From his home near Daniel, Gary Amerine could see where he guided hunters and summer horse packing trips through the Wyoming Range.
It was the same landscape he learned in the early 2000s that could be leased for energy development. Amerine wasn’t an activist or an environmentalist. He was a hunter and outfitter who owned Greys River Trophies and sat on the board for the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association. But he’d seen the impact of drilling elsewhere in the Wyoming Range from the 1980s. There were “holes all over the place” and the country never fully recovered, he said.
Amerine would go on to become the first spokesman of what would become the Citizens for the Wyoming Range, a loose-knit organization of people interested in protecting the mountains that bear the state’s name. Amerine kept hundreds of people in the group apprised of efforts via email. He’d mediate between environmental groups and sportsmen who distrusted them.
The fight to protect the Wyoming Range spanned more than a decade. The coalition pursued several and reached two major goals. In 2009, Congress passed the Wyoming Range Legacy Act. The law withdrew 1.2 million acres from oil and gas leasing.
Three years later, the activists saw a public buyout of 136 gas wells in the upper Hoback Basin. It retired 60,000 acres from future oil and gas leasing.
Through it all, about 40,000 acres Amerine could see from his window had been leased in 2006. There were questions whether the BLM, with the Forest Service’s consent, should have leased them in the first place.
On Jan. 17, the U.S. Forest Service signed a final review and determined the nearly 40,000 acres should not be leased.
“Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the success is entirely attributable to the citizen involvement,” said Dan Smitherman, a former outfitter who served as a spokesman for the Citizens for the Wyoming Range after Amerine. He now works as the Wyoming representative for the Wilderness Society.
Ordinary people drove the effort, he said. If a large environmental group had tried to take it over, Smitherman thinks it would have pushed out people leery of those types of groups, and the result would have been different.
Smitherman guided in the Wyoming Range adjacent to the areas proposed for energy development. Wildlife was abundant and almost every type of outdoor recreation opportunity could be found in the mountains.
Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks belong to the tourists, he said.
“People west of the Continental Divide identified with the Wyoming Range as their mountain range,” he said.
It was the place Michael Burd, a trona miner from Green River, learned to hunt and fish as a child.
Burd thought environmentalists were extremists and tree-huggers — until he started working with them. He realized they largely agreed on most issues, especially when it came to protecting the Wyoming Range. Still, taking action was not easy for him and others like him.
“It scared a lot of people,” said Burd, who is the current spokesman for Citizens for the Wyoming Range. “We understand we need energy and this is an energy extraction state.
“But we also live here because of the excellent outdoor opportunities. You don’t want to mess with where people recreate.”
Thousands of people advocated for the Wyoming Range. The Bridger-Teton National Forest received a record of more than 60,000 comments in 2012, when it was working on a second draft of a plan for the 136 wells in the Upper Hoback.
“When your special place is under threat, citizens become really effective advocates,” said Lisa McGee, program director with the Wyoming Outdoor Council.
McGee knows of only a few other successful efforts by citizens driven to protect favorite public lands. In Montana, residents succeeded in protecting the Rocky Mountain Front. Similar efforts conserved Thompson Divide in Colorado.
The task of addressing the contested 40,000 acres of Wyoming Range leases was handed to McGee when she joined the Wyoming Outdoor Council more than a decade ago. It was the first issue that brought her attention to the Wyoming Range and the last to be resolved.
McGee is confident it was the diversity of the people working to protect the area that made it happen.
“There is no doubt in my mind to the power of that coalition,” she said.
It’s an effort she isn’t sure will ever be replicated in Wyoming, although she is seeing similar engagement in efforts to prevent federal land transfers to the states
That is the issue Burd is warily watching. For him, the proposed land transfer, like protecting the Wyoming Range, is really about the future.
He grew up in a Wyoming much different than it is today, he said. Change will happen. He knows that; however, his grandchildren at least will have the Wyoming Range.