follow exploratory well drilling, the Forest Service is considering using the least amount of environmental analysis allowable by law: a categorical exclusion.
The Wyoming Outdoor Council opposes new oil and gas development on the Shoshone National Forest and will continue to work with local citizens and other conservation groups to ensure at the very least that the Forest Service takes a comprehensive look at the environmental and human health impacts from the proposal prior to authorizing the development.
Forest planning on the Shoshone National Forest
The National Forest Management Act of 1976 requires that every forest develop a Land and Resource Management Plan or “forest plan,” an overarching document that guides management decisions on individual forests. Forests must revise the plans every 10-15 years and it is within this revision process that the public has a chance to tell the Forest Service how we want our national forest lands to be managed.
Since 1982, the role of forest plan revision has been to update decisions about what areas are suitable for timber harvest, oil and gas development, new wilderness recommendations, and motorized travel, among other activities, after preparing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Forest planning is important; a good forest plan indicates that good future project-level management decisions will likely follow.
In 2005 forest-planning rules changed dramatically. In what it deemed a “paradigm shift,” the Bush administration transformed forest plans from pragmatic documents to merely aspirational, goal-setting guidance devoid of any enforceable standards. Plans were also “categorically excluded” from the requirement to prepare an EIS. In March 2007, a federal court enjoined the new planning regulations finding that the Forest Service had improperly issued them. Having been sent back to the drawing board and after further analysis, the Forest Service issued substantially similar rules in early 2008. These rules are again being challenged in federal district court and we await a decision.
The Shoshone National Forest began its plan revision process in the summer of 2005. Since then it has held meetings with the public and with state and local government representatives to assess aspects of the plan that need to change to make the document relevant for the next 10-15 years. A draft plan is anticipated in the fall of 2009, although because of the new planning regulations many of the decisions that would have been included in a traditional plan—such as oil and gas availability and travel management direction—will be absent. The framework for the plan will include: (1) desired conditions; (2) objectives; (3) guidelines; (4) suitability of areas; and (5) special areas (including wilderness recommendations).
The Wyoming Outdoor Council has been an active participant in the Shoshone’s forest plan revision process and an advocate for retaining its niche as one of the country’s most wild and rugged national forests. This means curtailing new oil and gas development and other forms of large-scale industrialization, keeping roadless areas free from new road building, and ensuring projects and management decisions occur that simultaneously protect wildlife habitat, waterways and the backcountry character of the forest.
What does the Roadless Rule do?
Prohibits new road construction and reconstruction in inventoried roadless areas on National Forest System lands, except:
- To protect health and safety in cases of an imminent threat of flood, fire, or other catastrophic event that, without intervention, would cause the loss of life or property.
- To conduct environmental clean up required by federal law.
- To allow for reserved or outstanding rights provided for by statute or treaty.
- To prevent irreparable resource damage by an existing road.
- To rectify existing hazardous road conditions.
- Where a road is part of a Federal Aid Highway project.
- Where a road is needed in conjunction with the continuation, extension, or renewal of a mineral lease on lands that are under lease, or for new leases issued immediately upon expiration of an existing lease.
Prohibits cutting, sale, and removal of timber in inventoried roadless areas, except:
- For the cutting, sale, or removal of generally small diameter trees which maintains or improves roadless characteristics and:
- To improve habitat for threatened, endangered, proposed, or sensitive species, or
- To maintain or restore ecosystem composition and structure, such as reducing the risk of uncharacteristic wildfire effects.
- When incidental to the accomplishment of a management activity not otherwise prohibited by this rule.
- For personal or administrative use.
- Where roadless characteristics have been substantially altered in a portion of an inventoried roadless area due to the construction of a classified road and subsequent timber harvest occurring after the area was designated an inventoried roadless area and prior to the publication date of this rule.
Roadless areas and the Shoshone National Forest
Roadless areas are rarely discussed without mention of the now familiar “roadless rule.” During the1970s the Forest Service conducted two inventories that identified and mapped unroaded forest lands for future wilderness consideration. Because these inventories were simply research-based projects that didn’t immediately affect the management of these places, few people had ever heard of roadless areas. All that changed, however, in 2001 with the passage of the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, one of the most significant rules affecting public lands in the last century.
Roadless areas are rare; they comprise only 5 percent of the entire acreage of the state of Wyoming. Roadless areas provide havens for wildlife and sources of clean drinking water for nearby municipalities. They also provide places of coveted recreational value, places where people hunt, fish, camp, hike, mountain bike, and horsepack. These sustainable activities bring enormous revenue to the state on an annual basis and contribute to the quality of life of Wyoming residents. The roadless rule protects 58.5 million acres of national forest land (roughly 30 percent of the lands the Forest Service manages) from new road building and large-scale, commercial timber harvest.
When the rule was first adopted in 2001, numerous lawsuits were filed. The state of Wyoming was among the parties who sued the Forest Service, claiming the agency had issued the rule without proper environmental review. It also argued that the rule violated the Wilderness Act by creating de facto wilderness in circumvention of congressional authority. The Forest Service, then under direction of Bush administration officials, refused at first to defend legal challenges to the rule. As a result, the Wyoming Outdoor Council and several other conservation organizations intervened on behalf of the agency to ensure the proper defense occurred.
Despite our best advocacy efforts, Wyoming U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer, enjoined the rule nationwide.
Then in 2005, while that decision was on appeal to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the Bush administration repealed the rule altogether and replaced it with a process that allowed governors to petition the federal government for the protection of roadless areas within their state’s borders. In September 2006, a federal court in California enjoined the petition process rule, reinstating the 2001 Roadless Rule. For a brief time, the Roadless Rule was again the law of the land. The state of Wyoming, however, brought an identical second lawsuit to the same Wyoming court in order to challenge the rule’s reinstatement. In August 2008, Judge Brimmer enjoined the rule again, creating dueling court orders. In December 2008, the California court limited its injunction, making clear that it was not applicable in Wyoming. Appeals of the Wyoming court’s decision and the California court’s decision are pending in both the 9th and 10th Circuits. On March 28, 2009 an important interim directive was announced: For the next year, any new road building or timber harvest proposals in inventoried roadless areas on National Forest lands must first be authorized by the Secretary of Agriculture. While this directive doesn’t prohibit these activities, it creates important oversight until the legal disputes are finalized or until the Forest Service or Congress addresses its intentions for the long-term management of these lands.
The Wyoming Outdoor Council remains a defendant-intervenor in the Wyoming lawsuit and continues to advocate that a solution—whether through legislation or other means—for the long-term protection of our country’s last, best backcountry forest lands should be found in the years to come. Until then, we actively monitor projects on the national forest land in Wyoming to ensure no new road building or commercial timber harvest occurs in roadless areas. We have been vocal advocates in the forest planning process that roadless areas should be retained as backcountry areas and deemed unsuitable for future oil and gas leasing and development. Luckily, both the Shoshone and Bridger-Teton National Forests’ roadless areas are safeguarded temporarily from new oil and gas leasing. In June 2006 an agreement between these forests and the state of Wyoming was reached ensuring that no new leasing will occur until new forest-wide oil and gas availability studies are finalized.