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No Paper Transaction

Public land historians have long noted oil and gas leasing on public lands represents a rather sordid history. On Forest Service lands, for example, it was not until 1987, with the passage of the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act (FOOGLRA), that the Forest Service actually obtained the authority to say "NO" to leasing particular tracts of forest land. Prior to this time the Bureau of Land Management (Department of Interior) handled all leasing recommendations, allowing the Forest Service only discretionary recommendation authority. While BLM still manages most "leasehold" activities (leasing, management of the lease itself, drilling activities, etc.), the Forest Service can now proactively decide what should and should not be leased.

The opposite side of this coin, so to speak, is that once a lease is issued with Forest Service approval to an oil and gas company, the direction is set. While Forest Service lands under a mineral lease remain in public ownership, it is a contextual ownership, subject to contractual rights of access, drilling and industrial development, which, with determination, slowly drags the living wildness to the bottom of a deep, murky abyss. Even if the lease is never developed, leased public land is contractually stigmatized for potential development. A hysteria develops which, of course, intimidates public land mangers as local officials and corporations yammer on and on about lost options.

In other words, leasing is serious business. It is not a paper transaction, as the Forest Service often implies with a promise of further evaluation at the point of actual drilling. Once the lease is issued, drilling and road building is the end point. While public national forest lands can and do occasionally recover from grazing or logging, once leased and developed, there is no oil field or drill site that really recovers. Industrial development possibly defines every oil and gas leasing decision.

Oil and Gas History on the Uintas North Slope

Oil and gas exploration began in earnest on the North Slope of the Uintas in the 1960s with the discovery of the Bridger Lake Field. Again in the late ‘70s through the mid-’80s exploration and development peaked as a result of high oil prices and a couple of additional small fields that extend onto the forest. All of these fields are on the lower Henrys Fork, Cottonwood, Sage and Dahlgreen Creek drainages. Since the mid-’60s about 60 wells have been drilled on the North Slope on or adjacent to the national forest with about half of those on the fields. Since the late ‘80s little or no exploration work has been conducted with no development wells having been drilled. Since the mid-’60s a little over a day’s supply of oil has been produced from the North Slope of the Uintas.

In 1994, after almost 6 years of discussion, meetings, and analysis, and as a result of new Forest Service oil and gas regulations, the Forest Service released the North Slope Oil and Gas Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) recommending that all 250,000 acres of the North Slope was suitable for oil and gas leasing. This discretionary decision proceeded to recommend that about 219,000 acres be leased (most of it was under lease or held by production) and that 23,000 of roadless lands immediately adjacent to the western third of High Uintas Wilderness not be leased.

Not one acre along a road, adjacent to a campground, or in a riparian area received a No Lease (NL) recommendation. Not one acre for elk calving, or goshawk rearing, or black bear survival received NL. Not to mention that over 50,000 acres of roadless areas were leased! Despite years of public meetings and comments, which all pleaded with the agency to produce a balanced decision, the Forest Service saw only one interest-- oil and gas development. It is true that about 150,000 acres of these leases harbor stipulations, some requiring no surface occupancy or some controlling the timing of activity on leases. But the history of such stipulations is also sordid. Even on the Wasatch a no surface occupancy lease has been changed to surface occupancy. This is not unusual since the oil and gas companies complain that stipulations get in the way. Far too often the agency alters the stipulation. Furthermore, many of the no surface occupancy and other stipulated leases are found in small isolated patches surrounded by standard leases, making the lease stipulation deceptive and invisible. If an exploration well produces oil or gas, stipulations are removed to allow step out wells. If production occurs or a field is defined, stipulations are dropped and have no merit at all.

As a result of a l984 appeal by the Utah Wilderness Association, the Forest Service withdrew the decision decision to lease roadless areas, acknowledging special consideration of this unique land base must be considered. The agency embarked on a new analysis to amend the 1994 North Slope Oil and Gas Leasing EIS by considering the 80,000 acres of roadless lands in a separate EIS. That process went through a 1995 public scoping decision. The Forest Service has indicated that the draft EIS recommendation will be released in February or March.

The Future?

If these roadless lands are proposed for leasing, the Forest Service will remove the potential to maintain the North Slope as a wild and roadless area, opting for a single use industrial zone. The potential for future wilderness designation will be precluded-- intentionally. This is an issue where we must prevail if wildness is to survive!

Interestingly, the 1994 EIS notes all of the development that has occurred has taken place on the far northern edge of the North Slope, the Moxa Arch, where the Reasonably Foreseeable Development Scenario (RFSD) notes that over the next 15 years it is likely that eleven wells would be drilled with the possibility of discovering two small fields adjacent to or part of the plays.

The rest of the Uintas North Slope, including the roadless lands on the Wasatch and Ashley National Forests, are part of the North Flank Fault and Hogsback Plate which harbor a much lower or no potential for oil and gas discoveries. As the EIS notes no oil or gas has yet been discovered in these two areas and the likelihood exists for only two exploration wells being drilled in these areas over the next 15 years with no discoveries or plays. Much of this area is not leased, particularly on the eastern end.

Because of the complex geology only small portions of even the highest potential Moxa Arch are likely to be productive and are likely to produce only small inconsequential fields ranging from about 10 minutes to 2 days of oil production at present consumption rates.

The Place

Any meaningful analysis of this area reveals a story that oil and gas potential is minimal and what has already been developed has discovered that potential. To continue drilling, roading and digging, particularly within the roadless country of the High Uintas, demeans the wild and ecological values of this country. Already wells have been drilled on the East Fork of the Bear River, Stillwater, East Fork Backs Fork, and Gilbert Creek-- all for naught. What will be lost will be irreplaceable if we continue on this path.

Of course, speaking of paths, the story of the Main Fork must be told, as painful as it is. This is the story of every lease in the wild roadless Uintas. My first trip into the Main Fork up to Hell Hole Lake was in the mid-’70s. The hike, the drainage, Hell Hole Lake, the upper basin and the eventual climb up A-1 Peak have always offered a remarkable experience. The Main Fork is a small stream, potentially harboring a pure strain of Bonneville Cutthroat trout. The drainage meanders through sagebrush flats, aspen clones, mixed aspen and lodgepole pine. Along the Main Fork you can find a couple of species of low growing willows with the pine forest coming right to the edge of the stream. It is a deep forest; not until about 4 miles up the drainage do you see the ridgeline leading to A-1 Peak. The climb starts and quickly the lodgepole pine is mixed with spruce. Small meadows dot the stream, a few boulder fields hide the trail, willows hide the stream. One last pitch and there sits Hell Hole Lake, the east sde of the lake rimmed by a brilliant green shoreline extending hundreds of feet before meeting old spruce forests. The west shore of the lake edges the forest. Toward the north of the lake, the whole landscape opens into the typical subalpine country of the Uintas. Kletting Peak sits to the southwest, A-1 to the northeast. It is a small tight steep basin known for violent thunderstorms. Once in early September we managed to live through 60 mile an hour winds all night long, driving rain, thunder and lightning-- all turning to 8 inches of snow by dawn. In the mid-’80s I ran across a young bull moose with a distinct gray rump. By 1993 he had avoided hunters, the stray cougar and hundreds of other threats; he now looked like an old swayback horse.

Such was the Main Fork, until now. Congress did not put the whole drainage into the wilderness system. Most of the drainage was leased. In 1987 AMOCO proposed to drill the ridgeline between the Stillwater and Main Fork. UWA fought and fought, lost an appeal, but AMOCO bailed out. The leases continued. In the early ‘90s Chevron proposed drilling in the same area, only a mile below Hell Hole Lake. UWA fought and fought, lost an appeal, but Chevron bailed out. Wolverine Oil took over the leasehold and authorized Amerac to work it. And what was once a silent wild hike up a tiny drainage is now a roadbed, ten feet wide, running nearly two miles up the drainage. The proposal is simple: take the road to about a mile below Hell Hole Lake right on the border of the High Uintas Wilderness. Then install a 138 foot high drill rig to drill 17,000 feet into the earth’s gut on a three acre drill pad surrounded by toxic mud pits. A crew of 55 would drive 15 loads daily for four weeks; diesel engines would run the drilling rig and generate halogen light--for almost a year the night sky at Hell Hole Lake would disappear!

When it was clear Amerac could not meet the time constraints on the lease, another nifty trick was unveiled. Suspend the lease, again (meaning: the lease stays active but the clock doesn’t run down.) We have been told that Amerac will continue this drilling effort if the rest of the roadless land in this unit is leased; if not, drilling may not be worth the effort. Truthful or not, it is clear leasing is more than a paper transaction. If leases are offered on the Stillwater, Boundary Creek, East Fork Black Fork, Smiths Fork, Burnt Fork, or Middle Fork Blacks Fork, the Main Fork story will play again and again. The soul of the Uintas will be lost.

The Forest Service and oil and gas industry talk in terms of staged decision making-- lease it now; after all, it is a paper transaction--and then do the detailed environmental analysis when a proposal is made to drill. That is said with a deceptive Cheshire grin because, when we arrive at the second stage of a drilling proposal, both the Forest Service and the oil and gas industry sit back proudly, noting we have no choice but to allow drilling because the lease was let-- a contract now exists.

But this is not about staged leasing, contracts, environmental analyses. It is about a rich nonhuman language of the pine marten hunting in deep snow in January. It is about black bear seeking her den and giving birth in the deep silence of a winter forest. It is about the haunting call of great gray owl, the isolated and fiercely defended nest of goshawk, the stomped out winter feeding area of an old swayback moose. There is music and language and survival. Elk calves play, coyotes fish, humans talk to owls and the silence dominates. No purpose is met by leasing. Yes, the roads, the drill pads are symbols of our power. Of a language that is not carved from wildness. Pine marten, Great gray owl, lynx have no place else to live.

This is their only home.

Dick Carter

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