Oil and Gas Thumper Trucks Set to Disturb Wyoming Wilderness

LARAMIE, Wyoming, March 22, 2005 (ENS) - Conservation groups are concerned about a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) proposal to permit 32 ton seismic exploration trucks to enter a 105,000 acre stretch of the southern Red Desert, including parts of Adobe Town proposed wilderness and the Powder Rim proposed Area of Critical Environmental Concern. The big trucks vibrate the Earth's surface to collect information about the location of oil and gas below.

“Adobe Town is an extremely fragile landscape, with easily damaged badlands of national park quality,” said Liz Howell of the Wyoming Wilderness Association. “It is absolutely criminal for the BLM to allow these monster trucks into Wyoming’s most spectacular and pristine desert landscape.”

The project, known as the Cherokee 3D Seismic Survey, appears headed to be the most contentious oil and gas exploration project in the state’s history, says the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance. "The use of the 64,000-pound thumper trucks, euphemistically known as vibroseis buggies, as proposed in this project, leaves long term scars on the land that resemble furrows in the sagebrush," the Alliance says.

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Vibroseis truck ready for action (Photo courtesy EPA)
The project encompasses the southern quarter of Adobe Town, including parts of the current Wilderness Study Area as well as lands proposed for the protection of wilderness qualities under one of the four alternatives in the Great Divide Resource Management Plan revision. This plan is now renamed the Rawlins Resource Management Plan after the BLM's Rawlins Field Office that administers this part of Wyoming.

Wilderness quality lands to be impacted by this proposal include the southern end of the Skull Creek Rim and neighboring badlands along the foot of the Powder Rim.

“Adobe Town and the Powder Rim are some of the Red Desert’s most sensitive and pristine landscapes, and this proposal to turn loose the highest impact form of exploration known to man on the eve of the Great Divide plan revision is reckless and irresponsible,” said Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist with Biodiversity Conservation Alliance. “This project is a crime against the public and an unforgivable assault on some of the Red Desert’s last best places.”

The project would impact the western end of the Powder Rim, the most outstanding and sensitive wildlife habitat in the Great Divide planning area. Not only does the Powder Rim have overlapping crucial winter ranges for elk, deer, and pronghorn, but it also cloaked in a rare juniper woodland that is home to nine rare songbirds as well as the Gibben’s beardtongue, a rare wildflower in the penstemon family that is found in only four spots in Wyoming.

The Powder Rim is also a key wildlife linkage between the rich and diverse foothill habitats of the Atlantic Rim and the trackless expanses of the southwestern Red Desert.

Powder Rim

South Slope Powder Rim (Photo courtesy © Biodiversity Conservation Alliance)
The Powder Rim has been proposed by citizens and conservation groups as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern as the Great Divide land-use plan is rewritten.

“With the exceptional wildlife and ecosystem values of the Powder Rim, the BLM could not have picked a worse place for a thumper truck project,” said Jacob Smith, director of Center for Native Ecosystems.

In doing its analysis for the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), the BLM determind that two areas, the Adobe Town fringe and West Ferris Mountain, qualified as having wilderness characteristics.

The BLM acknowledged that public comment received during scoping suggested that a number of areas be considered for designation as Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC). Designation of Shirley Mountains, Chain Lakes, Ferris Dunes, and white-tailed prairie dog complexes as ACECs has been considered in the alternatives analyzed. However, the designations of plover concentration areas, the Bates Hole/Chalk Mountain cushion plant community, and Powder Rim juniper woodland have not been considered because the BLM said these areas did not meet the agency's "relevance and importance criteria."

Under the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, the BLM's Preferred Alternative, Number 4, provides what the agency calls "a balance for opportunities to use and develop resources within the RMPPA [Rawlins Resource Management Plan Planning Area] while ensuring environmental conservation."

"Public comments received during scoping and issue identification indicated a general acceptance of continued mineral development, provided it is properly managed," the BLM stated.

"The preferred alternative provides the guidance that emphasizes neither resource use nor resource protection," the BLM says in the executive summary of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS).

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Pedestal rock in Abobe Town (Photo courtesy BLM)
But the preferred alternative would allow management of the Adobe Town fringe areas for multiple use, and open to sale. The conservation alternative would manage the Adobe Town fringe areas to preserve naturalness and opportunities for primitive and unconfined recreation. No off-road vehicles would be permitted, and no heavy fire suppression equipment would be allowed.

The preferred alternative, Number 4, would open about 19,200 acres of forest in the RMPPA for commercial timber harvest. By comparison, Alternative 3, the conservation alternative would not permit commercial timber harvests, and management would be for forest health.

Alternative 4 would withdraw about 14,450 acres from use. These areas would be closed to operation of the public land laws, including disposal, and to mineral location under the mining laws. By contrast, the conservation alternative would withdraw about 272,350 acres.

The Preferred Alternative, Number 4, would open 853,690 acres of federal lands to as oil and gas leasing with only the standard leasing restrictions. By contrast, the conservation alternative would open 642,100 acres, and the development alternative, Number 2, would open 1,382,470 acres.

Lease lands subject to minor constraints such as seasonal restrictions, and another category of lease lands subject to greater restrictions, followed the same pattern - the development alternative would open the most, the conservationist alternative would open the least, and the BLM alternative would authorize oil and gas leasing for an acreage figure in the middle.

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A plate, mounted beneath the thumper truck, is placed on the ground, and the truck is raised so most of its weight is on the plate which generates a low amplitude signal that causes the plate to vibrate the ground with the same signal. The EPA says vibroseis has minimal impact, because the signal is relatively low amplitude. (Photo courtesy EPA)
Continental Divide National Scenic Trail would be open to oil and gas leasing. The federal portion of the trail consists of about 82 miles by 60 feet would be managed "to provide opportunities for trail users to view the diverse topographic, geographic, vegetative, wildlife, and scenic phenomena that characterize the Continental Divide and to observe examples of human use of the natural resources," the BLM says.

The special resource management area (SRMA) would be managed to protect the corridor. Land exchanges and easement acquisitions would be pursued to improve the continuity of the trail where opportunities arise. The BLM would erect kiosks at each end of the RMPPA portion of the trail to provide information on access to the trail.

Some areas of wildlife habitat within the planning area, such as The Pennock Mountain crucial elk winter range, 9,806 acres, would be closed to human presence during certain time periods, in this case from November 15 to April 30.

But other wildlife areas would be open to oil and gas drilling with what the BLM calls "intensive management of surface-disturbing and disruptive activities."

The Ferris Mountains Wilderness Study Area, 21,880 acres, would be closed to all types of motorized vehicle use.

With some exceptions, the entire planning area would be open to use of motorized over-the-snow vehicles, provided that they do not adversely affect wildlife or vegetation.

The conservation alternative proposes that the entire Dune Ponds Cooperative Management Area, 3,730 acres, would be closed to off-road vehicles.

The Encampment River Canyon Area, about 6,700 acres, would be closed to motorized vehicle use, including over-the-snow vehicles, December 1 to April 30, to reduce stress on wildlife that may winter in the canyon area. The Encampment River Trail would be closed to all types of motorized vehicle use year-round.

The Encampment River Potential Wild and Scenic River area would not be open oil and gas leasing, and would be closed to locatable mineral entry and operation of the public land laws including sale, closed to commercial timber harvest, and to major recreational developments. Some minor recreational developments such as hiking trails and signs would be allowed.

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Encampment River Canyon (Photo courtesy BLM)
To protect the Colorado River cutthroat trout reintroduction area, in the Upper Muddy Creek Watershed/Grizzly Area, 4,520 acres of public lands and 69,770,000 tons of federal coal would be unsuitable for further leasing consideration, the BLM has determined. Rehabilitation of degraded stream reaches would be carried out in specific problem areas. Livestock grazing use would be managed.

Plants of protected status would be fenced to protect them from grazing, trailing, or other disturbance where needed, and known populations of special status plant species would be closed to locatable mineral entry and operation of the public land laws, including sale, the BLM says. For some plants, notices of disturbance would be required, and the BLM says it will confer informally with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about authorized activities that would potentially affect the habitat for endangered, threatened, proposed, and candidate plant species within the RMPPA.

The fenced Gibben’s beardtongue (Penstemon gibbensii) site, about 15 acres, would be maintained to protect the population from disturbance, the BLM wrote in its DEIS.

Activities that would cause new water depletion within the Colorado River system would have to comply with the Recovery Implementation Program for Endangered Fishes in the Upper Colorado River Basin, the agency acknowledges.

Actions that would result in existing or new water depletion within the North Platte River system would comply with consultations that have taken place amongst federal agencies that cover the recovery of endangered species in the Platte River.

Wild horse numbers will be strictly controlled, the BLM says. Only 700 adult horses will be allowed in the Adobe Town Herd Management Area, and 150 adults will be permitted at Stewart Creek.

The BLM said it will confer informally with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over protection of endangered, threatened, proposed and candidate species under the Endangered Species Act.

In the Shamrock Hills, the BLM alternative would open the area to oil and gas leasing while saying it would "protect" endangered and threatened birds such as ferruginous hawks, the mountain plover, sage sparrow, and Greater sage-grouse.

The conservation alternative would close Shamrock Hills to leasing and maintain and improve habitat for these birds.

The DEIS, which was published March 19, did little to allay the fears of conservationists that these special places will not survive the extraction of oil and gas.

“There are plenty of places in southern Wyoming where oil and gas development would be fine as long as it’s done responsibly. But the Powder Rim and Adobe Town are so special that they deserve to remain in a natural state, unimpaired by the scars of oil and gas development,” said Smith of the Center for Native Ecosystems.

See the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Rawlins Resource Management Plan online at: http://www.rawlinsrmp.com/documents.html