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Owyhee wilderness designation wouldn't erase oil and gas leases

 JORDAN VALLEY — In the heart of the Owyhee River Canyon, past the pale green sagebrush hills, the cliffs marked by tribal hands and black volcanic fields, sits a decaying brick building.

No one would look twice at the century-old William Griffith Ranch if it were on the side of a road; it is half-eaten with age and littered with squatters' garbage. But there are no roads in sight, just sky-high cliffs. Any car or ATV would drown trying to reach it.

Early settlers made do without roads, and if the area gets a wilderness designation, modern industries looking for oil and gas minerals might have to do the same.

There are several Owyhee Canyonlands wilderness and national monument proposals pending on the Oregon side of the border. Idaho's side has been designated wilderness since 2009.

There are also 127,599 acres of oil and gas leases in Oregon's Owyhee Canyon region, according to Bureau of Land Management communication specialist Michael Campbell. Wilderness designations generally prohibit new road construction, yet there are few roads in the canyonlands. Without roads, transporting drilling equipment could be impossible.

So, what will happen to these oil and gas leases if Congress approves a wilderness designation?

The BLM says existing leases will be grandfathered in.

"If an operator has an existing oil or gas lease, the leases, without further congressional action, have prior existing rights attached to them," said Shane Deforest, with the bureau's Vale District. "Leases are a contract."

The Malheur County Court adopted a resolution last week opposing any national monument, national conservation area or wilderness designation, citing impacts that include the total cessation of mining and natural gas exploration.

However, an existing oil and gas lease is a contract to access those minerals. The government has to allow the operator a reasonable means of drawing them out of the ground, Deforest said.

That could mean building a new road to access them, but that's dependent on other factors such as the surrounding habitat, geological makeup and other transportation resources.

"Congress approving the wilderness area would not automatically result in a, 'No, don't even try,'" Deforest said. "They have a lease, which is a legal contract. They could still make an application to develop that lease, which might include roads."

Although a mineral lease agreement is a legal contract, it does not grant an oil and gas company the right to do whatever it wants with the surface ground.

Before drilling on federal land, an operator would first have to submit a plan to the BLM. This would have to occur regardless of a wilderness designation, according to Jon Westfall, supervisory multiple resource specialist at the Vale District.

The BLM is then required to conduct an environmental analysis. This could lead to a higher level of inspection that requires a public comment period.

In the end, BLM officials usually have to enforce a stipulation to minimize ground disturbance, Westfall said. Stipulations could include taking a different route, placing wooden mats where vehicles might drive or, in some cases, flying equipment in by helicopter.

That is where things could get tricky, according to Idaho Conservation League public lands director John Robison.

"The challenge for valid existing rights is defining the term 'reasonable access' and finding the best balance that minimizes impacts to wilderness characteristics for the area," he said.

As an example, the conservation group is suing the Payette National Forest for authorizing road construction and drill rigs within the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness as part of a claims validation study.

"While we believe the operator has a right to conduct some validity work, we don't believe the Golden Hand Mine and its workers should be driving ATVs and jeeps into and out of the wilderness," Robison said. "We also have concerns regarding the extent of mineral work proposed."

Although there has been considerable gas drilling activity on the Idaho side of the border in recent years, specifically in Payette County, the Idaho Conservation League has not yet handled a case of an existing gas mineral lease within a wilderness area.

Meanwhile, Oregon has not had a significant oil or gas discovery since 1980, so this is new territory for both states.

Campbell said the holders of the Owyhee Canyonland leases are Trident USA Corp. and Allen & Kirmse Ltd., though approximately 105 of Trident's leases will be transferred to Alta Mesa.

"We anticipate this process will take anywhere from a couple weeks to a month to complete," Campbell said.

Texas-based Alta Mesa has thousands of gas leases and 15 drilled wells in Payette County.

Spokesman John Foster would not confirm how many leases it has in Oregon or on the Vale BLM District.

"Alta Mesa does have some acreage under lease in Oregon, but right now our attention and efforts are concentrated on Idaho," Foster said in an email.